The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Captain America: The First Avenger
Chris Evans stars as the red, white, and blue superhero

It's kind of surprising that Captain America hasn't had his own movie until now (excluding, of course, that super-cheesy 90s version). In light of the emergence of enemies who want to do our country harm, patriotism has taken on a level of societal importance not seen in decades. A red-white-and-blue superhero seems about perfect for this day and age. Captain America: The First Avenger actually takes place during World War II, but hits the right notes of modern all-American pride. If the whole is ultimately a little bit less than the sum of its parts, at least the movie gets right the idea that this hero was created to reflect the things that are great about the good old U.S. of A.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a short, skinny young man with asthma who tries to register for the draft multiple times, only to be repeatedly refused. A chance encounter with a scientist (Stanley Tucci) proves to be his big break. Steve is enlisted to be a guinea pig in an experiment designed to create a super-soldier. The procedure works, turning him into a taller, more muscular, and more durable version of himself. Despite his amazing abilities, his commanding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), is reluctant to use him in combat. Instead, Steve is put into a cheesy costume and sent out to sell war bonds. He eventually gets tired of this and launches his own mission to rescue some captive soldiers. This is sufficiently impressive that he is then asked to help fight Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. Red Skull, a Nazi intent on out-doing Hitler in the evil department. Steve also gets a better costume and a shield.

Without a doubt, the best thing about Captain America: The First Avenger is the tone it sets. This is a superhero origin story quite different from the others we've seen. The film makes great use of its period setting, drawing upon historical touchstones to give it a sense of authenticity. From the battle against Nazis, to the fear of destructive missiles, to the USO-style musical number Rogers must perform while hawking war bonds, the movie revels in the details. A lot of superhero flicks are set in present day, situated in modern cities. This one recreates a familiar past and then adds a layer of fantasy on top, giving it a really fresh feel that is entertaining throughout.

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) wisely doesn't overdo it in the action/special effects department. Those elements are certainly present and accounted for; he just refuses to let them swallow up everything else. In particular, the character arc of Steve Rogers remains front and center. He's a guy who desperately wants to serve his country, even if his country doesn't want him. When he finally gets the chance to fight a heinous enemy on America's behalf, it is something he's extremely proud of. He will even make personal sacrifices for his country's benefit. This idea runs throughout the picture, so that when action scenes and special effects do arrive, they seem to have an actual point beyond just providing thrills.

Chris Evans is very effective as Steve Rogers, and Tommy Lee Jones steals the show as Colonel Phillips, delivering cranky one-liners with gusto. The production design is marvelous, and the instrumental score from Alan Silvestri beautifully calls to mind all the classic patriotic marches.

In spite of these very good things, Captain America somehow never figures out how to assemble them into something great. It perpetually feels like it's on the edge of awesomeness, without ever quite getting there. A romance between Steve and a female officer (Hayley Atwell) feels perfunctory. The villain, Red Skull, looks cool, but never achieves the three-dimensionality that would have made him truly menacing. It also takes well over an hour for Steve Rogers to become the shield-wielding hero we know him as; at times, I felt a little impatient waiting for him to step into that role. Then there's the ending, or rather, the lack thereof. Captain America represents the final piece in a series leading up to next year's Avengers movie. The finale here is a bit cliffhanger-ish, which is disappointing. Even if the movie is leading to something else, it needs an ending that allows it to stand on its own.

Flawed though it may be, the stuff that works is solid enough to carry the things that don't. We've seen bad superhero stories this summer (I'm looking at you, Green Lantern). This one is certainly better than that; it just never gels into the top tier adventure it aspires to be. Then again, some pretty terrific groundwork has been laid for any potential sequels. Captain America: The First Avenger is ultimately worth seeing for its unique feel, period detail, and compelling central character. On those counts, it delivers the goods in a major way.

( out of four)

Note: Captain America is being released in 3D and 2D formats. I opted for 2D. The movie was post-converted to 3D; I saw the trailer in 3D and thought the effect was negligent. See it however you choose, but be aware that it looks magnificent in 2D, and there's really nothing here that an extra dimension would improve.

Captain America: The First Avenger is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.