July 22, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “Captain America: The First Avenger”



CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER – Worth A Ticket:  Marvel Goes Back To the Future


There’s a certain irony in the fact that, in this summer of Super 8 and its Spielberg rapture, the most successfully Spielbergian movie of the season is Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER.  Its connection to Steven Spielberg is faint but important:  director Joe Johnston served as Art Director on both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and later directed an episode of TV’s Young Indiana Jones; not concidentally, this is something like the Indiana Jones 4 that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never was, and although it has its limitations, Captain America is a surprisingly entertaining old-fashioned adventure.


One of the most engaging things about Captain America as a movie is that it’s as unpretentious as a $150M+ giant superhero extravaganza can be.  The first section of the movie tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, CG’d in the way of Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button) a 90-pound weakling but endlessly stout of heart, who longs to join the Army in World War II and fight against Nazis, but is rejected because of his physical frailty.  Steve finally runs into Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci, putting on a great show), a German refugee scientist who has a magic serum–not to mention his gorgeous aide Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).  Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley take their time with this part of the story, and it pays off; although we know that Steve will turn into, well, Captain America, we get to know him first as a plucky underdog.  Even after the transformation, there’s a witty sequence where the new Steve is turned into a pitchman for War Bonds (it’s like the comedy version of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers), complete with a musical production number by Alan Menken–by the time Steve gets to Europe, we’re as longing for him to see battle as he is.


The huge action sequences, when they finally arrive, deliver in size and design, but they’re kept for the most part on a human scale–like the Indiana Jones movies, they stay just this side of what an actual human being might be able to do.  Evans is less interesting as the full-fledged Captain than he was as the puny version, but he has a few moments where he gets to reveal the scrawny kid within, and the rest of the time he hits the stalwart buttons effectively.  And there are welcome supporting actors to perk things up between battles:  Tommy Lee Jones does his Tommy Lee Jones thing–it’s like he invented macho snark–and Toby Jones is a junior evil Nazi.  Atwell, who’s been doing very good work under the radar in projects like Woody Allen’s little-seen Cassandra’s Dream and the TV miniseries Pillars Of the Earth, has a snappy way with dialogue to go with her looks, and the gadget man on Captain America’s team is Howard Stark, who would one day father Iron Man (ah, Marvel); he’s played by Dominic Cooper, who’ll soon be seen to much splashier advantage in The Devil’s Double.

The very clever production design by Rick Heinrichs creates a larger-than-life version of 1940s archetypes without calling too much attention to itself (as opposed, say, to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow‘s attempt to do the same thing):  tanks, motorcycles and planes that make sense in the World War II context but are convincingly a bit beyond reality.  The photography by Shelly Johnson, unfortunately, is obscured by a terrible 3D conversion that has little effect beyond badly smudging the original image–this is definitely a picture where audiences should try to save the money and find a 2D auditorium.


Where Captain America really falters is in its villain.  Hugo Weaver, who may be out of fantasy role inspiration now that he’s done The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Transformers and The Wolfman, seemingly does a deliberate Christoph Waltz imitation as Red Skull; he’s your basic raving super-Nazi (he even listens to Wagner), with a little of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Voldemort’s noselessness.  Red Skull never says or does anything interesting in the picture, and that lowers the stakes of the drama quite a bit; at this point in movie history, if you’re going to scare us with a Nazi villain, it takes more than a red digital make-up job to do it.

Despite that central flaw, Captain America is a fun ride.  It’s actually disappointing that in their zeal to get the character into next year’s all-important Avengers conglomerate (consumer note:  sit through all 10 minutes of credits and you’ll be rewarded with the teaser for next year’s everyone-but-the-kitchen-sink epic), Marvel was in such a hurry to pull him out of the 1940s.  This retro fantasy could have made a nice variation from their usual formula, but it’s seemingly a one-time effort; although we must all believe in the powers of Joss Whedon, he’ll have his hands full juggling half a dozen heroes in Avengers, and the Captain’s charm may not age well.  That, however, is next year’s movie problem.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."