Superhero Movie Month: "Captain America: The First Avenger" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Rating: PG-13
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2011
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny man with heart to spare who can't quite seem to get into the military. The year is 1942, and Steve has tried multiple times to go serve his country abroad during WWII, but has been rejected each time for a variety of medical reasons. One day he meets the kindly Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who sees how brave this tiny man is, and changes his life forever in "Captain America: The First Avenger."

Dr. Erskine punches Steve's ticket for basic training, where he falls behind physically compared to his fellow trainees. Dr. Erskine and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) see the bravery behind the slight physique and pick Steve to take part in a top-secret experiment that uses a serum to turn a regular man into a super soldier. The experiment works, and Steve is transformed into the hulking Captain America. At first, he just makes appearances at shows to try and sell war bonds, but he longs for something more.

That something more comes when he finds out that his good friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is missing in action. He asks for permission to go in and save Bucky, but is denied by the curmudgeonly Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn't care for Steve. He defies his orders and saves Bucky and several other soldiers anyway, dressed in his Captain America finery. The rescue proves just how valuable Cap, as he is now called by some, is to the Army. He is allowed to put together a team that includes Bucky to fight Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the leader of a secret Nazi faction that is trying to make an army of super soldiers as well.

This sets up an epic battle between Red Skull and Cap, leading to what appears to be Cap's demise. Of course, all fans of the Marvel Comics cinematic universe know to watch the end credits, because there is always an additional scene that sets up things to come. Cap may not be dead after all, but his story and real work as a superhero have only just begun.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" was the last of the Marvel movies to be released before "The Avengers" came out the next year. It set up the story nicely, especially since the extra scene delves into how Cap went from 1942 to the present day in a plausible way. It also tells the origin story of how Steve Rogers came to be Captain America in a way that pays respect to the hero and takes his story seriously, even though it could have gone very campy considering the source material.

Director Joe Johnston is perhaps the perfect pick to helm the film, because he has done films from this era before. Arguably his most famous film is "The Rocketeer," a film that is somewhat similar to "Captain America: The First Avenger." Both feature everyday men who become implausible heroes under extraordinary circumstances. Johnston delights in skirting the line between seriousness and campiness, but never crosses it. He makes the film a balanced and layered affair that is still just pulpy enough to be highly entertaining.

Evans has already played a Marvel superhero, having starred in two Fantastic Four movies as the cocky womanizer Johnny Storm, also known as the Human Torch. It's very unusual for an actor to be asked to play a second superhero, especially when the hero comes from the same comic book company. He famously passed on the part, but since Marvel brass was sure he was perfect for the part, they continued to pursue him until he relented. It's good they did, because it's hard to picture anyone else in the part. Evans has just enough of that All-American look, not to mention the otherworldly physique, to pull the part off. He layers Steve with bravery and hard-headedness to match his heart and soulful gazes. He also has great chemistry with Atwell, who he falls for despite the fact that they never would quite get to their first date.

To some, "Captain America: The First Avenger" was only made to set up "The Avengers," but those who think that are selling the movie short. Telling the story of the first Avenger before the Avengers existed gives fans a needed dose of history that allows them to appreciate today's superheroes. Cap existed in a time before fancy gadgets and communication devices, yet he still managed to save many lives. There is something almost charming about being a superhero in simpler times, before technology changed everything. Simpler times doesn't mean simple film though, since "Captain America: The First Avenger" is a film with several fun, bold and entertaining layers.