Movie Review: CAPTAIN AMERICA, 2011

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Movie Reviews

Director: Joe Johnston

Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Dormer, Richard Armitage, Dominic Cooper

Review by Mark Engberg


After being deemed unfit for military service during WWII, Steve Rogers (Evans) volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, the Sentinel of Liberty — a superhero dedicated to defending America’s ideals. His first mission: to combat the Nazi propaganda effort headed by Johann Schmidt (Weaving), also known as the Red Skull.


Check your thesaurus for the word “patriotic” and you will find that every synonym perfectly typifies the character of Captain America.

“Patriotic: Chauvinistic, devoted, dedicated, dutiful, jingoistic, nationalistic, statesmanlike, zealous.”

Yup, that’s him, all right. But chauvinistic? No, Chris Evans’ rendition of the 1941 comic book icon is too much of a sensitive and caring male superhero to be considered a chauvinist.

In an age when political pressures stalled the direct involvement of women in the military, new recruit Steve Rogers maintains persistent and loyal eye contact with his female superior, SSR officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). And he is even more faithful to his fellow Brooklyn buddy, Sgt. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

As far as personality goes, he’s a kinder, gentler Captain America.But those familiar with the history of this superhero know that this is only the tip of the iceberg (get it, fans?). This is a humble beginning of the character, who was created by legendary Marvel Comic gods Joe Simon and Jack Kirby seventy years ago in order to stir up some fervid patriotism among the nation’s children during World War II.

Through seven hard decades, Captain America has suffered imprisonment, torture, suspended animation, degradation, and even death. In terms of pop media, he actually suffered a fate worse than that when WWII ended: People began to forget about his character and he seemingly vanished in the 1950’s. It wasn’t until March of 1964, when his frozen carcass was found in a floating iceberg, that he resurfaced as the leader of The Avengers.
At first, I rejected the studios’ choice to cast 30-year-old Chris Evans as the celebrated hero. For one thing, he already played Johnny Storm, a.k.a. The Human Torch in “The Fantastic Four.” Any Marvel fanboy who says that’s insignificant is lying. Secondly, I always envisioned the time-honored Captain as an older and wiser soldier; someone who could embody the leadership of John Wayne, the campy loyalty of the G.I. Joe team, and the athletic prowess of Batman.

In all honesty, I was thinking Brad Pitt would be perfect for the part. His memorable portrayal of Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” was already an R-rated, masochist Captain America who carved swastikas in the bad guys’ foreheads. George Clooney could have been another viable candidate if he had not humiliated himself in 1997 with “Batman and Robin”.

The logic behind these casting choices relates to the fact that the Captain America of today has been through hell. Like his country’s perpetually diminishing respect around the globe, this hero has survived insult and onslaught. Therefore, it should be a tough and seasoned veteran handling the performance of this great American warrior.

But that’s not what “The First Avenger” is about. These are his formative adventures from long ago, when military colonels were funny like Tommy Lee Jones and American ideology was at its zenith before we went crazy with power in Southeast Asia. Johnston’s introduction to this saga seems to catch the Captain in his most vulnerable and obedient years. Maybe we’ll get to see him become more of the dynamic leader he was always destined to be in “The Avengers”, which will place the period piece character into a modern time frame.

Tommy Lee Jones is in his comfort zone as the intimidating Colonel Chester Phillips. Like Agent K in “Men in Black” or Sam Gerard in “The Fugitive”, Phillips has a way of barking orders in a condescending yet subtle manner that depicts humor as well as bravado. His alliance with Dr. Abraham Erskine (the seemingly omnipresent Stanley Tucci) creates the country first-and-only “super-soldier” when the 90-pound Rogers is injected with super-serum and lit up with vita-rays.

The all-time accountable villain actor Hugo Weaving wears his best nasty face (literally) to play Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who eventually will become the Red Skull. He and his men steal a mysterious cubic prism from a Norwegian castle early in the story.

Naturally, this “jewel of Odin’s treasure room” is merely a MacGuffin used to motivate the mad scientist villain towards his destructive goal. Since Weaving is so well versed as a diabolical supervillain, it’s only naturally to cast Toby Jones as his sniveling sidekick. Jones, who marvels in these kinds of roles (he played Karl Rove and Swifty Lazar in the same year), brings a simpering Renfield quality to Weaving’s Nazi Dracula.

Like Johnston’s underappreciated previous action flick, “The Rocketeer” (1991), the film has a ton of tight action sequences that are presented in a much more discernible and entertaining way, rather than the contemporary blockbusters (cough, cough, Transformers). In other words, you can actually follow the action and catch your breath between the explosions because there is an unfolding storyline.

Even more appealing is the fact that these action/chase sequences are evenly timed out to honor the tradition of 1930’s film serials. Spielberg himself paid respect to the cliffhanger style of fragmented short movies when he made “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1982.

Chris Evans is no Indiana Jones, but the dramatic timing of action is not far away from those golden fight scenes. Modern action filmmakers could learn a thing or two from the pace of action in “Captain America”, instead of burying their audiences with overlong apocalyptic destruction of cities in 3-D.

Speaking of which, I saw this movie in 3-D and I would politely advise against it. The movie is great fun and about as cheesy as a Hasbro cartoon. But like every other action film I’ve seen since “Avatar”, the 3-D effects just aren’t worth the headache and diluted color palette that suffers in the transformation. Ever feel like you’ve been under a fluorescent light for two hours when you’re handing back your glasses? I do.

I didn’t see “X-Men: First Class” or “Green Lantern” so I can’t say “Captain America” is the best superhero movie of the summer. I can say that is an improvement for Marvel Studios after “Thor”, which was fine, if not a bit too cosmic and surreal. Fans won’t have to wait too long to catch either of these heroes again Joss Whedon unites them for “The Avengers” next year.

Now that we’ve all been briefed about Captain America’s past missions with “First Avenger”, we can determine what he can do for contemporary America today. Let’s have him start by saving the economy.

This late note is for those who have already seen the picture: SPOILER ALERT.

Is there anything funnier than the kid who gets thrown into the water by the fleeing bad guy? In all my life of watching action hero movies, I have never before seen an innocent bystander get thrown into the lake . . . WHO CAN ACTUALLY SWIM! This quick joke made me laugh out louder and harder than anything else I’ve seen this summer. I wonder if anyone else got the joke.

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