CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) (***)
Steve Rogers is a 90 lbs weakling, but he has the heart and guts of a warrior. He keeps getting rejected at recruitment centers trying to join the fight in World War II. Chris Evans, who has experience playing superheroes, as he was the Human Torch in the FANTASTIC FOUR films, is an excellent choice to play this hero in the making before and after a super serum is injected into his veins to turn him into Captain America.
Evans is made the bullied Steve Rodgers through some remarkable visual effects. His heart and passion is what attracts the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, THE LOVELY BONES), who is working on the U.S.'s super soldier program with Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, MEN IN BLACK) and investor/entrepreneur Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, MAMMA MIA!). But instead of going to the frontlines, he is used as a propaganda tool to sell war bonds. But on an USO tour, he discovers that his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan, BLACK SWAN) has been taken prisoner and goes it alone to save him.
And like any good man of the 1940s, he needs a good woman to believe in him. Here is where the film meets its second casting perfection. Hayley Atwell (THE DUCHESS), who plays British agent Peggy Carter, could easily become a star after this performance. She is plucky and determined. She holds her own with the boys so well; we don't question for a moment why she's right there in the fight. A perfect match for Evans' Rogers.
I really wanted to like this film more than I did, because so many parts work so well. Rodgers story is inspiring in an old fashioned kind of way war films use to be. Erskine tells him the night before he becomes Captain America that he needs to make sure not to lose his compassion when he becomes a superman. Does the film test Steve's resolve when put up against the horror of WWII? Not really. He's simply a force for truth, justice and the American way (which I guess is now his motto since Superman has given up his U.S. citizenship).
Still his journey to become this iconic hero is compelling, because he is a man who acts on principle, which is rare these days. But often a hero is only as good as the villain he is pitted against. This is where the film suffers the most. Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, THE MATRIX), is a weapons developer for Hitler. But the egomaniac has plans for his personal concurring of the world. A villain that is established as a bigger threat than Hitler would be a great adversary for Captain America, but the film never develops him to be much of a threat at all. The iconic look of the character with his bright red head is wonderful, but a great design alone does not make a great villain. We see him develop weapons fueled by the power of the gods, but we never see him use those weapons to lay waste to the inferior human developed guns and tanks. Captain America runs over his "secret" weapons plants like he's knocking over cardboard cutouts. So when the Red Skull's crony Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones, THE PAINTED VEIL) trembles at the idea that his boss could actually take over the world, we don't believe it for a second.
Despite his character's underdevelopment, Weaving does an excellent job giving the character presence on screen. He sure looks iconic. There are a lot of good performances here. Jones is another great presence as the gruff military leader who wanted an army of Captain Americas and not a single chorus girl. Tucci makes Erskine a nice father figure for Rogers. A man who doesn't like bullies either.
The film takes its time developing the origin of Captain America. Too long. I wanted more time with Captain America and his Howling Commandos as they take out Red Skull's HYDRA operations. I kept getting reminded of great WWII "men on a mission" films like GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE DIRTY DOZEN. But outside of Bucky, the rest of the team doesn't get developed more than their looks. Gabe Jones (Derek Luke, ANTOINE FISHER) is the black guy. Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi, STREET KINGS) is the Japanese guy. James Montgomery Falsworth is the British guy (JJ Field, CENTURION). Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci) is the French guy. Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS) is the Irish guy. At least Dum Dum gets a bowler hat to give him one more identifier.
Just because CAPTAIN AMERICA misses greatness, doesn't mean it's not good. The problem is, especially with Howard Stark (Tony Stark's dad) in the film, one remembers IRON MAN, which set the bar pretty high. That film worked so well because it brought the internal conflict of its flawed hero up against an external conflict that played on the internal. This film could have done the same, but it never really connects the internal with the external with a knock out punch. But for all its weakness, the worst thing I can say about the film is that I wanted more. With nods to INDIANA JONES and WWII war flicks, what the film does become is a rousing Nazi-smashing serial-like adventure.