When it comes to superhero movies, Marvel has had quite the track record over the past few years. Sure, its attempts at the turn of the millennium were somewhat hit or miss, but ever since "Iron Man" kicked off the series of Avengers-themed origin stories, the company has continually managed to "get it right." Thankfully, that trend continues with "Captain America."
Dubbed the "First Avenger," Captain America is one of Marvel's iconic characters. Getting him right is key to both the Avengers franchise and Marvel's comic empire, so there is one notable difference between "Captain America" and most of the other Avengers films: This one is set during World War II. The origin story hasn't been reimagined or rebooted into another time frame, like "Iron Man."
As the story goes, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a sickly, 95-pound weakling with a heart of gold and a patriotic streak to match. He desperately wants to enlist in the army, not because he has a desire to kill anyone, but rather because he feels it is his duty to do so as an American. After getting denied on multiple occasions, Rogers gets his break when Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears him trying to apply at an enlistment station. Erskine likes Rogers' attitude and brings him in as a potential test subject for the super soldier program.
After a random test with a dummy grenade shows that Rogers is the only one in his platoon with the will to put his life on the line to save his fellow soldiers, he is chosen by Erskine as the first test subject. With a bit of technological know-how provided by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Rogers transforms into the incredibly fit, muscled (and initially shirtless) Captain America.
The action picks up as Nazi spies, who are working for the super-secret HYDRA organization, attack in an attempt to prevent America from creating an army of super soldiers. Although the basics of the story are pretty straightforward if you are familiar with the hero tropes — we see the confused innocent thrust into the hero role slowly learn about himself and develop into the selfless hero — Evans plays the role with such honest naiveté it never seems tired.
The film also manages to avoid the generic Nazi trap thanks to Hugo Weaving's excellent portrayal of the Red Skull. As the first person to try Erskine's formula, he too is augmented like Rogers; however, with the Red Skull, it also augmented his thirst for power. As head of HYRDA, the Red Skull has no use for anyone who opposes his will, including other Nazis.
Playing opposite Evans is Hayley Atwell as British agent Peggy Carter. A self-assured woman who can hold her own in battle (all the while still looking extremely attractive), Carter is an independent woman who's had to make her own way in the male-dominated world of that era. Though she is there as Captain America's love interest, there is never any doubt that the two are always on equal footing.
Despite the strong performances from all of the leads, the actor who steals the show is Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips. Phillips is written as the typical no-nonsense, gruff, skeptical officer, but it is Jones' delivery that makes the character so memorable. No matter what the situation, Phillips is always calm, collected and completely sincere. His matter-of-fact attitude and deadpan delivery make almost every line out of Jones' mouth instantly quotable.
Visually, "Captain America" is grounded in the '40s, looking like it could have been produced back then, not simply set in that time period. HYDRA's base and weapons designs are appropriately comic inspired, looking like a cross between traditional '40s pulp (think "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") and what we saw in Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Although the film is being shown in 3-D, it's not worth spending any extra to see it. "Captain America" was shot in 2-D and then converted in post-production. The result is a fairly muted effect in most scenes, while others actually exhibited a brief double image on fast-moving vehicles. This is one where you really don't want to bother.
Ultimately, what really makes the film stand out is how well the story mixes action and drama. "Captain America" is not afraid to take risks with the characters, and it pays off in a big way throughout the course of the story. This isn't your typical "action hero blows everything up" movie, and it's all the better for it.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" doesn't quite reach the original "Iron Man" levels of awesome, but it is certainly in the top tier of recent Marvel productions. Today's generation may not be as familiar with Cap as it is with the X-Men, but this movie will help Captain America pick up quite a few new fans.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes. It is showing in 2-D and 3-D.
Editor's Note: Captain America: Super Soldier is currently available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS, 3DS and Wii. Be sure to check out our full video game review to see how it stacks up to the film.
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