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‘Captain America’ distinguishes himself

Posted: July 27, 2011 - 7:17pm

While the household-name superheroes are busy making their next franchise installments, this summer has been dedicated to the back-of-the-class heroes like the Green Lantern and Thor. The most familiar of these other comic book guys has just arrived in the form of “Captain America: The First Avenger.” And believe me, the word “first” is there for a reason.

Even though the good captain is bringing up the rear of the B-list pack, they may have saved the best for last. Not being overly familiar with the character going in, I was impressed to be presented with a genuine effort to give this guy a real story. This can’t be an easy task considering this is a character dressed in a big American flag and flinging a huge shield as his weapon.

But the movie makes some effort in giving such a preposterous idea some grounding. Of course, that doesn’t make it believable, but it does make it enjoyable. This is a good fantasy tale with a menacing villain and a hero you can really root for. It’s all over-the-top from the shootouts to the antagonist’s Nazi getup. But it couldn’t be the same fantasy if this wasn’t so.

The tone of this film is well fitted to the 1940s era it’s set in. The background colors and atmosphere alter as we go from city streets to war scenes. They do it in a way that allows someone who wasn’t there to imagine it in a really romanticized sort of way

A lot of that credit must go to director Joe Johnston. He’s done more than his share of period films and seems to be at his best in giving his characters depth when they’re of another era. Actor Chris Evans also deserves recognition for playing Captain America like a real person. It would have been easy for him to play it out in a superficial-or even a fake-manner, which is what he did in his first comic book outings in the disastrous “Fantastic Four” films.

Superficiality was expertly avoided when it could have been easy path since he starts out as a tiny, twiggy weakling with a heart of gold. He only gets to be the hero once a scientist uses a top-secret formula to make him a beefy super-hunk. Those tend to make good soldiers. I like that Captain America isn’t interested in being a hero or in his own improved physique. He just wants to be part of the Army he believes in. His top priority remains to be a good soldier when he feels more needs to be done. He’s not content to be a science experiment or a military mascot. I think this speaks a lot toward the super soldier’s motivations, especially since I’ll bet he’s paid more as a dancing mascot to rouse the public than he does on the front lines.

Of course, a true hero needs a great villain. Hugo Weaving takes on this role with glee as a Nazi commander who’s also gotten a taste of the super formula, gaining equal super strength. However, while it turned Captain America into a Gold’s Gym model, the bad guy gets relegated into a sunburned skeleton head. Ain’t that always the way?

Actually, Weaving looks much scarier in his normal appearance than as the Red Skull. “Captain America” pulls out all the stops in its supporting cast. Stanley Tucci shines as always as the scientist who creates the captain. One of my favorite scenes isn’t on the battlefield, but in an interrogation room. Tommy Lee Jones as a cocky military official has a battle of wills against Toby Jones’ nervous yet calculated demeanor.

What a thrill to see these two great Joneses show why they’re typecast.

If there’s the weak link in the cast, it’s the female lead. Hayley Atwell woodenly plays the obligatory love interest that every comic hero demands. She believes in his muscles and isn’t a very strong female lead for it. She looks more like the pin-up girls of the era rather than the high-ranking agent she’s supposed to be. She’s always impeccably dressed and her hair and make-up remain perfectly girly, even in hostile areas or if a fight is called for.

Another issue is the reason Captain America ends up where he does at the end isn’t really explained. You have to speculate from the events leading up to it.

By the way, those accustomed to superhero movies know to wait for a post-credits scene to set up another adventure. This has the first full trailer I’ve seen come afterward. Remember how the title calls him the “first avenger?”

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