Review – Captain America: The First Avenger

Spoilers abound … if you haven’t seen it and you want to see it, don’t read it!


When I was growing up, my father traveled a lot for a living, and as was the style back then, when he did a lot of driving, he carried a CB.  It was also custom (kind of like the internet) to adopt a handle (which I guess today we would call an avatar).  His was “Captain America”.  I remember giving him a sticker to put on his CB.

This super hero is an interesting one for the fact that it not only remains popular, but that it has survived at all:  a cahracter that began as a nationalistic propaganda figure had to undergo major evolution to make it past the Vietnam era, and in fact the comic has had many shut downs and restarts because of waxing and waning popularity.

The film opens at a crash site in some Arctic wasteland.  Some men open the wreck, and get into it …. snow and ice, but some searching turns up an object frozen in ice:  a large disc with red and blue concentric circles, and a big white star in the middle.

In 1942 Norway, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the head of the Nazi’s top secret scientific research group (HYDRA) has discovered a tesseract, a cube that grants as unlimited power source to the finder.  Schmidt and his chief engineer now have an energy source to power a number of amazing weapons they have been secretly developing.

Back in America, we meet the short, scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).  Rogers is again rejected for military service, while his friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)  is getting read y to ship out.  The two head over to the World of Tomorrow Fair where they catch resident genius Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) showing off his not-quite-perfected anti gravity devices.  Much like his son Tony will be, he is a ham and a womanizer.  Rogers sees a sign for enlistment, and tries again to get in.  Bucky tries to talk him out of it … he realizes that there is real danger, and Rogers should be grateful to be staying home.  The two argue, but Rogers wants to try again anyway.

Overhearing the argument is Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who decides to give Rogers a chance.  He is recruited into a special forces group, where he meets British intelligence officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).  Erskine is convinced that Rogers is the man he needs, and proves it to Col. Phillips.  Rogers is then told that he will be given a special Super-Soldier treatment.  Erskine tells him that he had been forced to give an unperfected formula to Schmidt, and it had left him horribly disfigured.  He is also told that the formul amplisfies the overall feelings of the subject … which in Schmidt’s case just made him more deranged, and that Rogers is the natural choice because he has compassion.

The experiment works, but a Nazi assassin manages to kill Dr. Erskine.  Rogers chases him down, but the assassin kills himself after revealing he works for HYDRA .  Col. Phillips shuts the project down … as promising as Rogers is, he is still only one man, and what he needs is an army.  One of the senators who witnesed the experiment arranges for Rogers to be promoted, and is sent to work with the USO, donning the classic red, white, and blue uniform and performing at bond rallies and in propoganda films as the fictional “Captain America”.  He gains a great following.

The following does not traslte well when he makes it to Italy where the real soldiers resent him as a clown who gets the glory without the danger.  Agent Carter tracks him down, and he learns that Bucky and many of his men disappeared in a nearby mission.  Carter and Stark help Rogers penetrate enemy lines to get to the HYDRA base.  He manages to free Bucky and other American soldiers, but not before meeting Schmidt, who reveals to him the horrible disfigurement he suffered from Erskine’s formula.  Which also explains his nickname:  The Red Skull!

Rogers returns home a hero, and Col. Phillips is now convinced that Rogers can help the war effort with a team.  Stark gives him a new shield to replace the costume shield he had been carrying … a shield of vibranium that absorbs nearly all energy directed at it.  Rogers enlists Bucky’s group of soldiers, and begins leading them on an ass-kicking blitz across Europe to attack HYDRA bases.  The Skull grows impatient with failure!

Rogers then leads the team against a train which has the Skull’s top engineer.  In the process of capturing the engineer, Bucky is killed, and Rogers enters into mourning, something that he is helped out of as he falls in love with Carter.

When the engineers divulges the location of the Skull’s last base, Rogers and the team attack.  The Skull manages to get away in a flying wing like plane preparing to drop high energy bombs on America’s major cities.  Rogers and the Skull duke it out, and the Skull “disappears into the cosmos”, after he accidentally comes int contact with the tesseract cube.  Rogers doesn’t know how to stop the plane, so he opts to crash it to save the USA!

Rogers awakes in a hospital, and is greeted by a woman, while a baseball game plays in the background.  Rogers recognizes the game as one he had attended in 1941, and immediately overpowers guards to escape.  He escapes into modern day New York, where Nick Fury, Head of S.H.I.E.L.D apologizes for the deception, and welcomes him to the 21st century.

After the credits, we see Rogers obliterating a punching bag.  Fury arrives as Rogers asks if there is a mission.  Fury tells him that there is one, and the scene segues into a trailer for The Avengers.

It is a good film, but there is one major issue.  First the good things:

I thought the handling of the ultra-nationalistic pro-USA propoganda of that time period was handled perfectly.  It is carefully couched as being a part of the era, and not something that is being preached.  As a matter of fact, there is a scene where Erskine tells young Rogers of the Nazi takeover of Germany, and a few things he says are applicable to the United State of today.  The costuming is right on, and special kudos to the music which has a 1940s sound.  Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid) even came in to write a “Captain America” song for the war bond rally scences.  The performances all around are good, even if they do gloss over a 60+ year old colonel running a unit seemingly co-run by a foreign national.

The main problem I had was with the Red Skull.  With possibly the exception of Lex Luthor and the Joker, the Red Skull is the most iconic comic villain there is.  He is certainly the least complicated major villain in the Marvel Universe (he doesn’t care for the Nazis because Hitler is in his way.  While the Joker just looks creepy, the Red Skull is downright menacing.  He’s a Nazi with a big red skull on his shoulders.   The dude means business!  Furthermore, there is the classic concept of Captain America and the Red Skull being brothers of a sort.  They both received their powers from the same “father” (Erskine), and both share the same strengths.  The close match-up between Cap and Skull is what makes this pair so cool.  These two are built for epic battles … I’m talking a fight to the death during a raging lightning storm on the side of a volcano spewing out the blood of the Earth epic!

That’s what we don’t get.  The problem is not Hugo Weaving, who plays the Skull as realitically as can be.  He looks the part and acts the part.  The problem is:  the greatness of this matchup is in comparing Cap’s warmth and compassion (which we get) to the Skull’s sadism.  It’s like someone left that part out of the film.  The Red Skull is certainly no fairy princess, but aside from one scene where he predictably kills a minor subrdinate for not fighting to the last man, all we get is a sense of the intelligence and a bit of the cunning of the Skull.  The dude was an effin’ Nazi!  There could have been 100 ways to show how batshit malevolent this guy was.  Instead, and I can’t tell if the issue was writing or production, the Skull is too formulaic a villain.

Its definitely a film worth seeing, with some nice performances with a good feel for the 1940s.  The story of the weakest becoming the hero is timeless.


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