Paramount // 2011 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 25th, 2011
"A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power." -- Dr. Abraham Erskine
In 1991, George Lucas/Steven Spielberg protégé Joe Johnston directed the retro superhero spectacle The Rocketeer. It should have been a major blockbuster on the strength of its rousing action, art deco beauty, and fine performances by Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly. Instead, it fizzled and is now only fondly remembered by a small cadre of movie nerds such as myself, who still think it's the bees knees.
Exactly 20 years later, Johnston delivered another gorgeous and entertaining retro superhero movie. Captain America: The First Avenger is the keystone to Marvel Studios' ambitious, franchise-spanning superhero team-up flick, The Avengers, to be released in the summer of 2012. It is also easily the finest of the movies in the Avengers line. Johnston's take on the superhero origin story has a depth, breadth, and scope that puts the Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor to shame.
Hewing closely to its hero's comic book origin, Captain America: The First Avenger begins (after a brief modern-day prologue) in March of 1942 as 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, The Losers) doggedly attempts to enlist in the army to join the fight overseas, only to be repeatedly classified 4F due to his asthma and other health issues. Rogers' determination and decency come to the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, Julie and Julia) of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, who is working on a super-soldier serum that might give the Allies a decisive advantage over Hitler. Erskine's first test subject, Rogers is successfully transformed into Captain America, a hulking fighting man who unabashedly wears the red, white, and blue. The super-soldier program comes to an abrupt end, though, when Erskine is murdered by a Nazi spy shortly after Rogers' transformation. Captain America is turned into a propaganda tool, touring America to sell bonds for the war effort.
While on a USO tour in Europe, Rogers steals the first opportunity to demonstrate his great worth in battle. Eventually, Cap teams with Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, The Duchess), weapons contractor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, Mamma Mia!), childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, Black Swan), and Dum Dum Doogan (Neal McDonough, Band of Brothers) and his howling commandos to take on Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix). The head of Hydra, Hitler's occultic research and development unit, Schmidt has discovered the tesseract cube, an enormously powerful relic of Norse mythology through which he seeks to conquer the world.
Despite the fact that Marvel Comics superheroes have flooded the silver screen since the massive box office success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man nearly a decade ago, Captain America: The First Avenger is the first that unflinchingly presents a true-blue hero, unmarred by self-doubt or moral confusion. As with his DC Comics analog, Superman, Cap was always dismissed as a superhero too virtuous for a successful feature film adaptation. Johnston and company prove that old saw wrong by grounding Steve Rogers' decency in the uncomplicated moral milieu of the Good War. Rogers is no boy scout, just a Brooklyn kid uncompromising in his determination to give his full measure to the war effort-he thinks it unjust that other men are required to put their lives on the line while he is not. Johnston's bear-hug embrace of Cap's character-defining moral compass makes Captain America: The First Avenger the most ebulliently entertaining comic book flick since Richard Donner's Superman (that's not to say that it's better than Christopher Nolan's Batman flicks or Zack Snyder's Watchmen -- it is not -- just that it's more unapologetically joyful).
As a comic book origin movie, Captain America: The First Avenger is aggressively playful. Each of the movies in Marvel's Avenger series has mixed action and comedy, but none so deftly as Captain America: The First Avenger. With a gently subversive touch, Johnston gives us Cap in his traditional costume, but in the context of a crass, propagandistic road show featuring our hero kissing babies, glad-handing senators, and doing musical numbers with dancing girls. It's a surprisingly funny sequence, rendered in period-appropriate montage. Meanwhile, the flick's action frequently feels like homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (a movie on which Johnston was an art director), what with its leather trench-coated fascists seeking powerful religious relics with which to turn the tide of the war. Captain America: The First Avenger also has the distinction of being the first Marvel Studios' movie in memory to have a compelling and satisfying third act. While Iron Man or Thor stumbled into let-down confrontations with disappointing villains, and The Incredible Hulk devolved into a mess of rubbery CG, Johnston's film delivers an epic battle aboard a sleek flying wing with some gritty combat (including a Hydra soldier liquefied by a propeller blade), global stakes, and an emotionally cathartic climax.
I was dubious about Marvel Studios' ambitious Avenger project (mostly because the Avengers set up shoehorned into Iron Man 2 ruined that flick). But Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun action-adventure spectacle that so thoroughly sets the stage for The Avengers that I'm actually looking forward to see Cap fight alongside Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk next summer.
Disc One of this three-disc set is a standard 2D Blu-ray presentation. Disc Two contains a 3D version. Disc Three delivers the film on DVD as well as a downloadable digital copy. If you have 3D gear or think you might invest in it in the future, you might as well grab this release just for the kicks. Just don't expect to be wowed. It's evident in every frame of Captain America: The First Avenger that Joe Johnston treated 3D as an afterthought, a gimmick he had to futz around with in order to keep his bosses at Marvel Studios happy. Nothing about the flick's visual design is improved by a 3D viewing experience.
Regardless of the number of dimensions in play, the movie looks superb in high definition. The 1080p/AVC transfer perfectly recreates Johnston's intentionally muted, at times almost sepia, color palette, while delivering a heap of gorgeous detail. Audio comes courtesy of a bombastic DTS-HD 7.1 surround track. Crisp, detailed, and beautifully imaged, the mix offers clean dialogue and superb sound effects.
The best of the relatively thin slate of extras is a fine commentary by Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson, and editor Jeffrey Ford. The disc also includes a half dozen decent making-of featurettes, and a teaser reel for The Avengers. Marvel One Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer (4:03) is a mildly humorous short film about S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson's brief encounter with a couple of armed robbers in a convenience store. Finally, there's a 5-minute reel of deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Johnston), and two trailers for the film.
Captain America: The First Avenger is two solid hours of summertime tent-pole fun. A steal for fans of the movie, this three-disc set is the perfect way to watch it at home. The high definition transfers are gorgeous, and for added value you get a standard definition version and a digital copy.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* 3D Version
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy