When I review a film, I like to sleep on it before I write it up. Sometimes that's not possible, such as a press screening the night before a film opens. But I think I'm a better reviewer once I've had a sleep on a movie - I find that it's easier for me to look at a film with that distance, and if in the morning I still like what I saw then it gets a positive review. Reviews of films right after seeing them tend to skew hyperbolic because I'm so eager to put down my thoughts and get them out. So you should take that into consideration when reading this. I'm under no time pressure to write this review, although I like to have my reviews out by opening day. But I really felt the need to share this one, because I'm just that excited over CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, which shoots to the upper levels of superhero films. In fact, I'll probably make bold statements throughout this review, like "It equals THE INCREDIBLES and SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in sheer filmic joy" or "CAPTAIN AMERICA is the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK of superhero movies." Again, take them how you like. I'm confident I'll feel the same way in the morning.
Does it have flaws? Yes, but they're minor ones, and most of them come from the fact that I could have stayed in that world a hell of a lot longer, and two hours simply wasn't enough. Joe Johnston has made a truly retro film, straight out of the Saturday matinees, and what's so wonderful about it is that it completely embraces its nature. CAPTAIN AMERICA means what it says - there's hardly any snark in the thing, and the humor is just as genuine and funny without it.
Chris Evans, like Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, completely embodies Steve Rogers, and he gets that character intrinsically right. So much so that I can't imagine anyone ever playing this role - Evans is Captain America, for all intents and purposes. Steve Rogers isn't just an Everyman; he's naive in many ways - I'm curious to know what he thought "fondue" was before Howard Stark explains it to him - and Evans embraces Rogers' nerdy nature. When Evans plays Steve Rogers as the skinny, scrawny man in the beginning of the film, he nails that aspect of Rogers - helpless, but so wanting to do good and help people. But if Evans didn't successfully show us the character's humble beginnings, his transformation wouldn't seem so genuine, but Evans utterly gets the character. When he plays Steve Rogers before the Super-Soldier serum and the VitaRays, he quietly commands the screen, even though his physical presence is slight. Kudos, also, to the special effects team that worked that particular bit of film magic - I stopped wondering how they did it about 30 seconds after seeing the effect and simply bought it.
Hugo Weaving is terrific as Johann Schmidt/the Red Skull, confident, wicked, and so gleefully evil even the Nazis want to hold him back. Toby Jones is good as Dr. Zola, Schmidt's toadie/scientist, and HYDRA beats COBRA all to hell, with their ray guns that decimate soldiers and their technology. The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Tommy Lee Jones on fire in this, adding much of the humor and just being as much of a badass as he was in THE FUGITIVE. Dominic Cooper delivers a funny performance as Howard Stark, and you can believe that he's Tony's dad. I loved Neal McDonough as "Dum Dum" Dugan, who can toss back a beer and then let blast with his shotgun. Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine is the film's conscience and very much the voice of Steve Rogers' inner ideals, and he turns in a heartfelt, moving performance. Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes is a departure from the comics - he's no plucky lad looking for adventure but a tough soldier who does the dirty work that Captain America can't do. Unfortunately this is one of those places in the film that I wanted to spend more time on - Bucky's in and out of the picture much too quickly for my liking. It will be interesting to see if this franchise follows Ed Brubaker's sotrylines, because I definitely would like to see more of Bucky in later films.
Hayley Atwell, as Peggy Carter, gives a truly wonderful performance, one rarely seen in these kinds of movies. She's no damsel in distress and she's never once rescued by Captain America in the film, except when he pushes her out of the way of a moving car, and even then she handles herself well. In fact, she pulls his rear out of the fire a couple of times. The relationship between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter is a truly believable romance. She learns to appreciate Rogers before he becomes the great soldier, and their relationship builds in a very charming, moving way. It's, in a word, sweet. I think CAPTAIN AMERICA isn't just for the guys - women will enjoy that Peggy is a well-rounded, heroic character and there's nothing forced in her and Rogers' romance.
The action of CAPTAIN AMERICA is decidedly old school - stuntmen, explosions, and although there's quite a bit of CGI it's mostly there to render backgrounds. There are action montages - the film spans several years - and everything is coherent and well-shot. The 3D is largely ineffectual - see it in 2D if possible. Other than a few sparks shooting at the screen and Cap's shield bouncing around, I found it to be mostly a distraction, and it muddles up the action. I was already engrossed in the story and didn't need the 3D confusing things.
The film is earnest in a way that very few films are now, and Joe Johnston knows how to put earnest on screen without seeming cloying or corny. THE ROCKETEER and OCTOBER SKY proved that, but with CAPTAIN AMERICA Johnston makes earnest seem cool. There is no place for cynicism in this world, and the more jaded and cynical audience members might peg this film as propaganda. I do not agree in any way shape or form - CAPTAIN AMERICA hearkens back to a truly simpler time, where the moral lines of good and evil were much easier to see, and one of the best things about the film is that in parts it genuinely feels like a film from that era. The filmic roots of CAPTAIN AMERICA run deep, and Johnston draws on all those great Saturday matinees, and even his experiences with THE ROCKETEER and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (he was that film's art director, and there are several callbacks to that film in CAPTAIN AMERICA which were quite fun to see). In fact, the ending scene, which we all knew was coming because we know where Captain America ends up, almost feels like it's a different film altogether and I could have actually done without it.
Again, you can take this any way you like. I didn't sleep on the movie, and I felt compelled to write about it upon coming out of the theater. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is one of the best films of the summer, and of the year. It's going to be cherished for many years to come, and I have no hesitation putting it with the other great films of the genre. Marvel Studios has built up THE AVENGERS, film by film, and have saved the best for last - CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is what going to the movies is all about.
P.S. I didn't get THE AVENGERS teaser at the end of my press screening. You should have heard the audience groan out in frustration over that piece of business. Those so-and-sos in Austin got it, though, and when I see this again, and I will, I better get it or there'll be hell to pay.