Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t a good movie, but it almost feels like one. The direction, courtesy of Joe Johnston, is efficient and competent, as are a great deal of the performances and the screenplay, but my contentment to, for lack of a better phrase, let Captain America have this one is more a matter of expectations. Captain America met my expectations of what a superhero movie should be, but it did nothing to hide the contentment of nearly everyone involved to do good enough, nothing more, nothing less; it also felt no need to mask the fact that it is, like Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, merely a wind-up for Joss Whedon’s upcoming The Avengers.
But credit where credit is due: One need look no further than the grossly over-praised X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern to know that good enough is hardly a given. So, when we first get a glimpse of Johnston’s nicely stylized 1940s, with its affinity for browns, dull greens, and yellows, it’s comforting to see that the director, who recently helmed the latest incarnation of The Wolfman, has, at the very least, convincingly rendered an unwavering sense of atmosphere and tone. In Germany, Our Boys are fighting against the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants nothing more than to get his licks in. Trouble is he’s a weakling, almost supernaturally scrawny, and thanks to some nifty CGI work, Evans’s dumb-guy-handsome face remains on the stick-like frame.
When innumerable attempts to enlist fail due to a weak heart, asthma, and several other debilitating conditions, Rogers finds a sliver of hope under the guidance of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who sees promise in the scrawny kid’s unyielding courage. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, including Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, a towering, wryly comic presence even in a largely inconsequential role), Erskine chooses Rogers for an experimental procedure that turns the bag of bones into a high-grade beefcake, capable of advanced battle techniques and super speed. Thus Captain America is born, ready to battle not only the Fuhrer but Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the mutated result of an earlier, unstable version of Erskine’s process with an army (Hydra) aiming to overthrow Hitler and, of course, the world with a futuristic yet quasi-mythological power source.
These tasks are put on hold, however, by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who take a long inhale between Rogers’s first big post-upgrade action scene and Captain America’s bombastic first encounter with Red Skull. Much of the time in between is spent on a dumb but enjoyable enough side plot aimed at the propaganda of war, involving Rogers donning the now-famous superhero outfit to hock war bonds across the nation. There’s a strong whiff of subversion, suggesting that the great heroes of the war were as imaginary as comic-book characters, but it’s not developed beyond a safe set of parameters. And soon enough we’re back to the explosions, chases, battle sequences, kickin’-ass montages, and pointless romantic subplots that we’ve come to expect from these movies, the latter of which comes in the form of Phillips’s right-hand woman, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
The final section of the film, following the death of a prominent supporting character, is particularly limp and feels like a mad dash to the final Inception-like roe between Red Skull and Captain America. The pacing becomes sloppy, hyperactive even, which I at least partially blame on the need for the film to include an astoundingly pointless postscript, meant to drum up excitement (read: publicity) for The Avengers, rather than make a solid, self-contained film. It’s an insulting ploy that damages what’s otherwise a perfectly entertaining popcorn flick, for reasons that begin and end with the fact that everyone and their mother is going to see The Avengers no matter what.
Johnston, who worked on the original Star Wars franchise before striking out on his own, knows this sort of filmmaking well enough, and his choreographing of action sequences is consistently admirable. But Captain America remains just a little north of passable in its almost impressive lack of ambition, though it never even touches the level of low-brow action-movie spectacle that made Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk such fun, exciting experiences. Captain America is largely fun too, but whereas there was a strong, competent component of character development and storytelling in both the aforementioned films, Captain America seems happier to tease half-assed satire and self-aware winks at the audience. It’s good enough, until you realize that good enough isn’t necessarily good.
First things first: The 3D rendering of Captain America on Blu-ray is, to be kind, less than great. It looks muddy, thanks largely to the purposefully dull colors that Joe Johnston uses throughout. On regular 2D, however, this is a largely successful, intermittently eye-popping 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Detailing is astounding, especially with faces, skin tones, and the textures on outfits and building facades. The entire transfer shows off a consistent clarity and, despite the dull colors, renders the color scheme crisply. Blacks are exceptionally stable and inky, and I can only report mild banding, in terms of faults. The audio portion is just as good and the 7.1 DTS-HD lossless soundtrack highlights the density of the sound design. Dialogue is out front, crisp and clear, while sound effects, atmosphere, and a variety of music, including Alan Silvestri's appropriately immense score and some choice jazz and rock tunes, mixes together near-perfectly in the back. It all sounds beautifully balanced and makes for a great visual/audio experience.
The commentary by Johnston, editor Jeffrey Ford, and DP Shelly Johnson is a nice listen, though not hugely captivating. It deals largely with technical issues, less with tales from the production and the history of the subject matter, which makes for an interesting listen, but not a wholly entertaining one. The smattering of featurettes deals more with the production and the history of the characters, including the casting of Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. All the featurettes, none of which clock in over 15 minutes, tackle their particular subjects with requisite attention and a sense of fun but don't add up to all that much. The deleted scenes are fun though, which is more than I can say for the short promo for The Avengers. Trailers are also included.
Joe Johnston's rendering of Marvel's Captain America is brisk and thoroughly entertaining, but is indicative of lowered expectations in its specific subgenre, despite looking excellent on Blu-ray.