It’s hard to remember now but when Captain America: The First Avenger premiered in 2011, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t nearly as established as it is now. Much of the movie-going public is eagerly awaiting the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron in a scant four weeks but, 4 years ago, the so-called “stinger” after the credits of Captain America: The First Avenger was a scene from and preview for The Avengers. The monster didn’t yet have its feet entirely under it.
And, while the Marvel Movie Monster certainly walks now, it’s worth considering that it wouldn’t be on such steady legs if not for Chris Evans and his spot on performance as Steve Rogers – Captain America.
Sure, one can convincingly argue that Robert Downey jr’s Tony Stark is the real energy of the Marvel movies but Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is absolutely its soul.
Evans is terrific in Captain America: The First Avenger. The film is a standard origin story (though it’s worth pointing out that the entire movie actually plays out in flashback) featuring the ever terrific Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, an adversary who is perfectly matched against Captain America. The Red Skull and Captain America are opposite sides of the same coin: super soldiers battling for a supremacy of ideals. Captain America represents the “little guy.” He doesn’t like bullies and doesn’t give up. The Red Skull represents the triumph of power. He is a bully – outsized and over-weaponized – and he is maniacal in pursuit of his desires.There are no major surprises between the two foes in Captain America: The First Avenger. The audience knows which side will win out in the end, watching Rogers come into his own during the course of the film is where the enjoyment lies.
The computer generated effects that slim Evans down as the 90-pound-weakling Steve Rogers in the first act of the movie are so incredible it’s possible to believe that, Tom Hanks like, Evans somehow lost weight and height to play the part. But what makes the early scenes of the weakling Rogers work is Evans’ performance. He’s strong and earnest, even as he gets the tar repeatedly knocked out of him (“I can do this all day”) and he is clearly heroic before he dons the stars and stripes and becomes a hero. One can make the case that the character is more interesting before his epic transformation and that’s a credit to the actor and to the script. The most intriguing part of Steve Rogers is what drives him prior to becoming Captain America and Evans plays that very well. It’s not that he isn’t equally convincing in his beefed up, hero role – he is – it’s simply a testament to his work that he’s equally interesting before putting on his mask. This tension between super hero and secret identity is a challenge to pull off well. Evans and the film handle it beautifully and success here sets up the rest of the movie to work as well as it does.
Having a great cast doesn’t hurt, either.Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci are always great to watch and both are in top form here. Neither suggests he is “above” the material and both pull attention each time they are on camera. Tucci, in particular, makes a great impression in limited screen time and his relationship with Evans gives the film its foundation. Toby Jones is creepy and crawly as Armin Zola, the Red Skull’s lackey, and Sebastian Stan does fine work as Rogers’ best friend Bucky Barnes. We know to keep an eye on him, don’t we? Haley Atwell is on board as Agent Peggy Carter and also does a nice job here. In her case, when the film veers too closely to putting her in standard “superhero girlfriend territory,” Atwell seems to sense it and breaks the mold. She is never relegated to that position because her performance is strong enough to compete with the likes of Jones and Evans. Her great work in the movie is why the character has become a fan favorite and was even awarded her own tv series (Agent Carter) this year.
Veteran director Joe Johnston knows his way around action scenes and the movie looks great. One of the best gags you’ll find in any superhero movie is in this one when Captain America is first put in costume. His early togs are a direct translation of his traditional comic book costume and he looks completely ridiculous. It’s a great moment that Johnston plays for good comedic effect and comedy is actually in no short supply in the film. This is a good thing. While it doesn’t trivialize the subject matter and doesn’t play as smarter than the material, Captain America: The First Avenger understands that all of this can be fun, too. Johnston brings a nice comedic eye to the work.
He also brings a truckload of homages. There are so many winks to the original Star Wars trilogy – all three films – and the Indiana Jones movies that there are actually a little distracting. I lost track at 7 different scenes or lines intentionally (I hope!) cribbed from these classics. That’s a few too many for my tastes.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun movie. It’s a solid origin story that sets up many narrative plot points that later Marvel Movies have picked up. It also introduces audiences to the heart and soul of the Avengers and manages to have both drama and laughs on the way. Chronologically, it also comes first in the Marvel Movie timeline. There could be worse starts.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER receives FOUR SHOTS OF SCHNAPPS out of a possible FIVE.