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Posted: July 26, 2011

Dave on film: Make way for Captain America

A satisfying weakling-to-hero saga

Dave Taylor

Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

"Uncle Sam Wants You!" the posters insisted on wall after wall during the 1940s. But what if you were just too scrawny, too weak to pass the physical and join the military to fight for your country? That's the dilemma faced by Brooklyn weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who has gotten used to being bullied, but is remarkable for his willingness to endure any pummeling so as not to seem a coward. "I can take this all day" he says in one scene early in the movie.

Enter German-American scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who picks Rogers to join a squad of men he plans on turning into enhanced super soldiers for the US Army. Rogers struggles through the training but shows he has tremendous courage and the proverbial heart of gold and when it's time to test out Erskine's serum -- with a little help from Stark Industries and Iron Man grandfather Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) -- it's Rogers who is picked to go first.

Rogers emerges from the Frankenstein-like machine ripped and ready to defend his country, able to run lightning fast, swim deep into the water and with other terrifically enhanced capabilities. Helpful for fighting Nazis, for sure. Except Erskine's previous experiment was for the Germans and the result is the insane Johann Schmidt and his alter ego Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Good guy, meet bad guy.

Comic book action films live or die on their ability to weave the unbelievable (super powers) with the all-too-tangible. Setting it in the past makes it even more tricky because now you have to ensure you haven't gotten tripped up with more modern technology. Captain America does well in this regard, though there was a moment in the opening scene that struck a dissonant chord, until I realized that the film actually opens in contemporary day America, then jumps back 65 years to WWII America.

The other element of a good film is a love interest. In this case, it's the cool, beautiful Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). She's attracted to the compassion Rogers displays, but there's never a spark between them and later in the film when he's sacrificing himself for the greater good (in a scene reminiscent of the opening sequence in the 2010 Star Trek) his banter with Carter is unbelievable.

The bad guy is The Red Skull, and Hugo Weaving brings a certain evil energy to his role, but where the film needed a villain who was larger than life, complete with minions and mysterious weapons, he was too tame and proved not to be much of a challenge for Cap to overcome. Even his makeup seemed like it could have been improved and there were scenes where it was an obvious facial prosthesis.

I was also quite surprised by the role that Captain America's sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) had in the film. He's vital in the comic book series but in the movie he's almost invisible and has a far shorter time on screen than expected. Disappointing, as the film itself has such a strong story bias but the characters within the story are almost uniformly smaller than life when they needed to be larger than life.

It's a classic hero's journey that Rogers takes in the film, and I was pleasantly surprised at the scenes where he ends up a talking head for the War Bonds efforts rather than a super man fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Or was that some other comic book superhero I'm getting confused with?

Marvel Comics has been slowly but surely introducing filmgoers to the major comic book characters that comprise the crime fighting team The Avengers. That's where "The First Avenger" subtitle comes from. In addition to Captain America, the crew includes Iron Man (Tony Stark, as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Peter Parker, as portrayed by Tobey Maguire), Thor (as portrayed by Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (as portrayed by Edward Norton) and a bunch more who haven't had the privilege of their own films yet. Coming soon, a full-blown Avengers movie.

I enjoyed Iron Man and the mythos of Spider-Man but was distinctly lukewarm about Thor and thought The Incredible Hulk started out strong but collapsed as the film progressed. Captain America: The First Avenger stands up well to the comparison and offers a story with more human interest, a much more sympathetic and likable protagonist, and a logical explanation for his superpowers and his good vs. evil outlook. I'm a sucker for the era and the production team has done a splendid job of evoking mid-1940's America, from the World's Fair that Rogers and Bucky visit to the street scenes and street patter of Brooklyn earlier last century.

Even with the shortcomings of the film, the visual effects are generally excellent, Rogers weakling-to-hero story is satisfying and his gradual appreciation for the powers he's been granted made me want to have that Stark Industries Vita-Ray zap me, too. Overall, the movie is good fun and one of the best comic book films I've seen in years.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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