Captain America: The First Avenger

There was for a short time a TV show called “The Swan.”  A group of women who were judged unattractive were given free cosmetic surgery and then competed in a post-surgical beauty contest.  It goes without saying the show attracted a fair amount of criticism for praying on the vulnerabilities of the contestants and selling a version of beauty promoted by the fashion and cosmetics industries.  The fact it aired for two seasons also says a great deal about a portion of the American publics’ obsession with beauty and physical perfection.  This week’s movie is about a young man who endures a painful procedure to go from being a scrawny asthmatic to a perfect physical specimen.  He doesn’t do it for looks and fame but to serve his country.  The question is, is “Captain America:  The First Avenger” a perfect cinematic specimen or should it go back under the knife for a little more work?

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 90-pound asthmatic who desperately wants to join the Army.  It’s 1942 and while every able-bodied young man is preparing to go to war, Steve is declared 4F the five times he’s tried to enlist.  His best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is about to deploy to England, so Steve decides to try one more time.  While explaining to Bucky why he wants to serve, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears the conversation.  Dr. Erskine is a German native who now lives in America and is working on a secret government project to create super soldiers.  Impressed with Steve’s good-heartedness, Dr. Erskine persuades a reluctant Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) to accept him into the project.  Aiding in the training and selection of the final applicant is British military officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) who befriends and begins to fall in love with Steve.  The night before the experiment, Dr. Erskine tells Steve about a former colleague back in Germany, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving).  Schmidt heads a group that does scientific research for the Nazis called Hydra.  Dr. Erskine was forced to attempt to create super soldiers for Hydra; but Schmidt tried the untested serum on himself with unexpected results.  Now known as the Red Skull, Schmidt has found an ancient device that contains massive amounts of energy.  With it, he plans on building bombs and weapons to wipe out the Allies as well as the Nazis.  Erskine tells Steve the serum amplifies not only a test subjects muscles, but his personality traits as well.  Schmidt became more evil and bent on world domination; but Erskine selected Steve because he knew it would enhance his innate goodness.  While painful, the procedure is a success, turning Steve Rogers into a tall, buff, strong, fast, super soldier.  A Nazi spy shoots Erskine immediately after the experiment ends, killing him.  Steve chases after the spy and captures him, saving a child in the process and becoming a hero to the public.  With Erskine dead, the project cannot proceed and Colonel Phillips wants Steve held in a lab for more tests.  Senator Brandt (Michael Brandon), who’s committee funded the project, uses Steve as a publicity tool to sell war bonds as a red, white and blue costumed character called Captain America; but when Bucky and hundreds of other soldiers are captured and used as slave labor in Schmidt’s weapons factory, Steve, with help from civilian weapons contractor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and Peggy, goes behind enemy lines alone to save his friend and prove he’s more than just a sideshow freak.

“Captain America:  The First Avenger” is an old-fashioned war movie.  Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Hollywood churned out dozens of films set in either the Pacific or European theatres of World War II with a single soldier or a small group of soldiers as the focus of the story.  The movie would follow him or them through the trials and tribulations of war, showing their successes and failures, and giving us a rousing conclusion as the hero or heroes defeated the enemy and won the day for truth, justice and the American Way.  This film follows that same formula to the letter, even with the ramping up of the title character and main villain with serums.  All the characters are locked into their stereotypical war movie parts as well.  We have the plucky underdog, the feisty heroine, the gruff but lovable father figure, the band of brothers in arms and the slimy, evil Nazis.  If it weren’t in color and loaded with computer generated images, you could easily think the film was made in the middle of the last century.  Of course, this is just another cog in the Marvel machine that will lead to next summer’s Avengers movie.

As an introduction to Captain America, it serves that purpose fairly well.  There is more story than usually present in a superhero movie.  We get a fair amount of background on the main characters and their motivations.  Chris Evans conveys Steve Rogers desire to serve as well as his bravery and dedication to his friends in both his digitally shrunken and chemically enhanced bodies.  It strikes me as a little ironic that Captain America is made into what Hitler and the Nazis strived for in their deluded goal of a perfect Aryan race.  He’s tall, muscular, athletically gifted, blond and handsome.  Dr. Mengele would have been proud.

The technique used to make Chris Evans look like a shrimp in the film’s early scenes is impressive.  There is nothing to give away that Evans isn’t really a rail thin, emaciated slip of a man.  His emergence from the pod used to transform him into what he really looks like is a reveal that works better than it should thanks to those earlier scenes.

What doesn’t work for me is the film’s overall tone.  It seems very by the book.  There are no surprises that make the audience sit up and take notice.  I also never felt all that wrapped up in the movie.  Some superhero flicks seem to reach from the screen and involve you in the action and the characters, much like the way “X-Men:  First Class” did earlier this summer.  “Captain America:  The First Avenger” didn’t do that for me.  While the film is entertaining, moves at a fairly brisk pace and has plenty of well done action scenes and special effects, it feels remote and a little clinical.  The film also has an odd mix of both period appropriate and modern looking technology.  The combination looks weird on screen and I found it more than a little jarring.  Another aspect of the movie that struck me as odd is the sudden development of war planning abilities by Captain America.  He enters the military as an untrained civilian but when pumped full of chemicals, suddenly is capable of designing attack strategies for complicated missions.  Dr. Erskine never mentioned anything like that.

“Captain America:  The First Avenger” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.  There are numerous fights on both large and small scales.  Captain America does the most damage with his shield, banging it into oncoming enemies or throwing it at them.  We see one character fall to his probable death but not hit the ground.  There is no foul language I recall.

Fans of the Marvel comics character will probably be satisfied with this big screen incarnation of Captain America.  It appears to stick fairly close to its source material and provides a decent launching point for the character to return in next summer’s “The Avengers,” which has a teaser trailer tacked on to the end of this movie’s credits.  While this film is technically well done, it lacks an emotional connection to the audience that keeps it from being a great superhero summer flick.

“Captain America:  The First Avenger” gets four guitars out of five.

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