Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review - Captain America: The First Avenger

I want YOU to go see Captain America! The final pillar upon which Marvel will rest next summer's Avengers movie is terrific fun, putting a bright Cap (pun intended) on the Superhero Summer That Kept On Giving.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) may have the right heroic attitude Uncle Sam looks for in a soldier, but his scrawny 90-pound frame – a brilliantly achieved illusion that disguises Evans' truly beefy musculature for nearly the entire first act – disqualifies him at every attempt to enlist. German expatriate Dr. Abraham Erskine (the wonderfully warm Stanley Tucci) immediately recognizes the virtue of Rogers' dedication, and makes him the prime candidate for an experimental formula that should transform this playground punching bag into an ass-kicking Adonis. It works! But no sooner does Rogers' new bodywork emerge from the chamber than the last sample of the serum is stolen by an agent of Hydra, a Nazi R. & D. department headed by the maniacal Johann Schmidt, aka: Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the original test subject of Erskine's imperfected formula that left him grotesquely disfigured and all the more determined to personally attain Godlike power.

Now that Rogers is stranded as the first and only super-soldier of a would-be super-army, Col. Chester Phillips (a reliably grouchy Tommy Lee Jones) has no interest in bringing him out to the front. Instead, an opportunistic senator trusses him up as prize pony of the propaganda wagon, told in a snappy montage set to Alan Menken and David Zippel's “Star Spangled Man”, a gently satirical anthem that could tickle the Academy's music branch into nominating it for Best Original Song next February. Soon sick of the same old song and dance, Rogers takes his first chance to sneak behind enemy lines on a daring rescue mission, and Captain America, as we now him, is born.

More so than any of its 2011 superhero contemporaries, Captain America is a marvelously produced film. Rick Heinrichs' production design is richly evoked; from the cozy, sepia-tinted confines of the good Captain's base of operations to the steely, serpentine corridors of Hydra's sinister research facilities. Anna B. Sheppard, she with a proclivity for the WWII era, lends a credible meld of period authenticity and fantasy stylings to her costumes. Red Skull's makeup is appropriately evil-looking, but can only be as effective as the actor beneath it, and Hugo Weaving more than delivers with a juicy performance that's every bit as menacing as his ghastly visage promises.

Not all the acting is as strong. Evans is adequate as a quintessential good guy without much of an arc, but he and his leading lady (the beautiful Hayley Atwell) fail to conjure up much chemistry or make us care about their romantic subplot. Fortunately, this does little to diminish the thrill of director Joe Johnston's action or the good humour of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's script.

Marvel Studios ought to be commended for proving once again that they know how to treat their comic property on screen. With three sturdy tent poles in Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America (plus several other tributary characters), they've succeeded in raising my anticipation for 2012's The Avengers, something I once thought impossible. It's a shame that Captain America had to open just a week after the boy wizard's curtain call and just two weeks after those damned robots in disguise, who'll continue siphoning off box office dollars that Cap so very much deserves.

*** out of ****

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