American Cheese: The First Avenger (Spoilers)

I’ve spent pretty much my entire adolescence and “adulthood” obsessed with anime, so American comics are a pretty new fascination for me and, after reading Marvel’s Civil War, the dynamic between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is one of the concepts that interests me the most, even threatening to overtake my almost hive-minded love of Spider-Man (especially after the new remake’s teaser). So, of course, the instant the Iron Man films hinted at a larger Avengers universe, I was waiting with bated breath for Captain America to make his new silver screen debut. It didn’t at all hurt that all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been largely satisfying; I am not a fan of Hulk in the slightest and an avid misanthrope of little kids who adore Hulk for his strength and brutality, but 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (at least the first two thirds of it) is such a good sci-fi/fugitive film that I can’t help myself from watching it whenever it airs on cable. Thor is another of the classic Marvel heroes who doesn’t interest me at all (I always thought it odd that a universe centered around mutants and aliens and chemically-enhanced super-soldiers would randomly include a Norse god as a primary figure), but the Thor film that came out earlier this year is so remarkably done that it might even be my favorite so far. With Marvel’s track record going four for four, Captain America: The First Avenger was looking to be the latest in a lengthening string of mind-blowingly great movies.

However, while solid, The First Avenger doesn’t quite live up to its siblings’ reputation. It’s the first real origin story of the franchise since Iron Man (as Hulk begins in medias res and Thor’s powers are inborn), but rather than suggest that the acquisition of Steve Rogers’ powers bogs the movie down, I would argue that his journey from scrawny-but-scrappy Brooklyn “boy scout” to shield-wielding super-soldier is the most compelling and humanizing part of the film. I was initially put off by the size-reducing CG that was displayed in the trailers, but it didn’t bother me for long and only looks weird in scenes where little Steve is shirtless. It comes off as sort of cheesy when Dr. Erskine and Agent Carter try to convince Steve of his true worth, but Chris Evans’ portrayal of Rogers – especially during his exchanges with “Bucky” Barnes – gives off the vibe of watching an old-school WWII period piece rather than a ham-handed 90s superhero flick.

It’s a different story, however, when the scene shifts to follow the Red Skull’s exploits. The film opens with Johann Schmidt’s excursion to Norway (his brutal assault on the town sadly reminiscent of the Scandinavian nation’s recent tragedy) and, while HYDRA’s categorization as a Nazi science division ties the organization to a more realistic origin, their immediate procurement of the mysterious – and clearly mystical – power cube from the ending scene of Thor lets us know right off the bat that weird magical forces are going to be bleeding into our super-science. The Skull’s forces use weapons powered by the mystery cube’s energy, giving off an eerie blue glow and firing particularly devastating light rays (reminiscent of both Valkyria Chronicles‘ Ragnite and Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan) which appear to vaporize humans on contact and, honestly, the abundance of these laser guns in the film really tacks on a disappointingly cartoonish feel, like the violence of World War II has been sterilized by guns that leave no corpses behind.

The same can be said for Cap’s role as widely-accepted American hero. After the spectacular events of his transformation and Erskine’s assassination, the movie comes to a bit of a halt when Steve opts to become a cheesy costumed propagandist war mascot rather than a military lab rat. It’s understandable that this scene is used to strengthen Cap’s desire to become a real hero, but other than being worth some laughs, these scenes drain the film’s momentum and take time away from scenes that could have made the whole production much more impressive. And when he finally does come into his own as the real Captain America, most of the action is relegated to disconnected, wordless scenes of Cap and crew melodramatically storming into laser-guarded bases with the flying shield and Rogers’ fists serving as vanguard. Oh, and did I mention HYDRA’s traditional salute? It looks so comically ridiculous on screen that the entire theater laughed heartily whenever it was performed.

But, I think that’s enough out of me in the way of negativity, because the movie really did have a lot going for it. All of the actors performed their roles admirably and all of the jokes were on-point enough to keep the whole film rather lighthearted until the end. The appearances of Dum-Dum Dugan and the young Howard Stark were terrific crowd-pleasers and Bucky’s portrayal as a long-time friend and compatriot rather than a teenage sidekick gave a great deal more credence to the character. Agent Carter is quite the badass British bombshell and Hugo Weaving owns the Red Skull persona so completely that even the Skull’s freakish visage couldn’t break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Steve’s scenes chasing down Erskine’s killer through New York and infiltrating the HYDRA internment camp in a makeshift suit (a makeshift suit that I personally think looked both more period-accurate and more badass than the bulky finished product) were fantastic displays of classic Marvel heroism. Even Cap’s annoying habit of knocking enemies out rather than killing them (Erskine’s killer commits suicide with a cyanide pill and even the Red Skull is done in by the Asgardian power cube rather than his Star-Spangled arch-nemesis) are offset by later scenes of his tossing HYDRA agents out of a plane and punching one right into a spinning propeller, which are both quite satisfying (or maybe I’m just sadistic).

The events of his freezing and awakening will surprise no one acquainted with Marvel lore, but are delivered with a sufficient amount of drama and tragedy (remember that, when the reawakening scene was first penned, few enough years had passed that Steve could conceivably have visited some of his old friends in their sunset days, but – with now roughly seventy years since WWII – there is decidedly no hope that any of them will have survived this long) that the invincible Rogers is once again humanized by the end of the film and the post-credits Avengers teaser (which, by now, just about everyone has seen on YouTube) whets our collective appetite for Steve’s next adventure with a glimpse of an updated and more awesome-looking Captain America suit.

All in all, Captain America: The First Avenger is a solid and enjoyable movie that earns its place in the Marvel Cinematic lexicon. That said, however, I, unfortunately, will probably not be buying it on DVD (sad because I’d looked forward to having Iron Man and Cap side-by-side on my shelf) but it’s good enough that I’ll likely be checking out out when HBO and FX decide to air it ad nauseum for the Fourth of July.

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