MOVIE REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER-- 4 STARS

Author and former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw calls the men and women who grew up in the bleak Great Depression and went on to win World War II as adults at home and abroad the "Greatest Generation" of Americans in our country's history.  He's right.  They were cut from a different cloth than the Baby Boomers, Hippies, and Generation X and Y kids that followed.  Their courage, gumption, moral causes, ingenuity, productivity, and patriotism define their greatness and set them apart.  In that same vein, Captain America: The First Avenger sets itself apart from other summer adventures and comic book movies.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, we first meet Steve Rogers (a blonded Chris Evans, digitally puny at first and P90X-ed out later) as a scrawny 1942 Brooklyn young man who never backs down from a losing fight and longs to join the war effort with his best buddy, James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan).  His asthma and small frame have lead to five rejections to join the Army, until a German expatriate scientist working for the U.S. Army, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), sees the strong moral character inside of his small frame.  Steve becomes the perfect candidate for his top-secret "super-soldier" project.  In a daring experiment using a special serum developed by Erskine and powered by Howard Stark's technology (father of Iron Man Tony Stark, played by Dominic Cooper), Steve is dramatically transformed from wiry to beefy.

On the other side of the world, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), code-named Red Skull, is the sinister clandestine leader of the HYDRA, the Nazi deep science division.  He invades a small castle in Norway seeking the Norse myth of an item that is "the jewel of Odin's treasure room."  That item is the Cosmic Cube, briefly seen in the present-day in the post-credits scene after May's Thor.

The cube's untapped power enables Schmidt and his top scientist, Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the ability to engineer unmatched energy weapons that could turn the tide of the war.  HYDRA's growing threat enables Steve to get into some real action, instead of his unfortunate role as a tights-wearing USO figurehead.  Donning a spiffy uniform, a sidearm, and an indestructible shield, he seeks to become the difference maker working with Col. Phillips (a perfectly-case Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) to take down the menacing Red Skull.

Call it old-fashioned if you want but, directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji, andThe Wolfman), the film shines with outstanding 1940s period detail and patriotic action.  Even if subtle (and not-so-subtle) special effects are always around, solid old-school stunt work brings a great realism and physicality to scenes that otherwise could look too fake in other movies (yeah I'm talking to you, Michael Bay and Transformers).  The music, costumes, production design, and globe-trotting settings will have you feeling like you're watching an Indiana Jones movie.   That's great company to have.  Save your money and stick to 2D.  Cap's classic shield-throwing looks just fine in normal dimensions.

Written by the screenwriting duo behind the three Chronicles of Narnia films, Captain America: The First Avenger honorably lives up to its subject matter.  It does so with that attention to period detail and focusing on that titular good-hearted man of the "Greatest Generation" rising to the challenges before him.  Though Steve Rogers is a fictional comic book character created 70 years ago, he embodies the traits that made that generation great.

Lately, popular comic book films have revolved around anti-heroes and/or tortured souls who do not want or cannot handle the responsibilities and stresses of being a hero.  Steve Rogers rises up, with courage, for just that level of responsibility.  There's no quit, doubt, or moral dilemma within him.  Where other heroes just want a normal life and their troubles to go away, this guy constantly wants to do more.  You won't find a more grounded, selfless comic book movie hero like him, outside of Christopher Reeve's Superman.

The Captain America character stirs your patriotism in the audience as a guy you really root for to save the day and get the girl.  For all that, Captain America: The First Avenger is, far and away, the best comic book movie this summer and acts as an outstanding final springboard piece to Marvel's mega-event Avengers team-up next May.  Be sure to stay after the credits to see what potentially lies ahead!

LESSON #1: THOSE WHO ARE WEAK KNOW THE TRUE DEFINITION OF STRENGTH-- This is a great lesson spoken in the movie by Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine.  Powerful and strong men, those both righteous and cruel, don't understand what strength means because they have it or always have had it.  They don't know what it's like not to have it.  He says that those who are weak, like the scrawny Steve he is talking to, truly know what strength is because of the mental toughness they develop to overcome being commonly held back by strength above them.

LESSON #2: POWER CORRUPTS-- Much like classic heroes and villains, the Red Skull is the polar opposite to Captain America, yet tied by their changes from Erskine's serum.  The scientist outlines how the serum amplifies the qualities within the man.  Where Steve was a good man who became a great man of fine moral values, Johann Schmidt went from being a sinister man to a mad man.  The Cosmic Cube's endless power didn't help.

LESSON #3: STAYING A GOOD MAN-- Along the same path as power corrupting, too often we hear or read stories of athletes, celebrities, or political leaders from humble backgrounds who irrevocably change due to money, fame, and power.  They forget where they came from or the good people they used to be.  That doesn't happen to Steve.  While able to do things above and beyond his fellow soldier and common man, he retains the chivalrous, courageous, and heroic traits of that kid who won't back down from any challenge or bully.  Fame and power don't change him, rather it makes what he can accomplish only greater.