Tuesday, May 3, 2016

'Captain America: The First Avenger' is ode to 'the little guys' (retro-review)

As we Capheads and members of Team Cap get more and more pumped for Friday's release of "Captain America: Civil War," let's start from the beginning with this, my DVD review of "Captain America: The First Avenger." (Come back to CCC tomorrow for a "First Avenger" doubleheader: My review after I saw the film in the theaters and a follow-up review which was part of a series of taking a second critical look at the solo "Avengers" films leading up to May 4, 2012 release of the ensemble film.)

Nov. 8, 2011 — “What makes you so special?,” The Red Skull demands of Captain America after he and his fellow soldiers have invaded his lair.

“Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn,” is Cap’s earnest response.

And that one line from “Captain America: The First Avenger” is indeed what makes Cap so special.

Steve Rogers, despite being the only successful subject of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s Super Soldier Serum, sees himself as a regular guy.

His drive to be enlisted in the Army is what makes Erskine realize that Rogers would be the perfect candidate. Despite being rejected four times earlier because of his health issues and very small frame and despite it being illegal to falsify his Army enlistment papers, Rogers is determined to serve his country.

Watching “Captain America” for the third time recently (this time on DVD), I was able see even more clearly that it’s what makes Rogers tick that makes Cap such a compelling hero.

This same scrawny kid who can recall every nook and cranny where he was beat up in Brooklyn is the same man who later bravely leads other soldiers into the heart of Nazi Germany to bring down The Red Skull and his Hydra agents.

Like so many of the truly great superhero films, “Captain America” spends ample time for us getting acquainted with Steve Rogers long before he becames the hero he’s meant to be. Almost 37 minutes of the 2-plus hour film is dedicated to “skinny Steve.” There’s another 42 minutes of screen time before Rogers makes his first appearance as Captain America.

Director Joe Johnston discusses this in the commentary.

“The first act is where you have to set up who becomes Captain America, so … You have to love him as skinny Steve. He really doesn’t change emotionally or psychologically; he only changes physically,” the director says.

“Why me?,” Rogers asks Erskine the night before the Super Soldier injection procedure.

“I suppose that is the one question that matters,” Erskine says. “The serum amplifies everything that is inside. Good becomes great. Bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen – because a strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength. And compassion.”
Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) makes a toast with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)
before Rogers is injected with the Super Soldier Serum.
Erskine concludes by revealing that it’s what’s in Rogers’ heart and soul that will truly transform him into America’s Super Soldier:

“You will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

Captain America acknowledges the crowd after punching
"Adolf Hitler" in the jaw during a stage production to promote
selling war bonds.
Even as Erskine dies in Rogers’ arms after being shot by a Nazi traitor, the scientist’s last action is to once again remind Rogers is that it’s what’s inside that will make him a Super Solider. Erskine (movingly portrayed by Stanley Tucci) points at Rogers’ heart – and dies.

There’s no doubt Rogers is a good man with a decent heart. In his first mission, he goes AWOL from the propaganda musical used to sell war bonds because he knows he’s meant for greater things. Rogers is compelled to go into enemy territory to save his lifelong friend, James “Bucky” Barnes, who is now a prisoner of war.

There’s no more of the symbolic Captain America; Rogers is the real thing. Upon returning to camp with 400 POWs, Rogers turns himself into Col. Chester Phillips (the always delightful Tommy Lee Jones, who is appropriately grumpy here) for disciplinary action.

Capt. Steve Rogers is cheered after leading an unsanctioned
mission in which he rescued 400 POWs.
Phillips at one point was disappointed with Rogers because he says “I asked for an Army and all I got was you.” Having seen that Rogers is something special, Phillips declines to discipline the newly dubbed Captain America. (“I am looking for things beyond the physical,” Erskine earlier tells Phillips as he pleads his case for Rogers to be the Super Soldier test subject.)

One of the film’s producers expands on what make Rogers, and in turn, Cap, so captivating in the commentary: “He believes in what he believes in. You have to believe he believes – and you do every minute with Chris (Evans).”

I can’t say enough about what Evans brings to the character. I could go on and on and not nail it.

Evans is earnest with the way he portrays Rogers. It’s the right touch needed for someone who despite being called Captain America still only considers himself “just a kid from Brooklyn.”

Rogers could have an out-of-control ego after he gets an immediate promotion from private to captain and certainly as he wears patriotic fatigues and embodies the spirit of America’s fight for liberty.

But no — Rogers is an everyman, even more than any other superhero.
Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) leads the Howling Commandos into battle
as they take down a Hydra base.
The night before Rogers and the Howlin’ Commandos prepare for their first mission, Rogers asks Bucky if he’s ready to follow Captain America into the heat of battle.

No, Bucky says he’ll be going to war with Steve Rogers, who will be leading the charge, "that little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight."

Grade: A

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