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Captain America: The First Avenger (3D Blu-ray Review)

4 Nov, 2011 By: John Latchem

Box Office $176.56 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo, $49.99 Blu-ray 3D combo
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of intense sci-fi violence.
Stars Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Dominic Cooper.

I’ve never really been a fan of Captain America. While I like the idea of a patriot-themed superhero, as well as his costume, I’ve always thought he had a lot of traits in common with other, better characters. And while his origin may have seemed fresh in the 1940s, the idea of a man gaining strength through an injection of a special drug has become rather dubious in today’s steroid-fueled sports environment.

So I was surprised I enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger so much. This is what a comic book movie should be: an epic adventure that never forgets its sense of fun, perfectly distilling the character’s comic book origin without overlooking his supporting cast. The result is the best superhero film since The Dark Knight.

We spend the first act getting to know a scrawny kid named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who just wants to contribute to America’s efforts fighting World War II. He gets his chance through an experimental serum developed by a German defector named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci).

The film seems oblivious to the steroid connection, but it’s able to skirt the issue by implying more of a genetic manipulation that has medical applications, as well as nobler motivations behind the use of the drug (hence a careful selection process to find the right candidate). Rogers is a hero not because of his abilities, but because of his attitude.

Erskine is soon killed by agents of a powerful Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt (played with relish by Hugo Weaving), code-named Red Skull after he was disfigured and rendered mad with ambition in an earlier test of the serum. The film takes great delight in establishing just how evil Red Skull is by having him declare that Hitler’s plans for world domination aren’t ambitious enough. Schmidt, who leads a Nazi sect called Hydra, has discovered an ancient energy source left over from Asgard’s incursions on Earth (as seen in Thor) and plans to use it to conquer the world.

These competing elements infuse the film with the motif that science and technology are tools that can be manipulated by the whims of those who would use it for good or evil.

Rogers wants to put his new abilities to work fighting Hydra, but the U.S. government decides he’s more valuable as a propaganda tool selling war bonds. He plays along, until his USO tour ends up in Italy, where he learns an Army division that includes his best friend has been captured by Hydra. After Rogers sneaks off to single-handedly rescue the POWs, he’s given command of a task force, the Howling Commandos, assigned with wiping out Hydra bases. This gives the second half of the film the feel of a Dirty Dozen type of war movie.

The film looks fantastic. Director Joe Johnston (no stranger to period superhero flicks, having directed The Rocketeer 20 years ago) has combined the vibrancy of a comic book splash page with the grittiness of a war movie, aided by a bold Alan Silvestri musical score, the composer’s best work in years. The film makes great use of its period setting, giving it a retro vibe akin to an Indiana Jones movie or a Bond film from the 1960s, as if a fantastical subplot were happening just off screen from the true-to-life settings of a Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan.

One aspect to the film that could have used some more development is the connection between Captain America and Red Skull as parallel creations of Dr. Erskine. Schmidt took the serum hoping to become the ideal Nazi superman, only to be horribly disfigured. Rogers, on the other hand, is the picturesque ideal of Hitler’s blond-haired, blue-eyed purity, given form in the ultimate weapon against Nazi supremacy. The film isn’t necessarily hurt by any such omissions, since Schmidt’s plan still pretty much threatens the whole world.

The application of 3D doesn’t really add much to the viewing experience since the movie is good enough to stand on its own without the gimmick. It’s becoming pretty evident that 3D’s main value is bolstering the entertainment value of substandard films, but can detract from better films that don’t need it. On the flip side, the effects seem a bit clunky in 2D because they were designed for 3D, but these aren’t even the ones that pop out the most.

This is the fifth film in the lead-up to 2012’s The Avengers, following The Incredible Hulk, Thor and two “Iron Man” movies. Captain America interweaves elements from all of them, helping congeal the Marvel films into a cohesive cinematic universe and building anticipation for Joss Whedon’s crossover. Captain America serves as a prequel to them all, and yet is a strong entry in its own right.

The film’s connection to The Avengers lets Johnston and his writers enhance the production with bits and pieces from other Marvel comic book mythologies to make it seem like this is all part of something bigger (unlike the very self-contained — and otherwise terrible — 1990 Captain America movie).

For those paying attention, Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark character is the father of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark from Iron Man, and was played as an older man by John Slattery in archive footage seen in Iron Man 2.

A number of extras tie into the greater Marvel universe, including the short film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, which gives Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson character a chance to display his action skills.

The Blu-ray also includes a good commentary with Johnston and his cinematographer and editor, who point out little details that are easy to miss, as well as several good behind-the-scenes featurettes and some interesting deleted and extended scenes, including a longer version of the Times Square meeting between Captain America and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.

The ball’s in your court now, Joss.

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