Marvel Studios has delivered the best comic book films not directed by Christopher Nolan or titled “X-Men: First Class” since 2008 on the journey to “The Avengers,” arguably the most anticipated comic book movie ever.
The majority of “The Avengers” have had their spotlight film to showcase the characters from Robert Downey Jr.’s dynamic turn as billionaire playboy Tony Stark in two “Iron Man” films, the power of the gamma-radiated scientist turned monster in “The Incredible Hulk” (Edward Norton we hardly got to know your fun take on Bruce Banner) and Chris Hemsworth’s star-making performance as a de-powered Norse god in this year’s “Thor.”
This left only Chris Evans’ “Captain America: The First Avenger” as the last stop before the train departs full-speed to Avengers station. At this point, all the Joe Johnston-(“The Wolfman”) helmed feature had to do was simply not be awful. If it was mediocre, audiences would just have to rely on Downey Jr. and Hemsworth to carry “The Avengers.”
But Marvel Studios clearly knows what they’re doing in the movie-making business as “Captain America: The First Avenger” is yet another surefire crowd-pleaser filled with an equal mix of laugh out loud humor, well-developed characters played by a tremendous cast and thrilling action guaranteed to have you wanting more.
Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a 98-pound weakling who has much more heart and courage than muscle. The U.S. has just entered into World War II and Steve, like so many of his friends and neighbors, wants to do his part for his country. To help convey Rogers’ weak physique, Evans’ face is superimposed on a smaller, scrawny body. The effect isn’t quite on the level of the masterful work done in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons,” but it’s passable. While he’s not super massive, Evans does a fine job of getting the audience invested in Rogers long before he becomes a superhero.
His frail condition disqualifies him from service multiple times until Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recruits him to be a test subject for a super soldier formula. Less convinced is Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones in an excellent supporting role that takes full advantage of the gruff persona he can bring to his characters) who thinks Rogers can’t possibly measure up.
Rogers does gain the respect of trainer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, “The Duchess”) who thinks Rogers has potential. With the help of famed inventor Howard Stark (“Mama Mia’s” Dominic Cooper who channels just enough of Downey’s Tony Stark/Iron Man that audiences can get the father/son connection), Erskine transforms Rogers into a GQ model with chiseled abs and muscles on top of muscles.
Thinking this is finally the avenue in which he can join the war effort, Rogers is crushed to learn he has two options — be tested in a lab or become a propaganda piece as Captain America. Rogers sucks it up and smiles, poses for pictures and knocks out “Adolph Hitler” to the delight of children everywhere until he’s called on to entertain troops in the battlefield.
Upon learning his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan, “Black Swan”), is caught behind enemy lines, Rogers stages a daring rescue operation that proves he’s more effective on the battlefield than trying to sell war bonds. This brings Rogers into direct contact with the Red Skull (played in perfect full mustache-twirling fashion by Hugo Weaving), the head of a splinter Nazi faction dubbed Hydra, who used an experimental dose of Erskine’s formula that enhanced his abilities and a visual to match his name.
With a revamped costume and his own unique weapon — an indestructible shield — Captain America leads an elite band of soldiers to foil Hydra’s plans, vanquish the Red Skull and help the Allies end the war.
The war setting also helps in providing a strong sense of purpose to Rogers’ efforts as his reason for being a hero isn’t something selfish, but for a far greater endeavor. Rogers makes for the best kind of hero because he doesn’t see himself as special and that optimistic approach makes for a film that rekindles that kid in all of us, who before becoming cynical and jaded thanks to the Internet, could be inspired by a guy like Captain America.
The effects aren’t as convincing as some other big-budget blockbusters, but it’s more a matter of Johnston’s scope for the action being more grandiose than his budget. It never looks fake, but the effects are a bit soft. Still, it was a welcome change to see a comic book movie where the director really tries to raise the level on the action scenes and not take any chances.
As usual, there’s the always-welcome cameo by Stan Lee and some nice nods to the source material that’s sure to make comic fans smile while not being too distracting for those whose sole exposure to the Marvel universe is via the movies.
There’s been some talk of comic book movie fatigue, but as long as Marvel Studio keeps cranking out excellent films like “Captain America,” there’s no reason to think audiences won’t flock to their latest outing. There are 10 more months until “The Avengers’” hits theaters May 4 and after watching “Captain America,” that wait is going to seem so much longer.
[2012 Flash Forward: Evans perfectly brings the wide-eyed, optimism to one of the oldest comic book characters and the film’s refreshing spirit shows there’s always room for a hero who’ll stand up to protect the little guy. With arguably the best supporting cast of the bunch, a cut-and-dried hero’s hero who isn’t portrayed as some cornball cheesy and a direct lead in to “The Avengers,” this is my favorite of the Avengers set ups.
2012 Film Flashback rating: 9 out of 10.