Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 124 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 12+. Like most comic book movies, the action and violence here is steady but not too gory; there’s only one truly nasty scene, where a character is sliced apart by the whirring blades of a propeller. Otherwise, characters are shot with regular guns or with a device that turns you into a cloud of blue smoke. There are also a few kisses and the word “fondue” used to mean sex, as well as some basic cursing (no s-word or f-word).
Yes, this summer has had a bunch of comic book movies. No, don’t let “Captain America: The First Avenger” pass you by. One of the best of the bunch, it’s a tale of underdog victory that’s right for parents and children alike.
By Roxana Hadadi
Back in high school, I had this friend who worked on the school newspaper with me who basically knew everything there was to know about comic books. He read them voraciously and faithfully, and I remember when the Silver Chips staff had to give secret gifts to each other before we graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in 2005, he gave me a comic book version of the film “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” which came out that year. It was a supremely thoughtful gift, and Eric and I agreed on a lot of things, except one: Superman vs. Batman.
Eric loved Superman for his nobility, morality and commitment to doing good things because they were what was needed in a world rapidly plunging toward decay and devastation. I refused to get behind Superman because his alien abilities provided him with strength and power that gave him an unfair advantage against others; Batman’s resilience, resourcefulness and commitment to justice were more my style. Vigilante, freedom fighter, whatever! Bruce Wayne is unequivocally better.
Eric is a writer in New York City now, so we haven’t talked in a while about whether he’s as excited for 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” as I am, or if he thinks director Zack Snyder’s reboot of the “Superman” film series will be better than his last effort, “Sucker Punch.” What I do know, though, is that he would probably agree with me when I say, “Captain America: The First Avenger”? Surprisingly, wonderfully, gratifyingly awesome.
The last installment of this summer’s glut of superhero films, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is undeniably better than “Green Lantern” and somewhat as good as “X-Men: First Class”; it’s also tangentially related to “Thor,” whose main character will join Captain America in “The Avengers,” another superhero film based on Marvel Comics characters that will be released in summer 2012. Much has been said about actor Chris Evans’s muscle mass — he beefed up mightily to star in the film — and whether the film’s 3-D can be better than the mainly poor special effects of “Green Lantern.” To those discussions, I add yes, Evans is ripped, and yes, the effects are far more impressive.
There’s also a solid script, believable character development, an enjoyably sarcastic turn from Tommy Lee Jones and a whole bunch of nerdy delight in the form of characters like Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man) and Red Skull, Captain America’s Nazi nemesis who was determined to take over the world with a mixture of magic, myth and science. The film stays pretty committed to Captain America’s comic book story while also infusing a good amount of wit and humor — the trailers make the film simply look like an explosion of patriotic propaganda, but director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely actively work against that assumption. Instead of a tale about American might, we get one about the courage of the underdog, the bravery to stand up for what’s right even when you’re undersized and outmatched. Could “Captain America: The First Avenger” basically be a public service announcement against bullying? Probably.
It’s 1942 in Brooklyn, and Steve Rogers (Evans, with his head skillfully superimposed on a scrawny, short body) is desperate to join the U.S. Army to help defend the world against Hitler and the Nazi threat. Rejected five times already, he refuses to give up; he tells best friend Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who urges him to abandon the idea, that he “has no right to do any less than” enlisted men. “Don’t win the war ‘til I get there,” he half-jokingly tells Barnes, but his courage has already caught the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German ex-pat who is working with the U.S. government to create super-soldiers who could fight the Axis baddies. Steve doesn’t have any power, Erskine realizes, so he would better appreciate and use strength once he had it — “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Rogers says to the doctor when confronted with the idea. “I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.”
And who is a bigger bully than Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving)? Obsessed with finding a mysterious object called the Tesseract, so powerful that Schmidt lovingly describes it as “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room,” he decimates an entire Norwegian village to get what he wants. Then he enslaves hundreds of prisoners of war to work on his projects for him. Finally, he decides to hit the U.S. forces where they’ll feel it most, by destroying cities like Chicago and New York City — a threat so powerful that the feds approve Erskine’s plan to alter Rogers’s genetic makeup, turning him into a more muscular and coordinated version of himself. The fight between him and Schmidt, of course, is on.
What “Captain America” gets most right is the transition from Rogers to Captain America, a growth that Johnston provides with time and attention. There are action and combat scenes, obviously, but most of the film is instead focused on Rogers’ mindset. He knows his unflinching desire to see goodness returned to the world is putting others in danger, but he’ll do anything to protect them. He’s just a kid from Brooklyn, he says, but Evans effectively portrays how someone so literally and figuratively small could, given the proper tools, do whatever he could to make wrong things right. Gone is the cockiness Evans portrayed in films like “Fantastic Four,” “The Losers” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” — he’s less bombastic here but more modest, more confident, more committed. Evans, just as Rogers does, rises to the occasion impressively.
And so does nearly everything else: As Captain America-doubting Col. Chester Phillips, Jones oozes the dry sarcasm and judgment we got from him in movies like “Men in Black” and “The Fugitive”; Dominic Cooper gets it right as the womanizing genius investor Howard Stark; Hayley Atwell is gorgeous as the strict, determined Agent Peggy Carter, Rogers’ love interest; as Erskine, Tucci’s father-like treatment of Rogers is sympathetic and believable; and Weaving — he rocks a disgusting Red Skull face like no one else could. Though the 3-D effects are sometimes expected, like Captain America’s shield coming at audiences and too much slow-motion jumping and leaping, the film’s color palette — mirrored after comic book structure, with both jarringly bright colors and subtly monochromatic ones — really pops thanks to the extra treatment.
Is “Captain America: The First Avenger” a film as genre-changing as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” or as recognizably iconic as the 1978 version of “Superman”? It doesn’t reach those instantly legendary levels, but as the last comic-book blockbuster of the summer, it certainly mans up to the task.