In a year where superhero movies have been hitting us over the head, the results have been subpar at best. Only X-Men: First Class has managed to impress while The Green Hornet, Thor and Green Lantern have failed to live up to expectations. So I suppose it’s a good thing we have Captain America: The First Avenger bookending our year of men in silly costumes because it’s the best of all. It's a summer popcorn film of the highest caliber and it delivers all the thrills one would expect while also laying the groundwork for future installments.
As with most first entries in a superhero franchise, Captain America is an origin story that chronicles the rise of its titular character. This time, we have Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a short and scrawny kid living in Brooklyn during World War II. He wants nothing more than to enlist in the armed forces so he can help bring down Hitler, but because of his stature (and laundry list of health problems), he is denied. When Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working for the American government, overhears Rogers’ desire, he allows him to enlist so he can be the subject of an experimental operation that makes bad men more evil, but good men great. The operation has only been done once before on Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer, and it turned him into a tyrannical miscreant. Rogers, on the other hand, receives healing powers and strength beyond imagination that he plans to use for good, so he sets out to single-handedly put an end to the war.
There are plenty of reasons why Captain America is better than the other superhero movies released this year, but all the proof you need is in the character. Thor, for instance, lacked reasoning behind his actions. He didn’t fight for any noble cause. He simply fought because that’s what he was supposed to do. His thin personality made him a character that was hard to care about, but there’s more to Captain America. There isn’t a more noble cause than fighting Nazism, but his motivations go beyond that. He is willing to, and does, lay his life on the line to protect the greater good, even if the odds are overwhelmingly against him. He is courageous and noble, even going so far as to jump on a grenade to save his platoon, which, luckily for him, ends up being a dummy.
Director Joe Johnston, the man behind the magnificent October Sky, does an excellent job of validating this character, allowing us to see his big heart and selfless desires, which allows the drama to surface naturally. There are a number of emotional scenes and, though I doubt they will make anybody shed a tear, they work. Its real strength, however, is its seamless blend of the heartfelt moments with comedy. Tonally, Captain America is perfect, never lacking or overdoing itself in either area. Where Johnston stumbles is in his obvious camerawork that frames the bad guys in ominous low-angle shots, as if a man with a blood red face and a Nazi uniform wasn’t enough. Similarly, he overdoes it with typical “heroic” shots, like slow zooms, tracking shots and slow motion shots as the character rides away from, or even jumps through, a fiery explosion. All of this is usually accompanied by a swelling up of patriotic music, which is a bit overbearing, even if it does fit the idea of the character himself.
Captain America: The First Avenger also suffers from the occasional moment of unintentional hilarity and spotty CGI, especially just before the final battle, but it’s so much fun you’ll hardly notice. Too many origin stories spend too much time setting up the mythology of the character and forget about the fun, but not this one. It ensures future adventures without neglecting itself, which makes it one of the most entertaining and exciting movies to be released this year.
Captain America: The First Avenger receives 4.5/5