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In 1942 SS officer Johann Schmidt, aka: The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) invades Tønsberg, Norway with his Nazi forces, and steals a mysterious cube he claims possesses untold power. He and his colleague Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) successfully harness the energy in the cube, and use it to produce powerful weapons for HYDRA, a super secret deep science branch of the Nazi forces. Meanwhile, in New York, a 98-pound asthmatic weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has his applications for armed forces service continuously rejected due to his physical shortcomings. During one of his attempted enlistments, Rogers is approached by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who sees great potential in him and allows him into his super-soldier program. In the program Rogers is put up against the best of the best by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and British special agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), both of whom remain unconvinced of the latent abilities Dr. Erskine insists make him the ideal candidate for the program.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor both represent expensive experiments on the part of Marvel Films. These films, both based on largely out-dated, and nominally popular (in a mainstream setting) characters, took huge chances with style, and even bigger chances in basically being elongated trailers for The Avengers. Iron Man proved this could be done, Iron Man 2 proved that perhaps it shouldn’t. I went into each film with a different mindset, expecting the worst from Kenneth Branagh’s take on Thor, and the best from Joe Johnston’s take on Captain America. In the end I was surprised by Thor, and disappointed by Captain America, which leaves my final opinion on both films sitting somewhere along the same level. Not surprisingly Captain America suffers from the same major shortcomings as every film in the Marvel movie universe, but it also manages plenty of unique positive achievements, mostly pertaining to style. The problems begin and end, in my opinion, with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script. Of course, given the fact that most of these movies seem to go into production without completed scripts, and feature about a thousand uncredited script doctors, I don’t blame Markus and McFeely directly. Instead I blame the Marvel machine, and the flimsy plot architectures it seems to harvest. To the script’s credit the first act of Captain America is really quite good. It successfully covers a lot of ground in a short time, and it finds a compelling, modern way to tell a story that remains true to the source material. Problems arise, as they did for Iron Man 2 and Thor, with the start of the second act.

The basis of the second act story, that of Cap’s rise from a symbol to a genuine hero, is fantastic in theory, and the first half of the film moves with incredible pace without losing important elements. The truly heroic stuff is given the narrative shaft, and when we finally get around to kicking ass and taking names the action feels more like an obligation than a reward. I never felt properly roused by any of the fighting despite the fact I was more than willing to root the hero. The moment Cap brings home the POWs, the film feels like it’s living on borrowed time, and that the plot has run its course to the proper climax. Every action cue after, right up to the climax, feels like an elongated teaser trailer for a sequel. I’d rather see a proper Captain America and the Howling Commandos movie instead (which apparently I will, someday). Captain America should’ve been either 40 minutes shorter to properly tease a sequel (or midquel in this case), or 20 minutes longer to properly develop our hero as a true super soldier (even if we’re just talking more elaborate action montages). The climax is a good enough action set-piece, and ends with a hard earned emotional punch, but the Red Skull element is a huge disappointment, as his plans are never effectively spelled out (he’s dropping tiny planes on American cities?), and worse, Captain America doesn’t even (spoiler) win the fight. There’s a frustrating mix of good and bad in the process of lining this film up with the greater Marvel continuity. The inclusion of Henry Stark (Dominic Cooper) works, and the SHIELD subplots that decimated Iron Man 2 are used only as bookends here. But funnily enough, the minimization of SHIELD’s presence in the film magnifies the uselessness of the SHIELD-heavy scenes. The coda is particularly awkward, and really, really should’ve been moved past the credits.

Captain America: The First Avenger
I was expecting the best from Captain America because the filmmakers had made the valuable decision to set the film almost entirely in the WWII era, which was a brave move based on the average returns on period-based superhero and fantasy films. One of these period-based comic book flops was The Rocketeer, and it was made by a Steven Spielberg protégé, and former ILM effects worker Joe Johnston. This was not lost upon the Marvel brass, who are always on the look out for interesting, yet cheap, directing talent. Johnston does his part as a director for hire, and captures the tone of a futurist-themed period with stylized photography, wistful camera movement, and fun production design. His action direction doesn’t quite reach expected levels (of the four Marvel Studio films Captain America has the weakest action), and some of his special effects work is iffy (the skinny Rogers effects work well enough, but the compositing shots are entirely unconvincing), but his work on both the dramatic and funny scenes is pretty great. Tonally speaking the film is nearly perfect. Structural defects plague the plot, and the imagery is occasionally silly, but there was so much that could’ve gone wrong in bringing such a gee-golly, old school concept to the big screen in this era of humourless, gritty superhero movies. Captain America is a Saturday morning serial through and through, from cheesy shades to gauche cliffhangers, and kooky ‘40s future tech. The characters manage to be true to their bases with just a hint of realistic edge, and comedy is an important and consistent element.

In Marvel Studios tradition the cast is largely perfect, and likely the whole production’s strongest contribution to the greater Marvel film universe. I’m pretty sure there was little question as to if Chris Evans being a nice fit for the character, but it’s still nice to see him living up to the expectations he set with Fantastic Four (a generally bad film he held above water), and Sunshine (the film that proved he could pull off a dramatic victory). Hugo Weaving was another no-brainer, and he manages to uncover the fun in one of Marvel’s most one-dimensional long-standing villains. Red Skull is a narrative weakness for the film, as he doesn’t have any kind of character arc, his attachment to the protagonist is coincidental at best, and his evil plans are roughly defined. But Weaving channels wicked charm, and embodies enough of a physical menace to verify the character’s threat. Tommy Lee Jones was also very much typecast as Col. Chester Phillips, but like Weaving brings his A-game, and steals every scene he touches. Next to Cap, he also has the best character arc, and is a better antagonist than Red Skull for much of the film. Female characters haven’t fared very well in any of the Marvel Studios films, outside of maybe Pepper Potts in the Iron Man. Peggy Carter is, by default, the strongest written Marvel movie universe woman since, and Hayley Atwell finds an incredibly effective subtlety for the character, who is both tough and tender without any histrionics. The film’s biggest hero, however, is Stanley Tucci, who brings amazing humanity to Dr. Abraham Erskine, despite only scant minutes of screen time. The moment he places his hand on Rogers to calm him during the super soldier process brings more emotional weight than anything else in the entire film.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Video


Captain America: The First Avenger comes to Blu-ray and it looks quite good in glorious 2D, 1080p, 2.35:1 video. Joe Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson aim for an interesting mix of old and new, and create a lighting scheme and palette that recall the tone and shade of classic ‘40s films, along with the softness of a modern digital HD picture. I was surprised when I first saw the film and realized the production hadn’t aimed for something akin to Saving Private Ryan, as Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski’s high contrast, desaturated and grainy 35mm images have basically become the defacto look of the era on film, but in the end I’m happy they didn’t go with the predictable, even if it does draw some unfortunate comparisons with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The high definition images offers a lot in the way of subtle hue differentiations that were all but entirely lost when I saw the film in theaters, though there’s still a lot of basic purity to the frame. The film’s ‘period’ palette, which is often either pseudo-sepia, or monochromatic in blue or silver tines, leads to some delightful highlights and tinting cues, especially the uber-blue of the Cosmic Cube’s powers, which cuts wonderfully against the browns of Hydra’s bases (this particular blue is amusing in that it’s more or less the only element that creates lens flairs). Red Skull’s red head is effectively contrasted with largely black and white backdrops several times as well. The palette is widened greatly during the musical USO scenes, which include many more warm elements, and look like a piece of period propaganda art come to life. Detail levels aren’t incredibly sharp due to the generally soft style of the film, and edges are often blown-out thanks to the lighting techniques. Still, there are plenty of busy backgrounds and costumes, and plenty of fine textures, despite smoothness taking technical precedence throughout most of the film,. The clarity and cleanliness of the image (there’s effectively no grain on the entire transfer) doesn’t do the sometimes wonky special effects any favours, but that’s not the transfer’s fault.

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There aren’t many surprises here, other than the fact that this track is tweaked a little more quiet than I’ve come to expect from the uncompressed DTS-HD tracks. I was forced to turn my amp up higher than average to make out all the dialogue. Perhaps it’s my system’s lack of the extra two channels in the 7.1 scale, but that’s never been an issue before. I’m suspicious that this may be a sign of compression. Once I found a pleasing volume level I was charmed by the punchy, aggressive mix, one which is very much in-keeping with what I heard in theaters. The mix’s greatest element is found in the noises created by the Cosmic Cube, including a low-level bass hum, and multi-channel abstract, swirling energy sounds. The ‘Vita-Chamber’ effects also wrap circularly around the room, and vibrate the LFE effectively as Rogers is transformed into the Übermensch. Battle scenes are big and boisterous, like sugar-coated versions of Saving Private Ryan’s more realist aural interpretations. The Vibranium shield in particular offers some interesting texture not found in similar battle mixes. The musical number at the center of the film is another source of stereo and surround joy, punctuated by cracking fireworks at the end, otherwise the music is a mixed bag in both technical and musical terms. In general composer Alan Silvestri hits the right notes (so to speak), but all too often his music sounds a whole lot like John Williams’ Superman score, and the emotional punch at the end of the film is largely muted by heavy melodic sentimentality. The more subtle underscore is left so quiet it’s practically missing entirely from some scenes, but the big, brassy numbers are represented loudly and warmly enough.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Extras


The special features begin with an audio commentary featuring director Joe Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson and editor Jeffrey Ford. The first thing I noticed is that Johnston doesn’t seem to have seen the 3D version of the film, which strikes me as odd. In fact there’s a general sense that Johnston is seeing the finished film for the first time. Generally speaking, however, this is a pleasant track, hampered by too much time spent on admiring the film, and a little too much discussion concerning the special effects. I didn’t learn a lot besides the fact that the filmmakers intended to imply that Zola had done things to Bucky before Cap rescues him, obviously implying a return as The Winter Soldier in a sequel (as if there was any question), but found the experience relatively entertaining. Next up is another ‘Marvel One-Shot’ featuring Agent Coulson of SHIELD (who actually doesn’t appear in this movie), entitled ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer’ (4:00, HD). This short picks up where the short on the Thor disc left off, with Coulson on his way to investigate Thor’s Hammer Mjölnir. Here the dry-witted agent takes down two armed robbers at a convenience store. That’s about it.

From here we move on to a series of behind the scenes featurettes, starting with ‘Outfitting a Hero’ (10:50, HD), which features director Joe Johnston, producers Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard and Louis D’Esposito, concept artist Ryan Meinerding, costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, actors Chris Evans and Dominic Cooper, suit modeler Patrick Whitaker, property master Barry Gibbs, visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsand, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and various Marvel staff like Joe Quesada, editors Ralph Maccio and Axel Alanso, and publisher Dan Buckly discussing the design of the film version of Captain America’s costume. It includes production design images, comparison images from the comics, and behind the scenes footage. ‘The Howling Commandos’ (6:10, HD) features Feige, Broussard, and actors Sebastian Stan, JJ Field, Bruno Ricci, Kenneth Choi, Derek Luke, Neal McDonough talking about bringing the iconic comic characters into the already busy film, including character’s comic book histories, the specifics of each actor’s part, and more behind the scenes footage.

Captain America: The First Avenger
‘Heightened Technology’ (5:40, HD) features the producers, Townsand, Gibbs, Evans, Cooper, vehicle designer Daniel Simon discussing the futurist technology prop, vehicle and HYDRA costume design, including more production design illustrations and behind the scenes footage. ‘The Transformation’ (8:50, HD) features the producers, Johnston, Townsand, Evans and his double Leander Deeny discussing the process of making an Adonis like Evans look like a 98 pound weakling via special effects, including some fun comparison shots. ‘Behind the Skull’ (10:20, HD) sees the same producers, writers, designers and Marvel types, along with Hugo Weaving and make-up designer David White discussing the process of designing the villain, hiring the right actor for the role, and both the practical and digital effects involved. ‘Captain America’s Origin’ (4:00, HD) features co-creator Joe Simon briefly discussing the history of the original character, including the fact that the round shield was designed in accordance with a lawsuit filed against the triangular shield, and footage of his family on the red carpet. ‘The Assembly Begins’ (1:50, HD) is another ad for the upcoming Avengers movie, and includes very little footage from the actual film.

The disc ends with four deleted/extended scenes (5:30, HD), three of which feature optional commentary with Johnston, Johnson and Ford (all of these scenes could easily be reinstated as far as I’m concerned), two trailers, a game trailer, and an Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes trailer.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Overall


Captain America: The First Avenger might be the most frustrating Marvel Studios solo production yet. Sometimes it’s brilliant, heart-felt, exciting, and perfectly character driven, but other times it’s missing important story elements, and is generally very unbalanced. I want to rate it highest among the five film collection, but if I’m going to be honest with myself it sits below Iron Man and Thor overall. In a different universe there’s a 140 minute cut that fills out the sloppy middle section, and includes a couple of simple explanations to make the last act make sense. Still, it’s an entertaining and unique take on the superhero film, and features some delightful performances. This Blu-ray release features an incredibly clean HD image, a slightly disappointing DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack (I’m still wondering if it was just my copy or system based on the averages set by Paramount’s DTS-HD tracks), and an assortment of fluffy, but mostly entertaining extras.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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