Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild, Bruno Ricci
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, based on comic books by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby
Directed by: Joe Johnston
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Running Time: 125
Date: 07/19/2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cap Shots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The main appeal of comic books, if we get right down to it, is not the superheroes. It's the secret identities, as they try to get through their tough, miserable lives, seemingly unlucky in just about everything. Every nerdy, gangly, socially uncertain kid that ever picked up a comic book understood that stuff. The superhero part was the fantasy part, the part that we all imagined we could be. But the human stuff was the stuff that really counted. It was the window into this world.

Some of the best comic book movies understand this. But this summer's movies Thor, Green Lantern, and now Captain America: The First Avenger seem to have lost their way with too much superhero and not enough human. Captain America starts off promisingly enough, with some visual effects put to good use, making star Chris Evans look puny and scrawny. He's Steve Rogers, and during WWII he wants nothing more than to serve his country, but he's too frail and weak.

Thankfully a scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), comes along with an offer to perform an experiment on Steve; at the end of it, he emerges newly muscled, and with superhuman strength and speed. Unfortunately a spy witnesses the experiment, shoots and kills the doc, and leaves Steve with not much future. He takes a job as "Captain America," performing on stage and schilling war bonds. While doing a stint on the front lines (a la Bob Hope), he learns that his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) has gone missing and is presumed dead. Cap assembles a team and goes on a rescue mission, bringing back Bucky and a couple of hundred other captured soldiers.

From there, he moves into hero mode, attempting to stop the sinister Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, doing his best Werner Herzog impersonation), from destroying the world. Also on board, we have the gorgeous girl soldier Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); Tommy Lee Jones, bringing the movie some spiky personality as Colonel Chester Phillips; Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, Iron Man's dad; Toby Jones as the Red Skull's assistant; Neal McDonough and Derek Luke as members of Cap's team, and -- of course -- Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

The director is Joe Johnston, a former visual effects guy who won an Oscar for Raiders of the Lost Ark. His directorial career is mostly made up of lightweight, well-paced juvenile movies like The Rocketeer and Hidalgo, and he's a good candidate for a superhero movie like this. He's not a camera-shaker, and his action sequences are clear, speedy, and exciting. The whole movie looks great, from the 1940s-era production design, to the exploding motorcycles during a chase.

But the movie makes its big mistake in tracing Steve Rogers' character arc. He suffers during the first twenty minutes or so, trying to get through life as a shrimp, but he's already painted as uncommonly brave, and by the time he expands into Captain America, all his problems are solved. His only remaining problem is how to talk to girls, but the lovely Peggy makes that part a little too easy. Perhaps if a better actor had been cast in the role, he could suggest some more anguish or doubt, but Evans is here just for his looks and muscles.

That's really the movie's only flaw, but it's a major one, and -- like Green Lantern -- it turns the entire thing into a so-so experience. However, this is the final step before next year's highly anticipated Avengers movie, and most comic book fans are going to want to add it to their must-see list in preparation. In that movie, we can only hope that Robert Downey Jr.'s groundbreaking Iron Man -- with all his interesting, loveable, fallible personality -- will help make up for this slick Captain America.

Note: The movie is presented in 3D, but -- as usual -- it's not crucial. Die-hard fans can check out the very first Captain America movie, a 15-chapter serial produced in 1944, here. Also, I checked out Captain America: The First Avenger a couple more times on DVD and my opinion of it has improved drastically.

Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.

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