The latest Avengers movie takes us back to the 1940s, when men were enhanced by superscience and women were allowed on the battlefield without helmets.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Joe Johnstone

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, featuring characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

Cast

Chris Evans as Captain America / Steve Rogers
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan as James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes
Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt / Red Skull
Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark
Richard Armitage as Heinz Kruger
Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola
Neal McDonough as Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan
Derek Luke as Gabe Jones
Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita
JJ Feild as James Montgomery Falsworth
Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier
Lex Shrapnel as Gilmore Hodge
Michael Brandon as Senator Brandt
Martin Sherman as Brandt’s Aide
Natalie Dormer as Pvt. Lorraine
Marek Oravec as Jan
Stan Lee as General Cameo

Full Cast and Crew information is here.

Premise:

Steve Rogers, who persists in fighting even though he’s been 4-F’d, gets his chance to become the hero he wants to be. His adventures set him against the Red Skull and an arsenal of fantastic weapons.

High Points:

1. The film handles its lead very well, giving Steve Rogers heroic qualities—but no heroic abilities—long before he becomes Captain America. He’s a little guy with health issues who wants to help, and won’t give up. The dazzle of special effects and action sequences that follow work in a large part because we believe in the central character.

2. The film features World War II, dozens of comic-book tributes, easter eggs, and shout-outs, yet they have been handled organically, for the most part, so that people who don’t notice or understand them won’t be distracted. I tested these on a film-goer who had no relevant background; she never realized they were there. The film also affectionately sends up and celebrates the conventions of comics and related media. At one point, we see the opening panels of Captain America’s first comic-book adventure, duplicated more or less as depicted back in 1941. At another, the film nicely satirizes 1940s propaganda without ridiculing the war effort.

Low Points:

1. In the comic books, the Red Skull worked for Hitler (heil, he was even trained by Hilter). This makes him an amalgam of Nazi and comic-book villain1 and therefore the ideal villain for a superhero war movie. Unfortunately, the movie changes that, for no really good reason. Now, the Skull heads Hydra, a Nazi science division that has broken free from the Nazis (because the Nazis tolerated dissent, and would easily permit this to happen)—yet somehow maintains a large number of followers, full funding, and so forth. The change effectively means that fhe film’s version of World War II had a third party, in addition to the Allies and Axis, and it means that we have a film about Captain America, set during World War II, where he doesn’t fight Nazis.

2. The prologue and epilogue were ill-advised.

I understand and appreciate the effort these films have put into continuity. It generally serves the franchise, and imitates a strong point of the original Marvel Comics. In this case, however, the prologue and epilogue, designed to set up next year’s Avengers film, harm the movie. The prologue adds an unnecessary layer of confusion to a film already stacking Captain America, the Howling Commandos, a Bucky (of sorts), nods to Iron Man, Thor, and even the Human Torch, and the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. In addition, the beginning features significant amounts of backstory and character development. The filmmakers did a surprisingly good job– but then unbalanced the cinematic jenga-stack at the start of the game with the opening.

The epilogue, while interesting, belongs, if anywhere, after the credits, in place of the brief Avengers trailer. It undercuts the drama of Cap’s heroic sacrifice, and undoes the conclusion.

They’re making a series, yes, but they shouldn’t forget that they’re also making a movie.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6

Effects: 6/6 The effects used to make Chris Evans scrawny look great, and overall, the film gives us strong visuals. Johnstone and his designers have a sense of both the 40s and of comics, and they do a better job of balancing these with the set and props than the writers do with their version of science and technology.

Story: 3/6 The prologue and epilogue do not serve an already fragmented story. The film fortunately has a clear narrative thread that takes us through Cap’s career. The story jumps spaces of time, permitting other 1940s sequels to be made (Captain America: the Second Adventure?)

Acting: 5/6 We’re talking about acting here, not character. While the script develops Steve Rogers, in a comic-book sort of way, and invests Peggy Carter and Colonel Phillips with a measure of credibility, the film rarely develops anyone. They’ve hired strong actors, however, who make the most of one- and two- dimensional sketches.

Production: 6/6 They spend a lot of money on these films, and it shows.

Emotional Response: 4/6 We have a movie for comic-book fans that will appeal to a larger audience, but we don’t have a Dark Knight or an Iron Man.

If you look forward to The Avengers, this film won’t spoil your anticipation.

Overall: 4/6 View this as a war movie about a superhero, and, some disjointedness aside, it holds up fairly well.

In total, Captain America: The First Avenger receives 31/42.

Lingering Questions

1. I’ll accept special agent Peggy in a 1940s battle as a soldier (not, say, a driver or medic). This is a very special team. Why, however, doesn’t she have to wear a helmet?

2. No, seriously. How does Red Skull continue funding his operations? All of his operations– think this one through.

3. The Expo looks a lot like a period World’s Fair, yet it’s still out of place. How did it get funding? Don’t say “Howard Stark”– he’d be putting all his money into the war effort, not showing off. One actual World’s Fair scheduled for L.A. in 1942 was cancelled because, you know, they had rather larger concerns at the time.

Note

1. The Nazis, of course, could be remarkably like comic-book villains.

Some Accompanying Trailers

Conan the Barbarian: this looks visually interesting, and Jason Momoa may be a better actor now than the Gubernator was in ’82. Still, I cannot shake the feeling that, for all the money thrown at it, this won’t have the impact of the lower-budget original. It will almost certainly be better than its predecessor’s sequel, however, which was a campy triumph of stunt-casting over performance.

Spider-man: I’m intrigued, but again someone (me, in this case) asks, why revisit the origin so soon, when they could Jame Bond along with a new actor? Seriously, we don’t need to see a likeable high school loser get bitten by a radioactive spider and watch his uncle die again.

The Avengers: Squeezed in after about twelve hours of Cap credits, we have a very brief trailer for The Avengers. I didn’t find it worth the wait, especially, but Your Mileage May Vary.