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Zaki Hasan

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Zaki's Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Posted: 08/02/11 08:02 PM ET

As with last May's Thor, Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans as the iconic superhero, unreels with machine-like efficiency from end-to-end. It's loaded with enough action and emotion to lure in audiences not steeped in comic book minutia, but also peppered with enough tie-ins and callbacks to send a tingle up the legs of the faithful. That it's executed with such finesse and polish only makes more pronounced the very stark contrast with Warners' Green Lantern from June. While that production had wanted very much to follow in Marvel's multi-franchise footsteps, its failure and Captain America's creative and commercial success only proves yet again how, Christopher Nolan notwithstanding, DC has essentially become the Microsoft to Marvel's Apple.

Since 2008 and the first Iron Man, Marvel has been meticulously laying the groundwork for its mammoth team-up pic The Avengers, due to hit theaters next summer, and with each new franchise, the've also expanded the realms of possibility for their fictional universe, mirroring the many facets of imagination in their four-color kin. Iron Man is rooted in the technological, The Incredible Hulk in the scientific, and Thor the fantastic. And now with Captain America, which has the dual duty of anchoring a new series of its own while also laying the final brick into place for next year's festivities, the Marvel movie-verse expands its reach into the historical.

Beginning in 1942, with World War II sweeping the globe, we meet asthmatic, rheumatic, you-name-ic Steve Rogers (Evans, made to appear practically skeletal in an absolutely seamless bit of digital effects wizardry), a Brooklyn native who's tried to enlist in the army five times and been rejected five times. Nonetheless, he wants to head overseas and serve his country, because, as he puts it, he doesn't like bullies. This headstrong idealism catches the attention of genetic scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who recruits Steve into government's top secret super soldier program (supervised by Tommy Lee Jones, playing Tommy Lee Jones). One bright blue serum and one spectacular light show later, Steve is reborn as six feet and several hundred pounds of raw muscle (nothing digital here, but a remarkable effect all the same).

With a lifetime of Captain America fandom under my belt, this was a movie that was going to be held to a very high standard by me, perhaps more than any other Marvel character. And perhaps more than any other Marvel Studios offering until now it also had the most difficult task ahead of it in terms of finding mass acceptance. For starters, while anyone familiar with Captain America's comic book exploits knows that the character is hardly a jingoistic mouthpiece, his name doesn't exactly scream that fact. Second, because Steve is such an earnest, straight-ahead character (the publisher's closest equivalent personality-wise to DC Comics' Superman) any film version had to straddle the line between making him hard-edged enough to work for modern auds while preserving enough of his personality to keep him recognizable as uniquely Cap.

That's no easy task, and there are several ways this thing could have gone off the rails, but the Marvel team's smartest maneuver, just as when they hired Kenneth Branagh to shepherd Thor, was in bringing Johnston aboard to helm the project. The veteran director (who discussed his experiences making last year's The Wolfman in-depth with me here and here) previously tried his hand at the superhero genre with Disney's highly-underrated The Rocketeer (released twenty years ago this summer), which was also set in the WWII-era, also had Nazis as its villains, and also revolved around an earnest, aw-shucks hero. It remains a mystery to me why that movie never took off (pun unintentional) the way it should have, but when Johnston was first hired, my hope was that he'd approach Cap with the same spirit of high adventure and derring-do, and he didn't disappoint.

Another very smart decision -- albeit one that I was initially wary of -- was the hiring of Chris Evans to embody the star-spangled hero. For anyone whose only familiarity with Evans was from his catalogue of comic relief characters ranging from Not Another Teen Movie to his two turns as the Human Torch in Fox's Fantastic Four flicks to his role in last year's unseen, unloved (except by me) comics adaptation The Losers, his performance here will be something of a revelation. If, on the other hand, you've seen his work in such films as Danny Boyle's Sunshine from 2007, then the nuance and complexity he brings to Rogers shouldn't come as a surprise. The best thing I can say about Evans here is that he completely took ownership of a deceptively complex role, and I never once thought "Hey, what's the Human Torch doing dressed like Captain America?"

In fact, as we've come to expect, the casting is impressive across the board, with Tucci and Jones making strong marks as father figures to our hero, and Hayley Atwell acquitting herself admirably as requisite love interest Peggy Carter. Sebastian Stan also gets some nice moment's as Cap's best friend/sidekick James "Bucky" Barnes (who got to wield the iconic shield himself for a few years in the comics). Another brilliant casting decision was the hiring of Hugo Weaving (who appeared previously in Johnston's Wolfman) as Johann Schmidt, aka The Red Skull, Captain America's Nazi arch-foe. While he isn't given quite as much to do here as, for example, Tom Hiddleston's Loki got in Thor, with Schmidt's motivations suitably grandiose but also curiously vague, Weaving is such a talented actor that he's able to do more with less, and I hope he's part of the package should any sequel materialize.

Of course, before any sequel can happen, there's still the matter of some Avenging to be done, and the post-credits tag on Cap has seemingly been engineered to make the wait until next May as interminable as possible. I think what's most telling about this year's bumper crop of comic book characters cavorting across the silver screen -- from the high highs of X-Men: First Class, rescuing that series from the obsolescence of its recent entries, to the low lows of Green Lantern, asphyxiating that would-be-franchise in the cradle -- is that the summer's two Marvel Studios bookends managed a level of dependable enjoyability that merely confirms how practiced the Marvel operation has become in its craft. Their offerings are so consistently qualitative that if one somehow managed to be otherwise, that would be the surprise. Captain America is no surprise. B+
 
 
 

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