CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: The Insanity of the Plan Makes No Difference

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – The 5th Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed by Joe Johnston – Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Kenneth Choi, Bruno Ricci, J.J. Field, Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Samuel L. Jackson, and Stan Lee.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is a very good movie, and certainly takes its rightful place alongside THOR and IRON MAN as appropriately awesome AVENGERS movies, but as with most of director Joe Johnston’s work, I never believe this world actually exists. It too often feels like we’re watching an old propaganda feature rather than a contemporary movie.

There’s a scene late in the movie where Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) wakes up. He’s just crashed the Red Skull’s plane and we know he’s gone missing and we know that he’s found in our present, but the room looks like the 1940s. There’s a building outside and a baseball game on the radio and a woman who looks a bit like Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) comes in to check on him. Steve asks where he is, she lies, and he breaks out, discovering that he’s actually in a false room inside a New York skyscraper.

It’s a movie set, if you will, and it’s the perfect symbol of how I feel about this entire movie. Whatever happens, wherever it happens, its like watching a simulacrum of reality instead of a fully-realized world.

Now, that’s not to say that this is a bad movie, because it’s not. Far from it. CAPTAIN AMERICA is a highly enjoyable movie, with an earnest performance from Chris Evans leading the best ensemble cast in any of the Marvel movies, so far. But I never feel like I’m not on a movie set; there’s a … a cleanness, if you will, to the proceedings here. Everything looks newly constructed; even the old buildings look artificially old, like they’re copies that have been aged to fool pawn brokers.

That’s a minor, but consistent quibble with CAPTAIN AMERICA, but the larger weakness is that the film isn’t balanced properly. The first half of the movie is the origin and the second half is the World War II action versus Hydra, and because Johnston spends so much time building up the front of the movie, the back-half falls flat to me. The action is fine, but the Howling Commandos are just costumes lacking personalities, with only Bucky (Sebastian Stan) becoming someone real. The result is that while all of the punching and kicking and shooting is impressively done, very little here feels like it has to involve the characters we’re watching.

What makes me feel conflicted about the film is that the origin half of the movie is very well done, but it’s the least interesting half. By now, we’ve seen enough superhero movies that I feel like the origin stories could be condensed and we could get on with the actual story. It takes something like 45 minutes to get Steve into a Cap costume, and then another 15 or so to get him into action. None of this first hour is poorly told. Johnston does an excellent job demonstrating the determination of the normal, weakling Steve Rogers, a kid continually trying to get himself enlisted into the United States military and continually getting rejected. Steve’s determination is noticed by Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who lets him into the army because he thinks Steve might possess the qualities he’s looking for in order to create the first American Super Soldier.

It just takes the narrative too darn long to get Steve to the procedure that will turn him into the Super Soldier. We have to sit through Steve getting beat up, Steve getting rejected, Steve being dour as Bucky spends his late night in the city, Steve going to boot camp, Steve being doubted, Steve proving himself, Steve and Erskine having a heart-to-heart, Steve being driven to the procedure, Steve undergoing the procedure, the procedure being successful, a Hydra spy revealing himself, shooting Erskine, and then Steve chasing the Hydra assassin down. All of it conveys the same message over and over again to ill effect; since we see Steve getting his ass handed to him by a bully, we don’t really need to hear him tell Peggy 30 minutes later that he used to get beat up a lot. It’s “show, don’t tell,” not “show, and then tell.”

It’s well told, it’s even decently paced as you’re watching it, but then we have to sit through Colonel Phillips refusing to put Cap into action despite his obvious physical qualities, so United States Senator Brandt turns Steve into Captain America and uses him to sell war bonds. We get a nice musical number and then Cap (for some reason) gets sent to the front lines where Colonel Phillips and Peggy Carter just happen to be, in order to entertain the troops. The troops could give a crap about the costumed mascot, which depresses Cap.

This short section of the film has a good song and dance number, but it feels too mechanical and contrived, and eats up too much time.

Things start to pick up when Steve insists on knowing from Colonel Phillips whether Bucky has been captured. With encouragement from Agent Carter and assistance Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Steve drops in on Hydra and busts all of the prisoners free. We get our first encounter with the Commandos, who are likewise trapped in Hydra’s cages, but while they become Cap’s team going forward, we don’t really get to know any of them. They’re only guys in uniforms, seemingly put together because they all have unique looks.

I’m going to stop here and level with you – I originally watched CAPTAIN AMERICA a couple months ago, but I’ve been putting off writing the review because I feared it would turn out like it has, seemingly more negative than I intended. I want to repeat – again – that this is a very good movie, but it’s not as good as IRON MAN or THOR. It’s like comparing Spider-Man 2 to Spider-Man; they’re both good movies but 2 is a bit better than 1 because it gives us a fully-realized story, and does so in a more confident manner, instead of covering what feels like well-worn ground as all of the creative types try to find their way.

I’ve watched CAPTAIN AMERICA since then, not wanting to write a negative review of a good film without giving it a few more tries. I appreciate the film more now, but in a different context. It doesn’t work for me as much as a superhero movie as it does an old matinee. I feel like Johnston has crafted a wonderful ode to the old matinee films that Steve is watching at the start of the movie that leads to him getting beat up. And let me be clear – this is a good thing. We should want superhero movies to show variety, and that the three AVENGERS movies are clearly made on the same blueprint but give us a different setting and work with different genres is a good thing. CAPTAIN AMERICA does that, at the same time it gives us a great character and tells a decent story. Perhaps my complaints are more like spending a night playing poker and going home disappointed because you’ve won $40 instead of $50. The film clearly has left me conflicted, but I think it’s a film I’ll grow to appreciate more over time. It’s not as good as IRON MAN or THOR but it is still good. Here’s why:

Chris Evans is a good, if limited actor at this stage in his career, but if you keep your demands in his range, he’s quite good, and CAPTAIN AMERICA keeps it in his range. He can do earnest and he can do determined, and that’s what’s asked of him in nearly every scene he’s in. (He can also do funny pretty good, but they don’t ask much of him in this regard in this movie.) He makes Steve an almost-too-good-to-be-believed guy, which is just what Steve Rogers is, and he does a fine job making this a “coming of age” story as Steve grows not only into his body but his abilities. At the start of the movie he’s a determined weakling whom everyone keeps rejecting, but when he gets his new, souped-up body, he’s put in his place by Phillips and Carter, then turned into a prop by Brandt, and then rejected by the soldiers. It’s Carter that inspires him to go after Bucky and once Cap pulls that off, once the soldiers accept him, his confidence rises and solidifies.

Hayley Atwell is fantastic as Peggy Carter, and Johnston and his writers do a good job of keeping her a solid character through the film. She falls in love with Steve, of course, but she doesn’t lose either her sense of self or her agency (unlike what happens to Jane Foster over in THOR). Atwell provides a good deal of the film’s humor, whether it’s punching a recruit in the face, or shooting a gun at Cap’s unpainted shield, and when it comes time for her to get teary-eyed over Steve’s impending death, she delivers that, as well.

Tommy Lee Jones is good as Colonel Phillips, playing the gruff, military man. It takes Phillips the longest to come around to Steve’s abilities, but when Steve brings the prisoners of war back to base, Phillips instantly comes around. It’s a really great moment and makes Phillips more than a one-note hard ass. Jones’ best scene in the film, however, comes when he’s interrogating Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). After Cap and the Commandos capture Zola off a Hydra plane, Jones gives him the hard sell in order to get intel on Hydra. Jones #2 is fantastic as Zola, a brilliant scientist who’s both intimidated by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and wary of Hydra’s plan to take over the world, and their back and forth is short but sweet.

Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is suitably menacing, twisted, and brilliant, but his best moments come early in the film. By the time of his final showdown with Captain America, he’s just a bad guy getting punched.

I could go on about the acting, but the point is that this is a very well cast film and it’s the performances that will keep me coming back. The front half of the film is the better half but also the least-interesting half. I care more about the last hour of the movie, but it feels rushed and clinical. What I like about the film is that it keeps staying entertaining, meaning that for whatever flaws it has in my eyes, CAPTAIN AMERICA is still a highly watchable movie. I’ll take that. When you factor in just how good it is to watch Evans, Atwell, and Jones play off one another, and the decent action sequences, I realize I’m probably nitpicking a bit too much.

If you want to say this is better than THOR, I can understand that. I just don’t agree with it. Ultimately, though, they’re both good films and are both fine additions to the growing canon of Marvel movies.

Be sure to check out the Superhero Review Index for all Superhero movie reviews at Atomic Anxiety!

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6 thoughts on “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: The Insanity of the Plan Makes No Difference

  1. You have a very valid point that superhero movies, in general, spend too much time with origin stories. I suppose they are trying to cater to non-comic book readers who are unfamiliar with the characters, but come on, do we really need to know Spider-Man’s origin? Even non-comic book readers have been exposed to Spider-Man enough to know his basic powers. Let’s just get into a good adventure, and let the characterization evolve out of that.

    My review of Captain America:

    http://axolotlburg.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/review-captain-america/

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  2. I think you’re spot-on with the review, though I will say that the set design didn’t bother me as much. The old buildings didn’t look all that old, true, but most of them actually weren’t all that old at the time the film is supposed to be set. Including the World’s Fair/Stark’s Technology Convention or whatever they called it we’d seen all run down in Iron Man 2 was a nice touch.

    I think, in a way, it was more important to spend an almost inordinate amount of time on Steve’s origin story though. As far as superheros go, he doesn’t come off as all that super. Yes, he’s strong, but not near Hulk, Thor, or Spidey. He has good reflexes, but he’s no Wolverine. Fast, but not crazy fast. He’s got some nice toys, but he’s no Iron Man, etc. His superpowers make him just that much better than a regular gym rat, or, say, your typical UFC Middleweight.

    What always set Cap apart from the rest was his unbreakable spirit, will, and determination. I think (and this is just me talking here) that you needed to see that in the origin side of the story to really establish the character. After all, once he bulks up into Cap we don’t really have a superhero movie, we have a beautifully stylized war movie, not unlike a lot of the stuff coming out of Hollywood in the 40s and 50s with Ronald Regan and John Wayne, just with better technology and budgets.

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    • Well said, Eric. I think what I really needed to see to make it really work was a stronger connection between the front and back half of the films. Or more time with the war stuff. While we need to see the origin, I think they overdid it a bit and I would have liked to see more of Steve/Cap struggling post-rescue with his abilities and his place.

      I dunno. I feel bad saying anything negative about a film I do really like, and will probably watch 100 times, but there’s something about this film that keeps it from being as enjoyable as Thor or Iron Man.

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