By this point, I think we're all well aware of the effort Marvel Studios is doing in coordination with Paramount and Universal to line up all the pieces on the cinematic chess board ahead of the upcoming Avengers movie in 2012. For me, one of the last components to see a big-screen interpretation was its most intriguing, that of Captain America (or the unnecessarily long Captain America: The First Avenger). The casting for the character seemed to be an ideal choice, but what turns the story would take would prove to be the most interesting.
The Joe Simon/Jack Kirby comic was adapted into a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) and directed by Joe Johnston (The Wolfman). Chris Evans (no stranger to roles in comic book action hero films himself based on his appearance in the Fantastic Four movies) plays the title role, a proverbial 98 pound weakling in Steve Rogers whose list of chronic illnesses is only matched by his heart and desire to fight the Nazis in World War II. With the help of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, Easy A) and his science, Rogers gets the chance to inherit superhuman strength and agility, along with a now-bulky torso. Over the reservations of Peggy (Hayley Atwell, The Duchess) and Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, No Country For Old Men), Rogers is used as a promotional tool for a tour to generate money for war bonds. Soon, even Rogers finds this newfound celebrity unfulfilling, and takes initiative during a European tour to help rescue some members of Philips' company, including Rogers' best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan, Black Swan). Rogers eventually runs into Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), the head of HYDRA, a militant arm of Hitler's Nazi Germany and a former test subject of Erskine's. The Skull is after a mysterious cube (called the Tesseract) filled with a technology that, if in the wrong hands could change the world for the worse, and Rogers attempts to stop him before it's too late.
One of the first things you will notice as you watch Captain America: The First Avenger is the origin story designed to set up the character is a bit longer than most. There has been some minor grumbling that the origins run a bit too long, but I think this complaint misses the forest for the trees, though there is a stipulation that should be made. With Captain America, the origin takes a large bulk of the film, however I think the motivations for doing this are twofold. First, it helps provide a maximum of investment by the viewer into the story, which Johnston does rather convincingly. You watch Rogers' transformation from short runt into tall stud and combined with the computer effects to "shrink" Evans, you buy into. Rogers' journey being made credible is a big leap, and since I'm on the topic, I think his journey is the thing that is going to help provide the bulk of the emotional element to the upcoming Avengers film. I have no insight into how Joss Whedon is going to handle the story and characters, but what Rogers endures after his physical transformation and the sacrifices made (some of which are exhibited by him in moments through the film) help set up what may provide to be some good internal conflict down the road. I know it's kind of a dick move to actually have to wait for that payoff, but I think the reason why we're in the 1940s for as long as we are in the film is going to prove to be a wise decision.
It helps that Johnston's experience with other franchises (like Jurassic Park) and icons helps gives him the chance to help explore the pre-Cap Rogers effectively. He develops personally impactful friendships like the one Erskine strikes up with him, along with a flirtation with Peggy that develops over the course of the film. Having not been familiar with Atwell's work before I was struck by how right her look was for the time the story is set in. From the visuals alone her and Evans look great, and on the performance aspect both are adequate in not letting the story collapse around them. As far as the villain goes, Weaving with a German inflection is a bit odd, to the point where it almost sounds like a drunk Pierce Brosnan (it's the best way I can put it). However, he approaches his character as one that is much like Rogers and he says as much, and for the era he conveys the Red Skull's intellect rather well. Red Skull is supported by Dr. Arnim Zola, played by Toby Jones (The Rite) who portrays Zola's initial mild reluctance well. As Phillips, Tommy Lee Jones is at his most Tommy Lee Jones-like, and for this film that's a good thing.
Overall, I enjoyed the immersion into the era that Captain America: The First Avenger takes you back into and perhaps just as important, to the era that his character might experience in this upcoming superhero Ocean's Eleven of sorts. The performances are capable and Johnston's vision is convincing, and it makes for entertaining viewing regardless of what Marvel was going to do next with the character. Even as a superhero film it's better than I expected it to be and well worth your time.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Captain America: The First Avenger is presented in an AVC-encoded 2.35:1 BD-50 that looks fantastic. From the facial imperfections to the individual hairs in Tucci's wig, image detail is abundant throughout the film, however it is not consistent, which is the only thing really holding the disc back. It is mentioned in the commentary that some color timing was done for some of the exteriors early on, but it wouldn't surprise me to find out they were doing it for most of the pre-transformation shots that included Evans. When dealing with the more vivid red, white and blues surrounding the Cap's PR tour, the colors look vivid and have little to no bleeding. Blacks are deep and remain so during the film. All in all, the disc is great to look at.
A 7.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track rules the day for the feature, and the results are equally stunning. Dialogue is strong in the center channel and requires little in the way of adjustment, directional effects and channel panning are ample throughout, whether it's bullets during a gun battle or Captain America's shield thrown at enemies. Subwoofer activity is just as abundant and starts virtually from the outset, when a HYDRA tank invades an old Norwegian home. Quieter moments like driving through traffic or when Steve and Bucky watch an exhibit from a guy named Howard Stark include ambient effects that combined with everything else, result in a powerful yet immersive soundtrack.
Paramount has rolled out two different sets of Blu-ray discs for Captain America, with include a 3D disc (as this one does), or you can go for the regular Blu-ray set (which has a better cover in my opinion). Both sets include standard definition and digital copy versions of the film to do what you wish with, but both sets also include the same extras.
Things start with a commentary from Johnston, Director of Photography Shelly Johnson and Editor Jeffrey Ford. The trio is recorded together and they have a jovial tone to them, though their general content is more technical based than anecdotal. They point out scenes that have CG effects or not and talk about what was done for them, and the challenges of shooting a pre-Captain Evans, along with other production hurdles. There is lots of watching of the film between the group and what technical content is here is a tad underwhelming, and the result is a semi-worthwhile complement to the film. Following this is "Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Thor's Hammer" (4:03), where Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulson and has appeared in many of the Avengers character films, gets a short where he prevents a gas station robbery. It's quick and funny.
Following that are a series of six featurettes. "Outfitting a Hero" (10:52) examines how the crew managed to create a modern yet retro outfit for the Captain America character, discussing the practicalities of each, and incorporate many test stills and film. The Captain's shield is also mentioned and the transition from a medieval "triangle" shape to the one he has now. "Howling Commandos" (6:07) looks at the supporting cast in the film, while "Heightened Technology" (5:43) shows us some of the aircraft, weapons and devices, and getting them to look realistic for the times, along with a small glimpse as to the HYDRA soldiers. "The Transformation" (8:50) is where we see Evans shrunken down to wimp size and covers the process of doing so, and shows us ample "Before and After" footage along with interviews with Evans. "Behind the Skull" (10:24) is the same general piece, though focusing on Weaving's character, of course, and adapting the comic look for the big screen. "Captain America's Origin" (3:55) includes Simon's recollections on the comic, while "The Assembly Begins" (1:46) is a quick montage of film on set from The Avengers. Four deleted and extended scenes (5:32) follow, and four trailers (two of which are for the film) round the disc out.
Captain America: The First Avenger effectively maintains the balance between paying enough attention to its protagonist's past and future, and the story combined with Johnston's visuals that show us the past, make it one of the better origin stories out there for a comic book hero. Technically the disc is top notch, though it does leave a little to be desired on the supplemental side of things. Definitely worth checking out even if you have not paid attention to the Marvel strategy, and a must-view if you have.