Captain America: The First Avenger

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/21/11 20:56:42

"A.K.A. The Rocketeer 2.0"
3 stars (Just Average)

Back in the good old days when a new superhero epic didn't appear on movies screens seemingly every other week, filmmakers used to be able to satisfy audiences with nothing more than sheer spectacle. However, there has been such a glut of such films over the last few years that viewers has grown increasingly blasť with the ones that have nothing more going for them other than the brute force of increasingly elaborate yet increasingly tiresome orgies of special effects silliness, as the anemic commercial and critical reception to "Green Lantern" recently proved. On the other hand, the best superhero films of recent years have been the ones that have included an extra ingredient to the mix to set them apart from the others--the quirky Robert Downey Jr. performance in "Iron Man," the gritty, heist film aesthetic of "The Dark Knight" and the retro-cool Swinging 60's vibe of "X-Men: First Class" to name three of the most obvious examples. At first, it seems as though the latest such entry in the current superhero cycle, "Captain America: The First Avenger" has just such a secret ingredient in its cheerfully old-fashioned approach in regards to both its World War II-era setting and the kind of wholeheartedly innocent and uncynical take on the material not seen in this kind of film since the original "Superman" way back in 1978. The trouble is that while this approach easily fuels the film through the first half of its running time, it doesn't offer up anything else in reserve for the second and as a result, a work that begins so promisingly slowly but inexorably begins to sputter out of energy and while it never hits the craptastic depths of something like "Green Lantern," most people are likely to come away from it thinking that it could have and should have been a lot better than it is.

Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, an all-American boy who wants to do nothing more than enlist in the military and help defeat Hitler and his minions over in Europe. Alas, while his spirit is willing, his flesh is 98-pound-weak and he has enough other maladies coursing through his scrawny frame to ensure that he will never be deemed fit for military duty, even when he falsifies his latest enlistment application by claiming that he is actually from New Jersey. Nevertheless, his indomitable spirit and "Rudy"-like determination catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German refugee working for the U.S. government on a top-secret project to create a serum to help develop a new line of super-soldiers. Despite lacking the obvious qualifications for military duty, Erskine likes the cut of Steve's metaphorical jib and chooses him to be the test subject on the basis that someone who becomes powerful after being weak will appreciate and utilize his new strengths better than someone who has always had the upper hand. This sounds like a bunch of nonsense to the project's military head, the gruff and no-nonsense Colonel Chester Phillips (who else but Tommy Lee Jones?) but Rogers it is and after undergoing the treatment, he emerges a newly-buff badass who immediately hurtles through the streets of Brooklyn to nab a Nazi spy hell-bent on sabotaging the project. This exploit makes him an instant hero and helps him catch the eye of comely British Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) but instead of deploying him in Europe to fight the bad guys, Steve is sent on a bond-selling tour as Captain America, resplendent in a red-white-and-blue outfit complete with matching shield to the delight of little kids everywhere.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi so off-the-charts loony in his lust for power and his belief in strange and unexplained phenomena that even Hitler considers him to be a lunatic, has uncovered a magical energy cube whose powers are rather murkily explained (though I am sure that comic book junkies can pontificate about it at length) but which are strong enough to create an army that will allow him to defeat both Hitler and the Allies and take over the world himself. As it turns out, he was also a previous guinea pig of Dr. Erskine's experiment and while not a total success, it has inflated his own innate evilness to such a degree that his face is. . .well, you'll see soon enough. While on a bond tour in Europe, Steve gets wind of a secret laboratory where Schmidt is torturing POW's and perfecting his weapons and, with the aid of Peggy and industrialist/raconteur/fondue connoisseur/ father of you-know-who Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), he parachutes behind enemy lines and single-handedly liberates the camp. This begins a series of battles between Steve and Schmidt that eventually culminates in a one-on-one brawl in a plane filled with bombs headed straight for America's east coast.

Having gotten more than my fill of bulky dopes in tights fighting for truth, justice and whatever over the last couple of years and with little working knowledge of the central character beyond the basics, I will admit that I went into the screening of "Captain America: The First Avenger" with fairly low expectations, especially in the wake of the all-out disaster of "Green Lantern." Therefore, I was kind of surprised early on to discover that it was actually kind of fun. The film was directed by Joe Johnston, a journeyman director (sort of our era's John Badham) whose best film to date was "The Rocketeer," a superhero saga that also worked as an alternately amusing homage to the serials and pulp entertainments of the 1940's filled to bursting with stalwart heroes, true blue and va-va-voom heroines, hissable villains, diabolical plots for world dominations, endearingly clunky technological miracles and a cheerfully straightforward and a sunny and irony-free approach to the material that was hard to resist. In many ways, this film almost serves as the quasi-sequel that "The Rocketeer" was denied due to its undeserved failure at the box-office because it too contains many of those very same elements and after so many cookie-cutter spectacles, the move off the beaten path once again comes as a relief. As Captain America, Chris Evans, an actor who has never done much for me in the past (especially in his previous superhero turns in the dreadful "Fantastic Four" movies) he takes what is arguably the blandest comic book hero outside of Superman and makes him into someone likable and worth rooting for and the rest of the major players are equally well-cast--Weaving amusingly appears to be channeling Werner Herzog throughout as Schmidt, Brit bombshell Atwell (whom you most likely didn't see in the likes of "Cassandra's Dream" or "Brideshead Revisited") pretty much has a nothing role as The Girl but she certainly makes the most of it and Tommy Lee Jones steals virtually every one of his scenes thanks to his inability to say a single line that doesn't sound like God's honest truth. And while the story is mostly yet another origin saga, it doesn't get bogged down in the details and contains two action set-pieces in the first half--Steve's first demonstration of his newfound powers on the streets of Brooklyn and his attack on Schmidt's stronghold--that are both fairly exhilarating to watch. Throw in the delightful retro look for good measure and I was all set to declare "Captain America" as pleasant of a surprise as "X-Men: First Class" with the only significant flaw being the creepy CGI used to make Chris Evans appear to be super-scrawny in the opening scenes.

Unfortunately, having established so much good will in the first half, "Captain America" then proceeds to squander much of it in the second half and while it never completely goes off the rails into full-scale disaster, you can practically hear the air leaking out of it in the later scenes. Once the set-up is complete, the storyline then deviates into one fairly anonymous action scene after another and while they are certainly filled with plenty of spectacle, they don't really build towards anything and when the true scope of Schmidt's diabolical plan are finally revealed, most viewers are likely to find themselves humming "Is That All There Is?" to themselves. It isn't bad by any means--at the very least, it is certainly an improvement on the cheap 1990 take on the character that went straight-to-Budapest--but it just lacks any real imagination as it heads to the big finale in which. . .well, the hero and the bad guy punch each other in the face while stuff blows up all around them as has been seen in countless other films of this type. What is especially irritating is the way that the film more or less abandons its own story in the last fifteen minutes or so in order to set up Captain America's appearance in next year's all-star superhero mash-up "The Avengers" alongside Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and others despite the fact that he was out fighting crime 70 years before them, the kind of thing that should have been relegated to either a post-credit bonus scene or as the opening of another film. (The film allegedly does contain a post-credit cookie in the form of a trailer for "The Avengers" but it was not included on the print that I saw, much to the consternation and annoyance of the preview audience I saw it with that sat through a lengthy credit roll for naught.) And while I know that I keep on harping about the general uselessness of 3-D to the point where even I am sick of hearing me go on about it, I must point out that its deployment here is an exceptionally ill-advised move that takes more away from the proceedings than it adds. An unabashedly old-fashioned comic book throwback of this sort really needs a vibrant color scheme that practically pops off the screen in order to replicate the effect of the old cartoon panels (remember the gorgeous visuals of Warren Beatty's ingenious and underrated take on "Dick Tracy"?) but the 3-D process dulls the color scheme to such a degree that only the brightest-lit scenes (of which there are precious few) come close to approaching that effect and the film is poorer for it.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" has its charms and it is a much friendlier experience than the hard-sell likes of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "Transformers" juggernauts--it has its heart in the right place and contains a lot of nifty individual moments throughout. The trouble with it is that while it certainly makes an effort, it never quite pulls those elements into a completely satisfying package and the way that it allows blatantly commercial considerations like the 3-D and the "Avengers" tie-in is also kind of dispiriting. This is one of those films that is better than it had to be but never quite as good as it should have been--the kind of so-so project for which the phrase "meh" was invented--and while I can't entirely recommend it, it is probably one of the better films that ultimately isn't quite worth seeing to come along in quite some time.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.