2. Captain America: The First Avenger
Less of a superhero flick than a gleefully fun adventure film, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, Captain America is easily my second favorite Marvel movie. There is something about the serialized, cliffhanger adventure format that I can never get enough of, and Joe Johnston is just as adept as Steven Spielberg at pulling it off. His vision for Captain America is an endlessly fun and insightful one, an entertaining and thoughtful serial that makes me positively giddy whenever I watch the film.
Like Raiders, the 1940s setting is incredibly important to the story, and Johnston never treats the period as a simple gimmick. The 1940s were a time of true national unity, and that sense of strong American pride is the only context in which protagonist Steve Rogers can be fully understood. He may be small and asthmatic, but his heroism – quietly forceful in the beginning, big and bombastic in the end – defines an entire era of the American fighting spirit, and one of the smartest choices the film makes is to not turn Rogers into an overly dynamic character. Steve isn’t like Thor or Tony Stark; he isn’t plagued by arrogance or demons, and his journey is not one of personal betterment. He changes physically, but no matter how buff he becomes or how ridiculous a costume he wears, Steve is still Steve, from start to finish.
That means it’s more crucial than ever to define the protagonist as clearly and endearingly as possible from the very beginning. The period setting is a major part of that, but it’s Chris Evans’ terrific lead performance that really sells this character. He is every bit as good as Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth, but in more understated ways. It would be easy for Evans to play Cap as a happy-go-lucky stereotypical patriot, but that’s not the character. Rogers isn’t a patriot on a whim, but because he grows up in an environment that makes him believe helping his country is his only viable option in life, and that makes him a very sincere creation.
Once Rogers has the tools necessary to be the savior of his nation, Evans starts having lots of fun in the role, but he never forgets the character’s roots, and his performance is as honest in the end as it is in the beginning. Captain America has to be one of the harder superheroes to do well on the big screen, but everyone involved in bringing this character to life had exactly the right idea, creating a Cap whose warm heart also gives the film its vibrant soul.
Everything around him is equally well realized. The supporting cast – featuring excellent turns by Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hugo Weaving – is tremendous, the art direction lush and enveloping, and Alan Silvestri’s score stirringly reminiscent of John Williams’ best work. Johnston’s direction of action scenes is a particular highlight, especially once Captain America starts using his iconic shield.
The film is everything I want out of a standalone superhero adventure and more. It has a strong, unique sense of identity, treats its characters with gravity and insight, and is as boundlessly entertaining as any summer blockbuster in recent memory. It certainly plays to my particular tastes more than some people’s, but I think any viewer can invest in the film’s stupendous character work or exhilarating action.
Like Thor, this film was initially overlooked by many viewers, but I sincerely hope The Avengers has compelled some people to go back and give it a try. For my money, it’s the best of Marvel’s individual, non-Avengers efforts, and I look forward to seeing what future filmmakers will do with the character. The foundation could not be any stronger.
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