Recently, Marvel Comics decided to maintain creative control over the properties they hadn't sold the film options to various studios, like X-Men and Spider-Man. In the last three years, in tandem with Paramount Pictures, Marvel's produced film versions of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man (two installments so far) and the aformentioned Thor and Captain America. Further, they've made all these pictures part of a shared fictional universe, where characters from one film -usually either Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) or Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury- pop up in another.
Now, I'm not that crazy about various fictional characters sharing the same space. It can be fun sometimes -several writers have done amusing and inventive takes on Sherlock Holmes battling Dracula, for example- but other times, it kind of kills the suspense. If The Hulk gets crushed by a giant robot, no problem. Thor, who's just as strong (and a Norse God to boot!), can take out the robot himself. All of this is just my way of admitting I'm not looking forward to next summer's Avengers film, where all these superheros get together and that I've been pretty much underwhelmed by the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor films. I like Robert Downey Jr., but I really can't stand his Tony Stark character and the stories in his Iron Man films. And Thor was just plain dumb.
But Captain America: The First Avenger is a different kettle of fish. In part due to it's setting, the movie is practically a throwback to the old Saturday Matinee serials of the 30s and 40s. Bookended by two sequences set in the present day that braket the film (which I'll discuss later), CA:TFA is mostly set during World War II. The film opens in 1942, where Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer working for Adolf Hitler's HYDRA organization makes off with the mythical "tesseract" (or "cosmic cube" as it was called in the comics) in Norway. Meanwhile in NYC, skinny weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) unsuccessfully tries over and over to enlist in the Armed Forces, despite the advice of his best friend Army Sgt. James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan). A chance encounter with a certain Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) results in Rogers getting recruited in a military-run "Super Soldier" program run by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
Long story short, Rogers gets injected with Erskine's Super Soldier formula, which transforms him into a super strong physical giant with heightened reflexes. But Erskine, whose previous test subject had been Johann Schmidt (back when Erskine was forced to work for the Nazis), is brutally murdered by a HYDRA agent, who subsequently kills himself after Rogers captures him. Colonel Phillps decides that since Erskine's formula can't be reproduced, the Super Soldier program is kaput and Rogers -now clad in a gaudy costume and calling himself Captain America as he performs in bond drives and USO shows- resigns himself with his situation. Until a year later, when he discovers that Bucky and his regiment were captured in Italy by HYDRA, led by Schmidt, now known as The Red Skull. That's when Rogers finally gets to show his stuff!
What follows is one great action sequence after another, as Rogers outwits the Skull (whose plans for the tesseract involve taking over the world -for himself, not Hitler and the other Axis powers) time and again. With the combined help of Bucky, Peggy, Col. Phillips, playboy inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper; yep, he's playing Tony Stark's dad) and a multi-national commando squad (fans of Marvel's WWII "Sgt. Fury" comic will recognize those guys), Rogers discovers the extent of the Skull's plans. But will he succeed? And at what cost to himself?
The cast, especially Jones, Tucci, Weaving and Toby Jones (as Nazi scientist Arnim Zola), all give strong and sincere performances. Chris Evans is properly heroic as Rogers but thankfully lacks the snide condescending attitude seen from the lead actors in Iron Man and Thor. You're with him for the whole ride.And Hayley Atwell is solid and sexy as an ahead-of-her-time action heroine.
The various attacks on the Skull's many lairs are right out of an old serial, with cliffhanger situations one after the other. The Skull even has a "flying wing" aircraft like the ones seen in the 1937 Dick Tracy and the 1942 Spy Smasher serials. The final assault on the Skull's moutaintop headquarters in the well staged climax (as well as the previous sequence set in Italy whan Rogers rescues Bucky) is also reminiscent of a 60s James Bond film. Futuristic-looking lair, henchmen army, death rays, US soldiers to the rescue... If you know your action adventure film genre, you'll love this movie.
But remember those scenes set in the present day that I mentioned? Well, without giving too much away, they set things up for both the upcoming Avengers film and future Captain America sequels set in the current century. They also, to me anyway, act as buzzkill, especially after enjoying this wonderfully exuberant film's main storyline.
The DVD, which features audio commentary by director Joe Johnston (who slips a few details about possible plotlines for sequels) can be reserved from us by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!