Captain America: The First Avenger
Feature Review by Jeff Harris; 3D Blu-ray Review by James Harvey

Just in time to save a limping summer movie season from annoying Bayformer robots and whiny pre-pubescent wizards, comes a true American hero and icon in Captain America: The First Avenger. This is the character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the 1940's, before a Marvel Comics brand even existed and the greatest generation read about this avenging hero in the trenches and foxholes of WWII.

While Bryan Singer felt it was important to compromise the integrity of Superman by making him a deadbeat dad canoodling with a committed Lois Lane, director Joe Johnston working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely , succeeds where Singer failed in properly depicting the main hero. This is not the so-called "realistic" Captain America of The Ultimates comics which display an arrogant and bullying Captain America who spouts ridiculous lines such as, "Do you think this letter on my forehead stands for France?" Here we get the Captain America we longed to see on screen for years, the young and sickly Steve Rogers (Evans) who becomes a super soldier not just from the enhanced serum formulated by Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine, but by his strength of character, moral fiber, and conviction.

Evans nails the role better than I could have hoped and expected. Unlike Ryan Reynolds’ disappointing turn as Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, Evans actually understands the importance of acting and playing a character as the character should be played. So there is no mugging or any of Evans’ usual comedic shtick here. Evans plays the role of Rogers straight. Does that make Rogers a bland, uninteresting cipher? I disagree. To have a character as determined and righteous as Rogers in this world of cynicism and antiheroes makes him that much more interesting. In speaking with Evans recently, he actually understands this. And in seeing Roger’s response about fighting and possibly killing on the field of battle, you also understand the conviction and determination of the character. But Evans still gives his Cap an affable quality when he espouses that he's still "just a kid from Brooklyn." It is the same strength of will of the Captain America character I’ve read about for years.

After Steve Rogers enlists in the Super Soldier program and becomes a jacked up uber-mensch, an agent of the nefarious organization known as HYDRA (Armitage) puts the kibosh on the possibility of any future applicants. This sidelines Rogers during the early parts of the war, since Col. Phillips (Jones) wanted a whole army and not just one super soldier. However, you can’t keep someone like Rogers away from a fight. Slumming through the war as a character in films and the USO tour, Rogers eventually finds himself in Europe and covertly inserts himself onto the battlefield in order to rescue his captive friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) from the imprisonment of HYDRA and their leader Johann Schmidt (Weaving, AKA the Red Skull. And so Captain America is born as he battles through HYDRA and the war along with his team of Howling Commandoes. Johnston generally has a mixed track record as a director. Thankfully, he channels the better parts of his filmography here, specifically his 1990’s classic, The Rocketeer. Johnston imparts a really classic, period action-adventure look and feel. Alan Silvestri’s score is one of the strongest to date for a comic book, superhero movie. By and large, scores for this type of film have been underwhelming and nearly non-existent. Silvestri offers a strong, patriotic fanfare while the music for the Iron Man, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk was generally lacking. One hopes that if Michael Giacchino does The Avengers score, he will be allowed to go crazy and deliver the most amazing superhero music score to end all superhero music scores, which we know Giacchino can do from his work on The Incredibles.

I was very happy with the romance between Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and Cap. It is very simple and the movie doesn’t bang you over the head with it, nor force any contrived love triangles or lame melodrama. The chemistry between Atwell and Evans, as well as the attraction, comes off incredibly well. Atwell is a smoldering, dark beauty and fortunately not a sickly stick figure.

The movie does fall short of perfection. It depicts a far too politically correct version of WWII where the Nazis in the story are replaced by the HYDRA organization. The only glimpse of Hitler is as a means of parody in the USO tour. A few too many loose ends are left untied. The ending is rather abrupt and not as emotionally devastating and tragic as one would want. The 3D conversion was clearly unnecessary, as it purposefully darkens the color of what should be a bright and lush looking picture. Why should we have to watch a rousing action-adventure picture such as this with sunglasses?

Besides Bucky really, the Howling Commandoes are all fairly one-note and pretty nondescript. Neal McDonough is the most disappointing as Dum Dum Dugan. I was very excited about Dugan being in the movie, but McDonough is not nearly salty enough to play a guy who wears a bowler hat and ridiculous mustache into battle named Dum Dum Dugan.

Hugo Weaving totally nails the Red Skull. The movie does an effective job of avoiding the typical parallel heroes/villain origin story like the Spider-Man movie trilogy or the 1989 Batman. In this story, Schmidt is already the Red Skull and Professor Erskine connects the dots in a short, but effective sequence. The build to Schmidt's big reveal is fantastic, as Johnston teases us in a sequence where Schmidt is having his portrait done while speaking with Arnim Zola. We only see Skull in the dark or a silhouette in the scene that stops just short of showing the audience Skull's ugly red mug. The big payoff comes later on when Captain America first meets Skull face to face. From there, Johnston once again teases us with a showdown between Cap and Red Skull, but saves the big finish for later. The battle definitely delivers.

Overall, Captain America turned out to be far better than I ever could have hoped. This is a much better film than The Incredible Hulk and even Thor, which turned out to be quite the hit. I'd say it also far surpasses Iron Man 2, which I also liked a lot. I only wish Green Lantern was nearly this well done.

--JH

A big movie deserves a big Blu-ray release and Paramount Home Entertainment has delivered that. While not on par with their previous Marvel releases, such as the amazing Iron Man Blu-ray, this disc easily surpasses the studio's last effort with Thor.

Looking at the audio/visual components first, Paramount has given Captain America: The First Adventure a pretty stunning hi-def transfer. The 1080p transfer seems to nicely reproduce the period, soft look of the film without sacrificing clarity. Yes, there are times when the screen looks soft, but that is obviously by design, as evident by the film's color scheme. Detail and textures still remain pretty amazing, and the colors nice, though the scheme does result in some slight issues with noise and banding. But it's slight and hardly noticeable. Once you see the film, you'll understand. Moving on to the audio, well, it's likely some of Paramount's best work to date. It's a great DTS-HD Master 7.1 mix that flawlessly balances loud, epic moments with quiet scenes without skipping a beat. Very, very impressive.

To quickly note, the 3D transfer is nothing to right home about. While the picture quality remains fine, though slightly below the regular 2D tranafer, the 3D effects are typically substandard, not a surprise given the fact this movie was a post-coverted 3D release. Stick to the 2D release for this Blu-ray title.

Moving on to the bonus features, a nice selection is offered. The amount falls short of Paramount's work on the Iron Man releases, but is somewhat more in-depth than the recent Thor title. Up first is an enjoyable though pretty standard audio commentary with director Joe Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson, and editor Jeffrey Ford. The commentary covers everything, from camera and special effects techniques to comic homages and cast performances. It covers all the bases, and then some, but never rises above a standard (though enjoyable) track.

Continuing, the majority of the remaining content is made up of 50-ish minutes worth of featurettes tackling different production aspects of the film, including stuff like character and set design, the transformation of Steve Rogers into Captain America, a closer look at the Red Skull, the supporting casr, and the film’s comic book roots. The featurettes seem provide plenty of detail and interesting insight, but I do feel they are lacking just a bit. A bit more time spent on each aspect of the film-making would have been nice, though the audio commentary does truly cover a vast majority of the film's production.

The deleted scenes run nearly five minutes and don't include anything that really needed to be left in the film. Everything seems fine as is. However, I have noticed a few scenes in the trailers are absent from both the film and the deleted scenes, so there seems to be a bit more content, at least alternate takes, still tucked away.

Also included on the Captain America: The First Avenger Blu-ray is a roughly four-minute movie short "Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer." The short film spotlighting Agent Coulson - the recurring S.H.I.E.L.D agent from the Marvel Studios films - getting mixed up in a store robbery while on the way to...well...Thor's hammer. It’s an enjoyable four-minute clip like the one featured on the Thor Blu-ray, but doesn’t leave any type of lasting impression. It's a fun lark, that's all..

Also of note is the nearly two-minute trailer plugging the 2012 The Avengers theatrical film featuring a mix of footage from previous Marvel films with the The Avengers tease from Captain America: The First Avenger.

The release is wrapped up with a collection of trailers – including an excellent trailer for the second season of the great The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon – and both a digital and DVD copy of Captain America: The First Avenger.

All in all, Paramount Home Entertainment has put together a solid Blu-ray release for Captain America: The First Avenger, the second-best super-hero movie this summer. Yes, film reviewer Greg Bishanky may not agree (read his review of the feature above) with that, but it's an exciting romp that nicely evokes the period and stays true to the Marvel character's origin. As a super-hero flick, only X-Men: First Class exceeded this film in quality during the Summer 2011 movie season. Actually, compared to the summer season as a whole, this film was easily one of the tops. It's a good old-fashioned adventure with plenty of heart and a nice dose of action - it's just great stuff. Not perfect by any means, but exciting nonetheless. The studio deserves a solid pat on the back for the excellent audio/transfer and nice collection of bonus features. Yes, they could've easily included more, but what's here is good. Captain America: The First Avenger is definitely an excellent adventure that would make a fine addition to any home video collection - especially for comic fans!

--JH

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