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Captain America: The First Avenger by Joe Johnston (dir), Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (wr)
Review by Drew Bittner
Paramount Pictures  
Date: 31 July 2011 /

In 1942, the Nazi war machine has overrun Europe. Their chief scientist is Johann Schmidt, also known as the Red Skull. To counter the Nazis' weird science, America needs a symbol--a super soldier. They need... Captain America.

Steve Rogers (Evans) is a sickly, undersized young man whose heart, courage and humble patriotism belong in a godlike body. He's tried to enlist--five times--and has been dubbed 4F, unfit for service. Frustrated and wanting only to do his part, and stand up to bullies wherever they are, Rogers won't quit--even when his best friend and newly minted G.I. Bucky Barnes (Stan) tells him he has to stop. One fateful evening, Rogers comes to the attention of Dr. Erskine (Tucci), who just might be the answer to Rogers's prayers.

Cast:
Chris Evans / Steve Rogers/Captain America
Hugo Weaving / Johann Schmidt/Red Skull
Hayley Atwell / Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan / James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes
Tommy Lee Jones / Col. Chester Phillips
Dominic Cooper / Howard Stark
Stanley Tucci / Dr. Abraham Erskine

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Red Skull's minions have attacked a Norwegian town to seize a glowing blue cube said to have belonged to Odin. With this unnatural power in his hands, the Skull and his Hydra lackeys (led by the estimable Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola) can build weapons beyond any power on Earth...and the Red Skull will rule the world.

Among a group of candidates, Rogers fails to impress Col. Phillips (a hilariously dry Tommy Lee Jones) but does wow Peggy Carter (Atwell), a young agent of the Strategic Science Reserve led by Erskine and his partner Howard Stark (Cooper). Carter is astounded by Rogers and sees the potential in him that makes heroes.

Soon enough, Rogers is subjected to an experiment that transforms the scrawny, pint-sized man into a tall, muscular powerhouse. An act of sabotage sends the soon-to-be soldier into action, pursuing a spy who's dealt the project a crippling blow. It's a great chance to see the nascent Cap in action, in lieu of yet another tiresome training montage, and Evans handles the physicality of the scene masterfully.

So the U.S. only has one super-soldier. What to do with him? Clad in a cheesy star-spangled costume and flanked by chorus girls, Rogers goes out to... sell war bonds. When a tour takes this road show to real troops in Italy, Rogers discovers his friend Bucky is in the Red Skull's weapons factory merely 30 miles away. Furious at being kept out of the fighting, he makes a one-man strike into enemy territory to save his friend.

And that's where things really get interesting.

The latest release from Marvel Studios, Captain America is a movie of simpler times and humble heroes. Given great power, Steve Rogers remains an aw shucks hero in the Jimmy Stewart mold; Evans does an incredible job of showing how this "kid from Brooklyn" keeps an even head, despite accomplishing the impossible over and over again. He embodies Captain America and is the kind of soldier a platoon would follow into Hell (and they do).

Atwell provides a strong, pre-feminist lead as Peggy Carter. She's not a damsel in distress or a wilting maiden; she grabs a gun and proves to be a deadly shot (even when she's just proving Cap's shield works). She gives the movie an emotional context that grounds the superheroics very neatly.

Weaving brings his A-game to the Red Skull, without echoing Agent Smith from the Matrix films or the haughty Elrond from Lord of the Rings (a role he's reprising in The Hobbit, by the way). The Red Skull is one of Marvel's greatest supervillains, the iconic opposite to Captain America, and Weaving makes the audience believe it. Equipped with fantastic technology, he makes the viewer believe he can conquer the world almost single-handed. If a hero is measured by his enemies, Weaving has certainly assured Cap of hero status.

As Cap's unlikely fathers, Tommy Lee Jones is at his most gruff and surly (which is saying something), while Stanley Tucci provides real heart as Abraham Erskine, co-creator of the process that makes Rogers near-superhuman. Tucci and Evans's scenes together are warm and embody what the movie is all about.

Dominic Cooper gives Howard Stark plenty of roguish charm, without stepping on how Robert Downey Jr. portrays his son Tony (aka Iron Man); he's glib and a bit of a mad scientist, for all that he has an eye for the ladies.

This is also the lead-in to 2012's release, The Avengers, so be sure to stay after the credits for the teaser to that movie.

How does Cap stack up? Okay, here's my view: better than Thor, almost as good as Iron Man and about the same level as X-Men: First Class. It's a heck of a movie, I liked it a lot (I saw it in a New York City theater that had no air conditioning and I didn't notice--make of that what you will).

Highly recommended.

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