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Movie Review: 'Captain America: The First Avenger' (2011)

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It’s one of the more unique superhero movies (uniqueness for such films being an idea only recently called into question, attributable to the great inundation of theatrical adaptations that fall into the superhero category), considering the setting in the past and historical ties. “Watchmen” might be one of the very few others that attempts to place superheroes amidst a specific, recognizable time period. Like a drastically more unbelievable Indiana Jones, Captain America combats Nazi villains, stumbles into chases utilizing military vehicles, and engages in shootouts with Colt pistols (and other WWII-era armaments). But his misadventures lose their realism when hi-tech weaponry merges with science-fiction, escape crafts resemble rocket ships, and hand-to-hand combat includes gravity-defying wirework. The spontaneous design of the story, with its drawn out finale and otherworldly artifacts, further the sense of action for action’s sake and outright fantasy over the momentary suspension of disbelief.

In 1942, Tønsberg, Norway, inner-circle, deep science Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) searches in remote constructs for the Tesseract, the jewel of Odin’s treasure room and a device with unimaginable and irresistible powers. Through the use of a serum that amplifies personal, moral qualities, such as tendencies toward good or evil, Schmidt has been mutated into a plastic-faced, skeletal monstrosity – and power-hungry madman. But he also wields exceptional influence and bioengineering bravado that allows him to devise a master plan of taking over the world.

Meanwhile, in the United States, scrawny, unhealthy, asthmatic Brooklyn man Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is intent on serving his country and joining the fight overseas in Europe to fend off Germany’s advancement. His pal James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a far larger, fitter soldier, is shipping out shortly, and can’t understand why Rogers is so obsessed with repeatedly attempting to enlist (and failing), eager to risk his life. At another recruitment center, Steve meets Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who promises a chance at making a difference.

Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) study a platoon of candidates at a US Army base, searching for the perfect prospect for a super soldier experiment. Though skinny and sickly, Rogers has the right stuff: bravery and selflessness. Erskine has perfected the serum originally used by Schmidt, and now, aided by the extreme bombardment of vita-rays (a technology worked on by Howard Stark, Iron Man’s father, played by Dominic Cooper), he’s transformed into Captain America, the only man capable of stopping Schmidt’s technologically advanced Hydra faction of rogue conquerors. But before he gets to be a hero, he’s first exploited as an exhaustive advertising tool (which gives him the brightly colored, stars-and-stripes costume and accessories, though he’s forced to tone it down later on).

Weaving is a great character actor and a superb villain – until, of course, he dons a rubbery red face (or rather removes his normal face to reveal a bright red skull) to be a supremely ridiculous antagonist. Despite withholding his supervillain alter ego’s facial characteristics until midway through the film (hoping for a bit of anticipation), the look is so grossly comical that he can’t be taken seriously (even with the obligatory killing of his disappointing henchmen). Instead of opting for gruesome prosthetics and heavily researched scar tissue bases, the designers apparently thought matte, vermilion latex was sufficient. To numb the effect, other stellar character actors, including Toby Jones as assistant Dr. Zola, Tucci as the rival researcher, and Tommy Lee Jones as the unappeasable army leader, surround him. But every time Schmidt’s waxy crimson visage flashes onscreen, it ruins the action or suspense of the scene.

Other special effects are decent, however, though their ideas generally revolve around generic glowing items, electrical currents dancing across machinery, streams of blinding light, and enormous computer models (of tanks or trains) that conduct over-the-top stunts and explosions. The chroma key compositing (or green-screen) moments are frequent and overwhelming. By far, the most impressive visuals involve making Evans appear small and boney before he gains the muscular physique of the actor’s actual form. His selection remains a curious point, considering he was previously cast as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four” just six years before, giving his employment the impression that Hollywood believes it has run out of different performers who can portray larger-than-life, supernaturally-powered leading men.

At least the film as a whole retains a lightheartedness and focus on adventure, thanks to direction by Joe Johnston (“Jumanji,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and “Jurassic Park III”). Coincidentally, he also helmed “The Rocketeer” in 1991, which was similarly set during the ‘40s, featured Nazi antagonists, contained a photo memento of the romantic love interest, enjoyed oversized airships, and starred a masked crime-fighter. Unfortunately for “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Rocketeer” was far superior. And when this Marvel Comics adaptation reaches the conclusion, which ties into “The Avengers” and its characters’ storylines, it’s evident that the entire project serves primarily as an introduction to the last remaining main member that didn’t yet have a recent feature film.

- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)

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