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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): ***

Directed by Joe Johnston

Here is a film with exciting action, interesting & sympathetic characters, and moments of real humor. It is in no way a bad film. It is also not really a great film. Captain America: The First Avenger is the epitome of a three-star film.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers. We know his story: a 98-pound weakling who just wants to do right by his country and join the Army, but is too sickly to be accepted, he’s given a formula by a scientist and transforms into a paragon of human physiology, becoming a Superhero. Anybody could play that role, but what Evans brings to it is the delicate skill of making the essential heroism of the character not cheesy or groan-worthy. Rogers has always been the ultimate boy scout (up there with Superman), but what makes the character so appealing in this incarnation is that he’s honestly just a really good guy. Americans in particular adore an underdog, so his never-giving-up pluck is immensely appealing. A line in the film explains perfectly why he makes a better Cap instead of someone who was stronger or a better soldier: “Because a weak man knows the value of strength.”

That line comes from the standout from the supporting cast: Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, the inventor of the Captain America formula. Tommy Lee Jones is also great as Colonel Phillips, Cap’s commanding officer. Collectively they have the most moments of humor, with Tucci’s wry, witty jabs and Jones’s detached, weary one-liners. I’ve heard complaints about Haley Atwel’s turn as love interest Peggy Carter, but I thought she did a fine job (in a much more well-written role than Natalie Portman’s comparable role in Thor) with just the right touch of over-compensating for being a competent officer who was constantly in danger of being casually dismissed for her gender. I found it rather appealing, and I believed the chemistry between the two leads. On the other hand, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull I found to be stereotypical and unremarkable. Yeah, yeah, he’s another Nazi.

There are also some good spins on the classic storyline. <spoilers>I loved the fact that he’s deemed to valuable to actually go into combat, so becomes a USO performer instead. I was also surprised when Bucky was “killed” when he was; traditionally Bucky is with Cap until the end and is on the plane when it is destroyed.</spoilers>

Joe Johnston earlier in his career directed the much-beloved-by-me film The Rocketeer, so he has a firm mastery of the 1930s time period in which CA:TFA takes place. Details all seem authentic, and the comic-booky sci-fi elements are fun and don’t feel too anachronistic. He is a capable, serviceable action director that takes great pains to make sure that you can tell exactly what is supposed to be happening in every moment of a fight, which I greatly appreciate. But he also has the skill to make the action sequences great loads of fun, if not exactly nail-biting.

The only part of the movie that is truly remarkable is the special effect that dominates the first third of the film, that somehow transposes Chris Evan’s head onto a tiny, 98-pound weakling of a body in a way that is absolutely seamless. If you’d never seen Chris Evans before you’d swear that was his natural state. It is one of the best special effects I’ve seen in, well, any movie. It isn’t flashy, and if you didn’t know it was a special effect you’d never notice it at all. That’s why i loved it.

So, yeah. Good movie. Very little complaints. But it’s nothing I’m rip-roarin’ to see again. I probably won’t end up purchasing it, though I’d love to watch some special features about how those special effects were pulled off.


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