A friend of mine got me into a free screening for Captain America the other evening, complete with free popcorn, soda and snacks! Now, despite this, I promise that this will in no way bias my review towards what is obviously the greatest movie in the history of cinema!
Okay, it wasn't that great. But Captain America was still pretty good.
Or rather, that should read "'Captain America: The First Avenger' was still pretty good", because after all, there may be two or three people on planet Earth that don't know it's a tie-in to The Avengers movie coming next summer to a theater near you. So consider this a public service announcement and a movie review. All for the same price!
Anyway, Captain America (The First Avenger) takes place during World War II, and makes for a nice nostalgic twist on superhero movies as a 1940's period piece (something director Joe Johnston also did well with The Rocketeer). Superheroes were first developed in the late 30's - early 40's, so their origin stories also centered around this era. Besides comic books, early superheroes were featured in comic strips, cartoons, radio programs and movie serials (Captain America saw his film debut in a 1944 serial - the first Marvel superhero to do so).
The main character - Steve Rogers - tries several times to enlist in the Army to fight in the war, but is repeatedly rejected as unfit. He's unhealthy in all sorts of ways: asthmatic, small, skinny, weak, bad acne, dandruff, you name it. But he has determination, and - as someone who has always been the victim of stronger people - compassion for the weak. These latter traits help him get accepted into a secret "Super Soldier" program, designed to create the perfect human fighting machine through science and technology. From there, we learn the origin of how he became known as Captain America (as a war-time symbol similar to "Uncle Sam"), how he got his costume and shield, and how he eventually gets transplanted into the 21st century so that he can be in next summer's The Avengers movie. Coming soon. To a theater near you.
Chris Evans is likable as both pre- and post- transformation Steve Rogers/Captain America, and the movie does a good job in laying down a lot of groundwork without becoming boring. Origin stories are tough to make informative enough to tell you critical information about the character, and still bring enough action to the film to keep it interesting. That he's surrounded by an excellent cast - notably Tommy Lee Jones as a gruff Army colonel (with some of the best lines in the film), and Hayley Atwell as love interest Peggy Carter - helps to keep the dialog entertaining and grounds Evans' character so he's not too "super" as to be unbelievable, given the time period and setting.
In order to avoid too many historical conflicts (or potentially demean real troops that fought in the war), and to give Cap something to do well-suited to his abilities, his goal is to bring down a fictitious secret Nazi weapons division called Hydra, headed up by Johann Schmidt, aka The Red Skull (played by Hugo Weaving). I was a little disappointed with Weaving's performance, since it seemed like he either didn't go over-the-top enough with it, or simply lacked enough screen time to make a lasting impression as a truly evil villain. But still, he was appropriately evil enough, and served the point of the story. While the idea of Cap going after Hydra was a good one, most of the battles between them were shown as a series of montages, and we don't get to see as much of Cap in action as I was hoping for. I suppose this was necessary given the film's run time of nearly two hours, but it would have been nice to see more of the fighting, since when he does cut loose, it's a lot of fun.
For much of the film, they managed to keep most of the technology decidedly 40's-looking, yet without looking too cheesy. It's a good balance, and helps set the proper tone of the movie, and makes the time period more believable. That said, some of Hyrda's weapons were decidedly a bit too futuristic looking. Maybe something a little more Flash Gordon-esque would have worked better, but then again, maybe that would have looked too cheesy.
The effect of digitally transplanting Chris Evan's head onto a scrawny body worked really well, and never fell into the "uncanny valley" that fake Jeff Bridges did in Tron: Legacy. In general, the special effects were all pretty good, especially since in many cases the whole point of them was to be completely transparent in re-creating various locations ca. 1943. It doesn't come across as a modern, effects-heavy film (although it is), and I think that helps to keep it planted in its time period.
What didn't work, was the 3-D conversion. In a word, it was terrible. Besides often being poorly done to the point of distraction, the whole film appeared very dark. I don't really feel I got to see the film, but rather a shadow of it. I'm tempted to go see it again in 2-D, just so I can watch the movie without being annoyed by bad, false depth-perception.
Still, despite the bad 3-D, I enjoyed Captain America* quite a lot. The time period, nods to movie serials and campy USO shows, the right amount of humor, solid acting and casting, some good action (although not quite enough), the inclusion of more Marvel characters (like The Howling Commandos and Howard Stark), all add up to a fun and satisfying superhero nostalgia trip.
Plus, it's way, way better than Green Lantern. Seriously. I think I should've given that one a 3/10.
Cap gets a 7.5/10
(But go see it in 2-D. Even if it's free in 3-D. )
* The First Avenger