***½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci
screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
directed by Joe Johnston
by Walter Chaw Given the opportunity to finally do the sequel to his The Rocketeer that I've sort of been hoping to see for the last twenty years, Joe Johnston comes through with flying colours. The absolutely, unapologetically cornpone Captain America: The First Avenger achieves exactly the right tone of Greatest Generation wartime propaganda without any winking post-modern irony to befoul the stew. It's an earnest, genuine underdog story about a wimpy kid, Steve (Chris Evans, digitally reduced), who's beaten up for defending the sanctity of the movie theatre before finally, on his sixth try, being accepted into the army under the kind auspices of mad scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine sees an essential goodness in Steve, a decency born from the Great War heroism of his long-gone parents, it's suggested (in high-Fifties style), while crusty Col. Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) is persuaded by this twerp's willingness to dive on a grenade to save a platoon made up of the type of men who spent their childhood tormenting guys like Steve. Asked if he wants to kill Nazis, Steve replies that he doesn't want to kill anyone--he simply hates bullies. Steve, see, is an idealist. And any film that paints America's bedrock idealism as heroic is not just the right kind of patriotic (the kind that doesn't demean other cultures) and the right shade of nostalgia (i.e., in love with the essential purity of the hope behind the foundation of our country)--it's more than okay by me, too.
With on-the-nose postcard recreations of period and place (like The Rocketeer--like The Iron Giant, come to think of it), Captain America places Steve in a steel cocoon, pumped full of German serum and white light, to emerge as Captain America (Chris Evans), strong, fast, buff, yes, but more importantly packed with the humility that comes from a lifetime of being a victim. Compare this hero with those in garbage like Transformers: Asshole to measure the crucial difference between an America that abhors thuggery and an America that prides itself on it. Meanwhile, Nazi Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. Red Skull for reasons to become obvious, breaks from Hitler to form his own death cult after he's strengthened by the same serum that empowers Steve--a cult he calls "Hydra" because, as the film suggests in its only discernible contemporary commentary, we'll always have enemies. The real struggle is to stay true to who we are at our essence. Red Skull makes a passing reference to how his deformity set him too far apart from Hitler's Aryan ideal; and then Steve, once he's proven himself as a battle-tested soldier, hand-picks a group of sidekicks who represent Asians and African-Americans with affection, even respect. The contrasts and parallels between Red Skull's absolute evil and Captain America's absolute good continue throughout, from sly images of the dangers of the technologies of WMD for both sides (a gentle subversion of Johnston mentor George Lucas's stance on right-might making right) to The Right Stuff's "their Germans are better than our Germans" pragmatism. In what's essentially a film likely to be dismissed as having not much on its mind, find a director in Johnston making a case as an honest-to-god auteur of the courage and strength of our innocence. How else to explain an oeuvre filled with cowboys, dinosaurs, wolfmen, shrinking kids, magic board games, and Jake Gyllenhaal?
More than one should rightly hope for, the sceenplay, by the Narnia team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is smart and efficient. Consider a moment where a chum's death is recalled with a joke that not only offers an appropriate relief from a heavy scene, but also forwards the film's lore enough to forgive it its present-day framing story. Though an hour passes before our first extended stretch of action, the picture's intelligence and Johnston's crackerjack pacing create something that feels suspiciously like the best blockbuster of the summer--certainly the best of the Marvel Avengers run-ups. Taken with the unfairly-derided Battle: Los Angeles (which, with almost the same wide-eyed awe, places American fighting men and women as superior because they're driven by the strength of their ideals), it's a nice, two-movie reminder of how the films we make during war can be celebrations of who we hope we are rather than vituperations of Others we hate and fear. Captain America's love interest (Hayley Atwell) is plucky and never a hostage, its battle scenes are easy to follow, and its sacrifices are gigantic and affecting. Sure, it's hard to lose your best friend to a bogey from Castle Wolfenstein, but it's harder still to wake up and realize you've overslept for what's probably the first date of your life. The depiction of period war-bond drives and USO numbers has a little of the Yankee Doodle Dandy bombastic quality to them, and it's to the film's enduring credit that even though there's nary a chance missed to show Steve against some sort of American iconography, it never once stops feeling like the 4th of July in there. Captain America is a tonic. And a gas. Originally published: July 22, 2011.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Captain America: The First Avenger to Blu-ray in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that's rather lovely on the whole. Unless I'm mistaken, this was the first of The Avengers infomercials to be shot digitally (using Panavision's Genesis camera), and if Thor or the Iron Man movies look comparatively crisp on BD, the soft detail and muted colours of this presentation suggest more a glaze than a shortcoming, an attempt at draping the image in some haze of nostalgia. Reds, whites, and blues pop, as they should. Note that the post-credits teaser, directed by Joss Whedon on the set of The Avengers, is windowboxed at 1.85:1 within the 2.35:1 frame. The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is bizarrely underwhelming for a Marvel joint. While Red Skull's early harnessing of the tesseract's power produces a hum of bass that could break up kidney stones and the rear channels are consistently abuzz with ambience, the audio, lacking a certain ferocity, is always begging to be turned up a notch. Also on board is a feature-length commentary reuniting director Joe Johnston with DP Shelly Johnson (a dude) and editor Jeffrey Ford. If you want to know all about the production, go directly to the Featurettes section, do not pass through this lifeless session between somnambulant, obviously fatigued collaborators, who can barely muster a factoid or two ("He's on an apple box here") before lapsing into glorified narration.
First up among the mini-docs is "Outfitting a Hero" (11 mins., HD), in which various members of the design team--including Ralph Macchio, but not that Ralph Macchio--pat themselves on the back for finding a plausible way to smuggle the cheesy but beloved original Captain America costume into the picture via the USO subplot. "Howling Commandos" (6 mins., HD) checks off each member of Cap's unit and the actors who play them; though practically invisible in the movie proper, Derek Luke has the most interesting origin story to impart--his Gabe Jones was conceived and drawn as African-American at a time when that was unheard-of in comics, and the printers took it upon themselves to colour-correct him. "Heightened Technology" (6 mins., HD) is best when examining designer Daniel Simon's retro-futuristic vehicles, such as the six-wheeled Hydra car that Red Skull drives. (Hitler's own six-wheeled Mercedes Benz gave it "one foot in reality.") "The Transformation" (9 mins., HD) is the proverbial money shot in revealing just exactly how they made Chris Evans a 90lb weakling for the first third of the film. I had a pretty good idea of the trickery involved (body doubles, face-mapping, CG nips and tucks), but it's still fascinating to see B-roll of a buff Evans playing the pre-serum Steve Rogers. If I have any quarrel with the effects it's that weirdly unflattering scene where Peggy and Steve share a taxi to the antique shop that doubles as a secret lab: according to Johnston's off-the-cuff remarks, the wimpy Steve stands at 5'7", which makes him half an inch taller than Peggy's offscreen counterpart, Hayley Atwell. Yet sitting next to him in the backseat of that car, Peggy so dwarfs Steve that the movie seems to very briefly flirt with remaking Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
"Behind the Skull" (10 mins., HD) is a kind of companion piece to "The Transformation" in documenting Hugo Weaving's physical process of becoming Red Skull, while "Captain America's Origin" (4 mins., HD) interviews Captain America's co-creator Joe Simon from his easel and shows his grandkids proudly attending the Hollywood premiere of Captain America: The First Avenger. Simon is mindful of Jack Kirby's contribution to the character but takes credit for Red Skull--inspired, he says, by the cherry sitting atop his chocolate sundae. Finally, "The Assembly Begins" (2 mins., HD) is another quasi-trailer for The Avengers. Coming next summer to a theatre near you, in case you've been living under a rock. Find elsewhere on the disc another "Marvel One-Shot," this one subtitled "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer" (4 mins., HD) and featuring everyone's favourite SHIELD agent, Coulson (Clark Gregg, overworked and underpaid), thwarting a gas-station hold-up with heretofore-unseen athletic prowess. I presume this is crude foreshadowing of something in The Avengers, which is coming next summer to a theatre near you. Had you heard?
Rounding out the platter are a quartet of HiDef trailers (two for Captain America, one for the movie's tie-in videogame, and one for "The Avengers" animated series) plus four unpolished deleted scenes (8 mins. total, HD), three with optional commentary by the law firm-sounding trio of Johnston, Johnson, and Ford. As it happens, only the one they don't chime in on really intrigues: an extended version of the ending with a lot of exposition that considerably mutes the impact of Cap's pithy closing line. A sound editing decision--I would've liked to hear what Ford had to say about it. A combination DVD/Digital Copy pads the keepcase; Blu-ray 3D version sold separately. Originally published: October 24, 2011.