Captain America: The First Avenger may not be the best of the Marvel Avengers movies, but it’s certainly not the worst. Despite some pacing issues in the second and third acts and an all-too-abrupt ending sequence, the movie manages to infuse the superhero genre with some much-needed heart.
Cap is a nice guy. “Nice” isn’t a word you hear in the superhero context very often. Superman is a boy scout, Batman is a dark knight, Tony Stark is egotistical, Thor is cocksure. So it’s a welcome change to have a superhero who is actually a downright nice guy for a change. Cap gets along with everyone (at least after his Super Soldier Serum transformation), and his newfound powers never go to his head. In fact, they seem more of a burden to him than anything. He’s nearly invulnerable, so charging into an army of laser-toting HYDRA stormtroopers is nothing to him, but his bravado can occasionally put those around him in danger.
The Steve Rogers story is a compelling one because the filmmakers spend quite a bit of time building up the pre-super powered version of Steve as a genuinely caring guy who just wants to help his country. This goes a long way towards winning movie-goers’ affection.
The supporting cast is excellent. This could almost be a con, because the supporting actors don’t get nearly as much screentime as they deserve. Stanley Tucci is a real stand-out as the caring scientist who gives Cap his super powers and Tommy Lee Jones shines as the grizzled leader of the SSR. I don’t even need to tell you that Hugo Weaving positively chews on the scenery in his masterful performance as the Red Skull.
But more surprising, and more satisfying, are the stellar performances of the minor characters who make up Cap’s loyal team. Cap is only one man, after all, and he needs a stalwart group of never-say-die Nazi-haters to back him up. Though each member of his group gets very little screen time, and even fewer lines, the film makers do a fantastic job of lending them each that little bit of character that makes them lovable. My fondest wish is for Marvel to make a spin-off dealing solely with the adventures of the SSR in a post-Captain Cold War era.
They couldn’t have picked a better period for a period piece. The height of the Second World War was the height of American patriotism, and it’s a breath of fresh air that this country sorely needs. Our kindergarten-level in-fighting at home doesn’t exactly make me proud. What’s more, America’s military struggles with insurgents in the Middle East leave little to rally behind — it’s hard to hate a group of enemy combatants who look weary and unwashed and aren’t quite sure where their next meal is coming from.
Not so for Adolf Hitler and Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull. Hitler was a genocidal, fear-mongering, empire-building, occult-coveting psychopath, and Schmidt is just a super powered nutjob obsessed with destroying the world. We can hate these guys and not feel shame about it. If Captain America asked me to buy a war bond to fund some Nazi-killing bullets, I wouldn’t think twice. Hell, I’d buy two.
Too much montage, not enough movie.We sometimes forget just how long World War II was. CaptainAmerica didn’t just spend a week punching out Hitler before going home to a string of parades. He spent years cavorting around Europe, tracking down the Red Skull and his cronies and generally being awesome. That’s a lot of material to cover and any film that tries to encompass it all starts at a disadvantage. As soon as the war begins in earnest, we’re treated to a long series of battle montages. Cap throws his shield, a building explodes, Red Skull pounds his fist in frustration, repeat. It’s not that I have any better ideas, it’s just that a movie with so much ground to cover inevitably has to utilize some yawn-inducing montages.
Too much fiction, not enough science. Red Skull has a great line in the movie where he says, and I’m paraphrasing, that advanced science looks like magic to the uneducated mind. He may as well have been looking into the camera and winking when he said this. Because I’ve seen all the other Avengers movies, and because I love comic books in general, I know what his magical power-granting cube is, but a casual fan probably wouldn’t. To them, it looks like a random MacGuffin that probably isn’t important in the long run because of how little is said about it.
The truth is that the Cosmic Cube is going to be pretty important in the long run, if the secret scene at the end of Thor and the Avengers trailers are any indication. But you wouldn’t know it from watching this movie on its own, and that’s a disservice to movie goers. I get that the focus is on Cap and his exploits, and that the source of the bad guy’s powers doesn’t really matter that much, but a even a modicum of explanation would have been a lot better than none whatsoever.
The ending is rather abrupt. Spoilers ahead! Be warned! The last fight between Cap and Red Skull is over far too quickly, and the whole lead-up left a lot to be desired. One minute Cap and the team are discussing strategy in a bunker, the next he’s riding a motorcycle into the heart of the enemy base, firing lasers and single-handedly taking on Red Skull’s army. Before you know it he’s on a plane loaded with city-leveling magic bombs, then it’s “No time to explain guys, gotta crash this puppy, what’s that, try to land it and bail out, you’re breaking up, static.” They could have cut a few minutes out of the mid-film battle montage to give Cap a hero’s sacrifice that was at least a little more believable.
The worst offense is that Red Skull’s demise comes at the hands of the Cosmic Cube, which at this point we haven’t even been told what it is or why it just opened up a wormhole into space and sucked the main villain right out of the solar system. Don’t get me wrong, it’s satisfying to see the Skull meet his end through his own lust for power – I just wish it had been done in a way that makes sense.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a really fun movie. Though the second half feels unbalanced, this is more than made up for by the strong storytelling of the first and the amazing performances of every actor involved – Chris Evans is surprisingly good, and his accent is even pretty impressive. Add in all the tie-ins to the other Avengers movies, of which there are many, and this is a very satisfying film for comic book fans, movie fans, and generally anyone who likes America and beating up Nazis.