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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

I had the privilege of seeing this film in theaters with my family. Not in the week of its release, oh no, not even in the month of its release, or even when it was still in the big theaters at all. Rather, I saw it in October of 2011, at the cheap seats theater over in Maple Valley. But the location of my viewing of it did not diminish my appreciation of this fantastic film, and having recently viewed it again on DVD courtesy of Netflix, my lauding of it will not cease. Captain America is also my second-favorite Avenger, behind Thor, of course.

Captain America: The First Avenger is the origin story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, in 1942, during the height of the Second World War, desperately wants to enlist in the U.S. army. His numerous medical problems bar him from entering, and his best friend, Sergeant James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan), isn't exactly supportive. "This isn't a back alley, Steve," Bucky tells him. "It's war!" And indeed it is war, as we see in the opening scene the handiwork of Johann "the Red Skull" Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, the guy who played Elrond in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. From big good to big bad, gee whiz, this guy has acting range. Or maybe his doesn't, as he always plays stern, serious guys from what I understand), head of HYDRA, Hitler's "deep science" division. He brazenly storms what I think is a church in Norway to obtain a powerful artifact called the Tesseract, which can power all of his crazy Nazi science stuff. This object is better known to comics fans as the Cosmic Cube. Meanwhile, Steve finally enlists in a special super soldier program thanks to Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), and he trains under Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, the guy who played Two-Face in the best-left-forgotten Batman Forever) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Finally, he's pumped up with the Super Soldier Juice, after which he becomes super-buff. Unfortunately, HYDRA is onto Steve and the SSR, and it's not long before Steve become the centerpiece of a USO show. However, Steve eventually become the super-soldier that Erskine envisioned and goes on some wartime escapades around Europe, working the folks at the SSR, including a certain Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to take down the Red Skull and Hydra. He has become Captain America (The First Avenger)!

Firstly, I just want to say that this movie has a great dynamic between the characters. And really, the characters themselves and their relationships with one another are what make this film work. Granted, there's the gorgeous set pieces, the stellar acting, the wondrous music, and the genuinely badbutt action sequences, but in the end, those things are nothing without the characters. We actually see how each character progresses and grows, except perhaps for the Red Skull, but more on that later. In general, there's also a lot of good emotion. The the humorous scenes feel funny, the sad scenes feel heartbreaking, and the intense scenes feel exhilarating. In the acting department, I'd like to give special commendation to Chris Evans, who shows a lot of acting range from playing cocky flyboy Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four to playing nice guy Steve Rogers here. I loved Hayley Atwell, Stanely Tucci, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, and Tommy Lee Jones in their roles, plus the guys who played the Howling Commandos, particularly Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita ("I'm from Fresno, ace!") In other words, pretty much every actor in this movie. I also liked how they made a lot of references to comics continuity. Everything from the pretense of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and the Howling Commandos to the patently ridiculous "Heil HYDRA!" salute that the HYDRA goons do is in here, to Cap's original heater shield being the first one he uses, and more. And remember what I said about the set-pieces? I'm following up on that by saying that the World War II period piece setting makes for some great visuals. Roger Ebert noted that it was a nice departure from the standard, bland cityscapes that are par for the course in most other superhero films. Thankfully enough, Captain America: The First Avenger is far from par for the course.

Unfortunately, there are one or two things within the film that are par for the course, namely the Red Skull himself, and a little bit on the action sequences. The Red Skull, being a quasi-Nazi, is a really evil, badbutt villain. Unfortunately, that's all he is. We never see much depth to him in the scenes that he's in, where he mainly serves and an obstacle for Captain America to punch and throw his shield at. He doesn't change at all in the movie, and his motivations are par for the course for supervillains- take over the world. Loki in the Avengers wanted to take over the world because he had something to prove, so why couldn't the Marvel movie makers do something similar for Skully? I know that he shows a flash of compassion towards his sidekick Dr. Zola, and he shows that he's a ruthless killer, but that's all there is to it. The Joker in The Dark Knight was both cunning and ruthless, and they showed him that way in an interesting way, in that he was a violent psychopath with a dark and twisted sense of humor. The Red Skull on the other hand I think is presented sometimes as a more "classy" villain, more smooth and streamlined, but not as interesting as other comic book movie villains. This mainly stems from the fact that the creators didn't play up Skully's "classiness" factor, and don't show him doing a lot of terribly evil things, other than killing that one guy and planning to bomb the crud out of the whole entire world. The Joker actually did a lot of things, and he was darn good at being bad. Following from the Loki example, I'm not saying they should make the Red Skull into a leather-pants-wearing, fangirl-fleeing, angst-spewing guy, I'm just saying to give the guy some character (no pun intended). Red Skull's lackluster presence as a villain is also saddening, given that he should be one of the more developed characters, after Cap himself and ahead of Cap's love interest, Peggy Carter. Yes, he should be, as one of the three central characters (Hero, Villain, Hero's love interest) of a story, according to James V. Smith, Jr.'s You Can Write a Novel.

I also have something to say about the action sequences. While most of them were pretty badbutt, as I mentioned earlier, some were clumsily executed. I mean, you have one guy flying ten feet diagonally into the air after Cap decks him with his shield. I understand that this is a lot of force, being super strength behind a vibranium shield, but if you watch it, you'll see it as if the minions are being pulled back by wires or something. It just bugs me.

On the whole, despite these flaws (and some mild blood and gore; this is technically a war movie; plus some swearing), Captain America: The First Avenger is up there with Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Unbreakable, X-Men: First Class, and, of course, the Avengers, as one the best superhero movies out there. Buy it, rent it, get it on Netflix, rent a theater to show it at for you and your friends, I don't care. Just. Go. See it.

RATING: 9/10

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Fun fact: The crazy vehicles that Red Skull uses in the movie were actually based off of actual Nazi projects and conceptualized designs. Cool or scary?