While DC parent company Warners works hard to alter their esteemed Comic Book properties to work them into the moviegoing mainstream, their Distinguished Competition at Marvel Studios is going a completely different and unique way... keeping the characters largely intact and celebrating the very things that made the characters great in the first place.
Case in Point: Captain America: The First Avenger, the best retelling ever of the Sentinel of Liberty (outside of the printed page itself) told so far, ironically taking very few "liberties" with the source material. Instead, Marvel Comics' earliest flagship character is given the deluxe treatment by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen "Touchy" McFeely whose adaptation assimilates a number of the seventy years of retellings of the Origin of Captain America since the great, great Jack "King" Kirby and Joe Simon created the great guy way back in those halcyon days between yore and yesteryear we like to call World War II!
And the choice of Joe Johnston (director of both Effects-Heavy super adventures like Jumanji, groovy period pieces like October Sky, not to mention that super-heroic combination of both, The Rocketeer) for the helm shows that Marvel (and distributor Paramount) are serious about bringing the fictional history of the man with the star-spangled shield to life.
The good news is that the resulting film is one of the best comic book adaptations out there, when one considers the many years amalgamated into these one hundred twenty-one minutes! For those who take issue with what they've seen in the previews... chill out. Oh, he's not wearing his traditional Spandex costume? Oh really? Watch the movie, kids! Oh, his headgear isn't right... he never wore a helmet like that? Yeah? Ever see the cover to Captain America Comics #1? Yeah, yeah, yeah, Sparky... there... it... is! There's a long history here, folks, that goes way beyond the collection you picked up at the Borders Books closeout sale, way before mighty Stan "The Man" Lee revived old "Flag Butt" in the 1960s and years before there even WAS a "Marvel Comics" company! Yep! Simon and Kirby's best-known character was created before all of that... for Timely Comics... so have a Coke and a Smile and Shut Up!
After a promising and appetizing opening, the film-proper kicks off, as it should, in the 1940s where young Steve Rogers (a digitally shrunken and occasionally body-doubled Chris Evans) is proving himself to be a true patriot, wanting nothing more than to defend his country (and the little guys) against those racist Nazi bullies over in the war-torn European Theatre! The only problem is that Steve is a little guy himself and is, sadly, bully-fodder himself. So what happens when the most genuinely, legitimately heroic American out there is prevented from becoming the great Super Soldier he knows he is inside? Well, it looks like he keeps trying and trying as the war passes him by and even his best buddy and sidekick James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) gets shipped off to fight.
Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who, along with Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), is heading up a super-secret military program to create the perfect warrior. Seeing not only post-treatment military potential in Steve and a true heart-of-gold, un-tempted by power, Erskine pushes for the scrawny kid to undergo the treatment to become, in real life, CAPTAIN AMERICA!!! It's amazing to watch what happens when the man who has dreamed his entire life of being a hero is FORCED to become that hero immediately and RUNS into the challenge.
But it won't be unopposed... The scariest freak force under Hitler happens to be a terrifying super research group known as HYDRA, led by the frightening Johann "The Red Skull" Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) and his smarmy little Doctor-in-Residence Arnim Zola (Toby Jones)!
Johnston does a remarkable job of bringing to life a very well-imagined and period-accurate war piece with even the Red, White and Blue Hero proving himself to be believable and realistic as not only a leader but a symbol. There are times that Captain America: The First Avenger can be so inspiring the audience could be equally moved to tears or to stand up with cheers! The unwinding yarn becomes so thrilling and engrossing in its period-accurate excitement that it feels quite bizarre when 9 MMs and classic rifles give way to laser guns and super tanks. Still, with very few exceptions, Johnston makes the script work and it feels like a classic combination of the comic book, James Bond and the cool retro-future imagery that has become popular over the years.
Also welcome are the many nods back to the Comic History itself. Yes, Avengers co-creator Stan Lee makes his cameo and, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) pops up to bring all of this together, but the hits and surprises keep on coming! From an appearance by the groovy Cosmic Cube to involvement from one Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Even that old badge-shaped shield makes an appearance before the super-Frisbee pops up!
But one of the most surprising inclusions here is that of The Howling Commandos! After all, with Nick Fury firmly set in the future, who better but Captain America to lead the Howling Commandos when it's time to send them in???
This team is just one example of how well-cast the film is. From the beautiful Hayley Atwell to the convincing Stanley Tucci to Hugo Weaving who takes a character that could so easily become over-the-top and delivers a chilling, nuanced performance, this film has the best actors to bring to life this well-told tale. And that is a surprise to write, considering the fact that I was as skeptical as anyone about the casting of the leading man. However, Chris Evans proves himself to be the right choice for this role! Absent is the cocky, goofy Chris Evans we've seen in his previous comical comic book capers like The Losers, Fantastic Four and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Instead we get an earnest Chris Evans who brings only the appropriate amount of humor to the role, balancing the innocence and good heart of his character with the action and tough fighting skills that he earns without ever falling into lame, jingoistic parody-patriotism. In short, from the beginning to the end, Chris Evans IS Steve Rogers, the red, the white and the blue! Bravo!
In the late 1970s an acclaimed director named Donner was hired to film a script by acclaimed writer Puzo, called Superman: The Movie and he made us believe a Man could Fly by bringing to the screen the very things that made the Comic Book great... not by minimizing them. Now, on the other side of the spectrum, Marvel is doing just that... hiring the best people possible, like Vaughn, Favreau, Branagh, Whedon and, yes, McFeely, Markus and Johnston to interpret the best of the comics, not to replace them. And the results, like Captain America: The First Avenger, are, thus far, at once accurate, great fun and good films in their own right. As for this one, let's give it Four and one half Stars out of Five! Yes, folks, this is one of the best. Better than any of the other Captain America adaptations, from the silly seventies TV flicks to the 1940s serials to the... well, folks, don't get me started on that strange Turkey from Turkey known colloquially as "Captain America and Santo Vs. Spider-Man". Let's hope we're all Shielded from THAT one! See you in the next reel!