After a couple of low quality attempts to adapt Marvel Comics’ star spangled hero, Hollywood finally succeeds with this big budget period piece. Old fashioned movie making uses modern technology to portray the journey a sickly young man takes to become a super hero. Nazis get punched out, evil rears its (very) ugly head, and lots of things blow up -- just like they should in a comic book movie. But the real message of the movie is that it is what is inside that counts.
It was something of an article of faith amongst comic book fans that Captain America was a hero who could not be successfully adapted for a modern movie. His appearance was too hokey, he was too bland, and most of all he was too American. Being a remnant from a more innocent and patriotic time, it just would not translate onto the big screen in a way that audiences could connect to.
Fortunately for us, Marvel did not listen to the naysayers and neither did Paramount Pictures. Be warned and settle in for a long read, for this is going to be a big review of a big movie.
Captain America begins with a pair of agents being guided to a discovery of a strange unidentified object in the Artic ice. The object is very large and mysterious, with the government team using a fancy laser to cut their way in. Inside they find conventional beams and struts, along with a iced over cockpit rather than dead aliens. A glint in a flashlight beam draws the attention of one explorer and he scrapes away the frost to reveal an iconic shield.
The film jumps back to 1942 and another chilly location in Norway. There we are presented with an old Viking tomb that is broken into by what appear to be SS soldiers at first glance. However, they wear a strange insignia that is made up of a skull with tentacles. Leading them is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a charismatic and almost charming officer with super human strength. Schmidt is obsessed with finding the power of the gods and has come for a mysterious object, “while the Fuhrer searches for trinkets in the desert.” This is the first of several Raiders of the Lost Ark references planted in the film by director Joe Johnston, who worked on it as an art director for special effects.
Across the Atlantic in New York City, a skinny young man desperately tries to pass a physical to join the armed forces. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has a laundry list of ailments that render him 4F (unsuitable for service) and fails to talk his way in. Later that day, the patriotic lad pays for taking on a rude creep and gets a beating outside a theater. Unwilling to back down, his use of a garbage can lid as a shield does not work out terribly well. Lucky for him, his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) saves him. As is typical of the movie, there are a lot of nice character moments between the two and you can buy into the friendship.
Frustrated by being unable to join the war effort while others are dying overseas, Steve reluctantly accompanies his friend to the World’s Fair on an uncomfortable double date. This fun little segment of the movie gives us a tantelizing glimpse of the original Human Torch android, which is both a nod to Evans’ prior role in the Fantastic Four movies and a tribute to one of Timely Comics other WWII comic book heroes. Howard Stark and his Stark Pavilion introduces us to Tony Stark’s father while connecting this film to Iron Man 2.
While the two girls fawn over the soon to be shipped out Bucky, Rogers slips away to try to enlist again. Fears of being arrested for falsifying his information turn into astonishment when Steve attracts the attention of a scientist, Doctor Erskine (Stanely Tucci) who is trying to create a “super soldier” for the US government. The benevolent Erskine is a warm and humane presence in each scene Tucci appears in.
One of the things I enjoyed about the movie is how the quests of Rogers and Schmidt are intertwined through the first two acts. When events need to jump forward in time, a cut to what the other is up to makes things flow very nicely. It does not hurt that both stories are well acted and filled with character moments. Then there are the little goodies for old comic book fans such as seeing the distorted face of Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) in a primitive CRT. That is a nod to his future incarnation as the Mad Thinker, by the way.
Schmidt is busy harnessing the power of the strange cube shaped artifact for weapons designed by Zola and the pair make for a darkly amusing duo. While they play mad scientists club, Steve is put through the hell of basic training with a body not meant for it or any other physical activity. Tommy Lee Jones excels as the irritated Colonel Philips in charge of a program to find the perfect candidate to become the first super soldier. In particular, he cannot stand Rogers. But his brains and attitude get the attention Agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell), a lovely and feisty import from England to the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), the secret unit behind the project.
Of course Steve Rogers makes it through the experiment and becomes a perfect specimen of humanity with enhanced speed, reflexes, strength, and agility. But things go awry very quickly and he ends up being one of a kind. Fans of the comic will appreciate how faithful the transformation from skinny Steve Rogers to buffed out super soldier is to the original material. Those unfamiliar will find the sequence is very well explained and staged. In the chaos, Steve gets his first chance to play the hero – and another more successful use of an improvised shield.
While the experiment worked, the program itself is dead since the government was planning to churn out many super soldiers. What good is one by himself?
If the super soldier serum sounds familiar, you may have seen The Incredible Hulk movie that starred Ed Norton. Yep, they set this one up in that film.
Over in Europe, Schmidt is having much more success and the extent of the madness of “the Red Skull,” as he is nicknamed, begins to show. While Hitler has plans, Schmidt has his own and with the tesseract cube in his possession the power to achieve them. Oh, I should have mentioned that is what the artifact is called, though being a true comic book fan, I call it the Cosmic Cube. You may recognize it from a cameo appearance in another Marvel movie, Thor.
Rescued by a senator from becoming a lab rat, Rogers is given the new identity Captain America. His purpose? To sell war bonds. Not exactly what the kid from Brooklyn was hoping to do for his country. But the stage show is a great way to work in the original comic book costume in all its red, white, and blue glory complete with early shield. It also pays tribute to the first comic book appearance of Cap in a clever way.
A nod to the rarely seen movie serial is found in a glimpsed propaganda film starring Cap. Yet another bit of Steve’s comic book past is shown when he sketches himself as a trained monkey. For a time he worked as a professional illustrator and used to touch up the paint on his shield himself. When Easter eggs like this are so seamlessly inserted into a film and actually enhance the story one has to give the production crew a hand.
Sent on a USO tour in Italy to entertain the troops, Steve’s introduction into the European theater of operations is a disaster. But a chance to prove his worth offers itself and he seizes the moment. Little does he know that it will lead him into a confrontation with the Red Skull and his Hydra operation. From here on the film picks up speed as it barrels its way to a final reckoning between Captain America and his arch nemesis the Red Skull!
While being a comic book movie with a large budget, the focus of the film is the personal journey towards becoming a hero and leader for Steve Rogers. There is a considerable amount of action, but it does not overwhelm the development of the characters. Even the lesser characters get their little moments in the film. A good example of that is Zola. He is a delight to watch as his discomfort with Schmidt’s actions grow and Toby Jones captures the little mad scientist’s mouse like emotions perfectly.
Another thing appealing aspect to Captain America is that it is an unapologetic tribute to the bravery of the Allied soldiers who fought in WWII. There is no dithering about the cause and no attempt to portray the Nazi’s as anything other than the bad guys they really were. If you pick up a little Band of Brothers vibe, do not be surprised since Dum Dum Dugan’s actor, Neal McDonough, played Buck in that excellent mini series.
Chris Evans really surprised me and it is hard to believe he is the same actor who played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies. His Rogers is a very believable and likeable hero, evincing bravery without arrogance and with an ever present sense of decency.
Hugo Weaving gave a note perfect performance as the prideful and psychopathically insane Red Skull. This is a character driven by a belief in his own mental perfection and vicious temperament, which Weaving conveyed marvelously through the excellent makeup. Oddly enough, this incarnation of the character owes much to the unreleased 1990’s movie concept, but actually makes it work this time.
Haley Atwell was an inspired piece of casting, in my opinion. Peggy Carter was quite a dame and a very strong woman in the midst of all the boys. Her acting was superb with her selling the character believably with every line delivered. Thankfully, they did not cast some skinny waif/ex-model of the moment in the part, but got a real actress who looked like a beauty of the era. I firmly believe that 1940’s fashion was the most flattering toward real women and I submit the above red dress as proof.
Having Tony Stark’s dad, Howard (Dominic Cooper), be the genius behind Captain America’s shield and other gadgets was a stroke of genius. He also gets some excellent lines and you can see Tony didn’t fall far from the family tree, whether it be inventing or womanizing. His byplay with Rogers is quite a bit of fun and you can see a lot of Howard Hughes in him.
Fans of Luftwaffe ‘46 projects and fan fiction will love this movie to death. The aircraft are all derived or inspired by radical designs from WWII that never saw the light of day. It made perfect sense for Hydra to actually be building them in this alternate universe.
The movie is appropriately rated PG-13 for all the violence and death, none of which is lingered on visually. This is a war movie, after all. Other than that, every effort appeared to be made to make this a family friendly film and I have to say Steve Rogers is an excellent role model even before he dons the costume.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a very enjoyable and old fashioned film. But most of all, it has a lot of heart and characters you’ll like. I recommend it to anyone over the age of 10 and especially to anyone who liked Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Rocketeer. While Iron Man is clearly the best of the recent Marvel super hero movies, I like this one better.
Since this is a review of the Blu-ray and DVD combo set, I will not be commenting much on the 3D aspects of the film. What I saw in the theater was okay and did not detract from the movie, unlike other converted films. I liked this better in 2D because it gave me a chance to appreciate the cinematography more.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray transfers are excellent, with each taking full advantage of their respective technologies to deliver a sharp and well saturated image. The advantage of being direct to digital made that a foregone conclusion, of course. The aspect is 2.35:1 on both discs, with some of the extras unique to the BD in 16:9.
Sound quality matches the visual, with Dolby 5.1 on both and DTS-HD on the BD. Surround sound is phenomenal with the latter and my 5.1 system got a good workout right from the opening scene. The soundtrack by Alan Silvestri suits the movie well, though the main theme is not particularly exceptional. Strangely, the cues derived from it work better in the film than it does by itself.
They went all out on the extras for this release and I ended up spending quite a bit of time going through them for this review.
Commentary by: Director Joe Johnston, Director of Photography Shelly Johnson, and Editor Jeffrey Ford – This is not going to be entertaining for most movie fans, but those who love an insight into the technical side of making movies will enjoy it. I get the impression they became fans of their own film and a few times they even MST3K it affectionately. The discussion on the merits of wide lenses was particularly interesting to me, but your mileage may vary.
Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer – Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) normally makes an appearance on the behalf of SHIELD in each Marvel film, but did not in Captain America. This amusing little short depicting a night time stop at a convenience store gone awry is a gem.
Outfitting a Hero – A history of the various costumes Cap has had over the years and the extensive efforts to come up with the film versions.
Howling Commandos – This covers the group of soldiers that Rogers assembles and their comic book origins. Interviews with each actor are included and they all had fun making the movie.
Heightened Technology – The design work on all the science fiction elements in the film is shown, with an emphasis on the vehicles and weapons.
The Transformation – Want to know how they did “skinny Steve” in the movie? This fascinating documentary shows just how they did it and amazingly most of it was done by digitally shrinking Chris Evans down.
Behind the Skull – A history of the Red Skull and Hugo Weaving’s take on the character. As impressive as the CGI was on shrinking Evans down, so were the prosthetics used on Weaving.
Captain America's Origin – An interview with Joe Simon, the surviving co-creator of the character.
The Assembly Begins – This consists of a montage of clips from the other Marvel movies leading into The Avengers movie, with a few shots from that production.
All of these but the last have the option of commentary.
Attack in Norway – A more extended intro to Hydra featuring that massive tank.
The Battle of Azzano – This was meant to introduce the Howling Commandos and the effect Hydra’s weapons had in the field.
Steve Rogers Gets His Medal – Instead of this dull scene, they inserted Stan Lee’s cameo.
Steve Rogers Meets Nick Fury – An overly long version of what ended up in the movie.
Theatrical Trailer 1 – This is decent, but theater loud, if you get my drift.
Theatrical Trailer 2 – It gave away too much, in my opinion.
Sega Game Trailer – Only cut scenes are shown and no game play. Not a good sign.
The Avengers Animated Trailer – This is a frenetic ad for the cartoon series on cable. Not impressive.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
One of the things to look for in Marvel movies is how they work Stan Lee’s cameo in. Frankly, this was one of the lamer ones.
In recent years, the character of Bucky Barnes was revised to make him older and not a kid sidekick like he originally was in the comics. This retroactive continuity made him a sniper and the guy who did the dirty work to keep Cap’s reputation clean. The outfit and weapons used by Bucky in the movie were a nice nod to that.
His death in the movie was also a tribute to the comics. While he did not fall off a rocket weapon aimed at New York, he still fell to his icy doom. But before that they showed a momentary tribute to his short turn as Captain America in later years. It also set up a very good scene in the bombed out pub between Peggy and Steve.
Another Raiders of the Lost Ark homage occurs when a Hydra pilot ends up being pureed in the prop of one of the flying bombs. The sequence reminded me of The Rocketeer a great deal.
Now this shot is a truly iconic one from the comic books. Here we have the Red Skull holding the Cosmic Cube with a truly sinister look on his face. I love that shot.
For only the most fleeting of moments another iconic image from the comics is shown. When Zola flees the factory, he grabs a blueprint and shoves it into his briefcase. Only through pausing the BD was I able to get a look at it. That is the design for his future android body when he becomes the Mad Thinker!
Seeing this in the theater, I will never forget how the gals in the audience went dead silent during the final conversation between Peggy and Steve. It got to them and that is a tribute to the acting of Atwell and Evans.
I do not think the audience was expecting an unhappy ending after the heroic tone of the movie. There was murmuring during the scene of the bomber wreckage sinking into the ice.
The scenes with Steve waking up in a fake 1940’s setting and not being fooled were well done. Finding himself in Times Square seventy years in the future seems to stun him, for he takes it all with a quiet sadness when Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) tells him what happened. It made for a very bittersweet ending.
Then there was the traditional after the credits scene connecting the Marvel movies together. This time an added bonus of early footage from The Avengers film. For the first time we will get to see a super hero team made up of A-list characters, unlike the X-Men movies.
While impressive in 2D, the 3D rendered propaganda art from WWII really was spectacular in 3D. You still get a lot of the effect in 2D and can see how they added volume and depth to this famous artwork. I really liked this.
I had one complaint to register about the film and it was the fact that the Hydra troopers were dressed all in black with none of the green from the comic books. Well, it turns out the making of featurettes show that the uniforms did have green tunics. It appears that the digital color grading toned it out in the final product. That is a pity, since they did go to the effort of making them green.
Another little nod to the comics from the Agent Coulson short. Roxxon is a very evil corporation that has an oil business for their cover while they pursue mad scientist experiments to take over the world. I wonder if we will be seeing them in future films…