During the past decade Marvel Comics has spawned an impressive 22 major motion pictures about its seemingly endless stable of superheroes. Such enduring characters as the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, X-Men, Iron Man, Elektra, and others have had at least one turn (in some cases more than one) on the big screen.
Up until the past few weeks, however, one name was most conspicuous in its absence from this impressive list – Captain America. Created for comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the famous Nazi fighter made his colored-pages debut in March 1941, and the cover of that first issue left little doubt about the hero’s purpose because it shows him knocking out Adolph Hitler.
Since that first issue, the sales of Captain America comic books have surpassed 210 million copies in more than 72 countries. It is only fitting that in the year of his 70th birthday, Captain America has own big-screen film, and it’s a dandy.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” opens with the discovery of a huge aircraft almost completely embedded in polar ice. After using a torch to cut their way into the plane, the discoverers find a mysterious shield buried underneath the ice, and then the main story begins.
The year is 1943, and World War II is raging as more and more Americans sign up to fight for their country. One young man who desperately wants to become a soldier is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but the physical cards are stacked against him. In addition to weighing in at only 98 pounds, Steve has a number of health issues including asthma and high blood pressure, and he has suffered through scarlet fever and rheumatic fever to name just a few childhood ailments. Although he has tried to enlist in the Army a number of times, he’s never been able pass the physical. Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci).
Erskine is a scientist in possession of a very powerful serum capable of stimulating growth and greatly enhancing the strength of human beings. He has been looking for just the right person to benefit from his magical drug, and when he sees Steve at an Army recruiting station, he decides to choose him. He has the power to waive Steve’s physical exam, and the eager young soldier is assigned to the command of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).
As basic training begins, Col. Phillips addresses the new recruits with the following words: “Our goal is to create the best army in history, but every army starts with one man, and this week we will choose that man. He will be the first in a new breed of super soldiers. And they will personally escort Adolph Hitler to the gates of Hell.”
Because of his physical limitations, Steve struggles with the rigors of boot camp, but then the day arrives when Erskine performs his experiment on the young man, and Captain America is born. He ultimately leads the assault on a secret science division of the Nazi’s known as HYDRA under the leadership of the viciously and sadistically depraved Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who just happens to be one of Erskine’s experiments gone awry.
In the tradition of “Iron Man,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” is the epitome of what a comic book movie should be. It’s colorful, exciting, action-packed, adventurous, romantic, humorous, and just plain fun. Under the capable direction of Joe Johnston (“October Sky”) the film is a wonderful period piece as it nicely depicts the early 1940s with great costumes and outstanding sets and props. The street and bar scenes are particularly effective, and a very nice touch occurs early the film when Steve is sitting in a movie theater watching one of those classic Movietone newsreels that once preceded films before the theaters began showing 20 minutes of trailers and commercials. (Yes, those were the good old days.)
The action scenes in this film also are outstanding, and one motorcycle chase scene is something in which James Bond would have been proud to participate. And the beautifully choreographed fight sequences in which Captain American makes use of his shield as both a defense mechanism and a weapon are delightfully engaging because they have a real comic-book look to them.
Johnston managed to assemble a cast comprising some outstanding actors, and they all deliver excellent performances. Tucci is one of the best character actors in the business, and his portrayal of Erskine, complete with the German accent, is nothing short of wonderful.
Of course, it’s difficult to do much better than landing Academy Award winner Jones for a movie, and he is rare form here. In addition to delivering some great lines like the one about escorting Hitler to Hell, he has the privilege of offering up some to the film’s most humorous lines.
Weaving also is excellent in the role of the despicable Red Skull, and Hayley Atwell is charming as Agent Peggy Carter, who is both one of Steve’s superiors and his love interest. She and Evans have a nice chemistry, and you can feel the immediate attraction they have for one another.
Playing one of the Marvel superheroes is nothing new for Evans because he was the Human Torch in “The Fantastic Four,” but he really seems to revel in his role as the shield-wielding crusader in red, white, and blue. He’s not flashy, but he exudes the toughness and confidence that Captain America needs to carry out his mission. In the film’s production notes, Johnston explained what has given the character his staying power throughout the years.
“We get to know Steve Rogers as a character first—and I think that’s what’s made him such a phenomenon for 70 years. He doesn’t have any super powers per se—his powers are basically what the human body can do, but taken to a level of physical perfection. I have to say, that’s what appealed to me about the character and about doing a film. It’s about a guy who, in a matter of minutes, goes from a 98-pound weakling to the perfect human specimen. As such, Steve has all kinds of issues, both physical and psychological, and it’s very interesting for me to take those issues and explore them in a really good, really fast-paced action story.”
Also in the production notes, Evans offered a perceptive analysis of his character.
“Steve has a lot of shortcomings and still chooses not to become bitter or jaded about it. He’s a good, honest man, a noble man, and, as a result of those virtues, he’s given a gift. When he becomes Captain America, he’s able to balance his new life with his old set of morals. There is something about his ‘red, white and blue’ that made me feel like I wanted to be this guy. Chucking his shield to beat the bad guy was great, but truth be told, Captain America’s physical capabilities fell pretty low on the totem pole, when you look at some of the other abilities in the superhero world. What makes him appealing as a hero boils down to a number of things: he’s the guy you want to follow in to battle; he’s the guy you want to lead you, not because of his bravery or courageousness, but because he’s a good man and he would make sure you made it back.”
“Captain America: The First Avenger” (It gets a solid nine.) is one of the summer’s most entertaining films, and it offers terrific escape entertainment. I trust that we have not seen the last of him on the silver screen.