Originally Reviewed – 8/18/2011
Famed Rotten Tomatoes contributor Mr. Taylor has been writing over and over again about the Superhero Overload of 2011 and, finally, I’m starting to feel the strain. So far this year, in the span of only eight months, we’ve seen five major superhero movies come out in theaters, the same amount as the last two years combined. In fact, we haven’t had a year like this since 2008, when there were a whopping eight movies released in the comic / superhero genre. Unlike that year, which was dominated by the universally praised The Dark Knight, the caped popcorn munchers of 2011 have all seen the same level of quality. While they’re all good enough movies, nothing has stood out as amazing, making the influx seem monotonous and one noted. Captain America: The First Avenger is the final big budget hero flick to hit theaters this summer and while it’s not a bad movie by any stretch, it’s not a particularly great one either and provides the final explosion filled flatline to a summer full of caped crusaders.
Staring Chris Evans as the shield wielding super soldier, Captain America tells the story of Steve Rogers, a Brooklyn based Army wannabe who supplements his wishey washey physique with a heart of gold. After applying and getting rejected for the armed forces multiple times, a scientist, played by Stanley Tucci, selects him for a secret government experiment that transforms him into the muscle bound Captain America. Up to this point the film is entertaining yet uninspiring but when the film takes an unexpected turn, taking on the notions of pro capitalist propaganda, the movie starts to show signs of life. The shift is awkward, but at least it’s different, providing plenty of 1940’s nostalgia and pompous energy. Unfortunately, about twenty minutes into this new thread, the movie shifts back to the type of action set pieces that’s dominated the genre for the last decade, inexplicably dropping the new plot point. While I get that director Joe Johnston needed to get to the action, the hamhanded way he goes about it makes the side track seem out of place and unnecessary.
Luckily, that was one of the few missteps made by Johnston as Captain America is a well directed action movie. Once Cap dons the uniform, he spends most of his time jumping on moving trains, saving scores of American POW’s and fighting laser gun toting villains dressed like the 1940’s version of The Gimp from Pulp Fiction. The action is fast, frenetic and is on par with the set pieces offered in the other Marvel films from this summer. One of my favorite aspects of the film, however, has to do the with the excellent art direction. Johnston took great pains to make sure the high technology would seem believable given the World War 2 setting and the result is a great blend of period elements and comic book pop. Much like Johnston’s other work in the Rocketeer and The Wolfman, the film has a great look to it, a very nice change from the standard dank cities we’re used to seeing in this style of movie.
Sadly, all the great action in the world can’t save a weak main character and this is where The First Avenger hits the skids. Despite an earnest performance by Evans, the character of Captain America doesn’t have an arc: he starts the film eager to help the world and ends up the exact same way. Just to make a relative comparison, consider other modern heroes: Batman in Nolan’s Dark Knight series learns to deal with his demons, Tony Stark learns humility in Iron Man and even Thor gains a touch of maturity, but Captain America stays strident and brave. While being a shining example of American bravado may work as a plot point, this limits the Captain’s growth as a character and that hurts the film immensely. Although it’s nice to see him get the brawn to go with the bravery, once that happens we’re left with seventy minutes of Captain America simply being awesome. Sure, there are some low points in the story of Steve Rogers’ fight against Nazi extremists but the core of the character never changes, creating a lead that’s not bad, just uninteresting.
The rest of the cast does a more than adequate job with the archetypical roles presented to them and you better believe that all the action flick stereotypes are firmly represented. You have the tough as nails love interest (Hayley Atwell), the curmudgeonly drill sergeant (Tommy Lee Jones), a young, vibrant Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and the wise scientist (Stanley Tucci). All of the cast members, while stuck in the confines of their roles, do a fine job with them, especially Tommy Lee Jones who gives off a sense of tough comedy as the US commander. The other notable performance is the one given by Hugo Weaving as the nefarious Red Skull, leader of the underground Nazi offshoot Hydra and the film’s main antagonist. Weaving is deliciously over the top as the crimson faced baddie, strutting in his M. Bison inspired uniform, chewing lines and bellowing in unintentionally hilarious close ups. Weaving plays the part with comic book gusto but, like most of the characters in the film, suffers from gross underdevelopment. Yes, he was fun to watch but again, not that interesting.
That, in fact, is best way one could sum up the Captain America experience. While the movie features an impressive visual style and some lightly entertaining action, the film meanders around mediocre, failing to provide an interesting protagonist or villain for audiences to latch onto. Like a loud Harley with a quarter tank of gas, the film has all the potential to be big, explosive and awesome yet quickly runs out of steam before reaching the finish. Easily the weakest of this year’s Marvel offerings, Captain America: First Avenger is worth a viewing for “Avengers Completeness” but falls a few strides short of the company’s previous efforts.
Also, one more note on my final score: walking out of the theater I was ready to give the movie a 70% but now, about one week later, my feelings have dropped a notch and it has nothing to do with acting, action or directing. To be perfectly honest, the Superhero Overload of 2011 has taken its toll and I’m now officially sick of the genre…that is, of course, until The Avengers comes out in 2012.
Score – 60%