Without question, 2011 was a big year for movie superheroes. Some of them were green, like "The Green Hornet" and "Green Lantern"; some of them were not, like "X-Men: First Class" and "Thor." Most of them proved forgettable, and some of them were actually pretty good, like "Captain America: The First Avenger."
In a Limited Edition Combo Pack, Paramount offer the movie in just about every format you can think of: high-definition Blu-ray 2-D, high-definition Blu-ray 3-D, standard-definition DVD, and standard-definition digital copy. There's everything here but the kitchen sink. No, wait. Is that a faucet I spy in the lower left-hand corner of the keep case, and a drain hole? I dunno; could be.
Captain America, the alter ego of Steve Rogers, first appeared in "Captain America Comics #1," March, 1941, published by Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel Comics). Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby created the Captain to fight against the atrocities of Nazism and later the Japanese Empire, which the Captain did throughout World War II and beyond, battling the evils of the world wherever he found them. As time went on, the Captain's popularity waned, only to return in the 1960's when he became a leading component of "The Avengers," the crime-fighting unit of superheroes that included "Iron Man," "The Incredible Hulk," "Thor," and others. Although I am not an aficionado of these comics, "Captain America: The First Avenger" seems to do a credible job providing us with a back story on the character as based on the sometimes conflicting comic-book accounts.
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (co-writers of "The Chronicles of Narnia" series) wrote the screenplay, and Joe Johnston ("The Rocketeer," "Jumanji," "October Sky") directed it. They do a good job making sure we don't get too bogged down in multiple characters or multiple plot lines, yet they ensure that we become involved with the personality of Captain America as much as in his derring-do. Using a mixture of good humor and serious action, they manage to create an adventure that young and old viewers alike can appreciate without their having to be comic-book fans in the first place. As a non-fan I enjoyed the picture; that's worth something in my book.
Anyway, as with most initial entries in a new superhero franchise, this one starts with an origin story, and as usual I enjoyed that first part of the proceedings best of all. We always have to find out where the superhero came from and how he became a superhero, and this origin story is better than most. It all begins (in flashback) in the early Forties, just as America enters the Second World War. Here, we meet a mad-scientist German colonel, Johann Schmidt (alias the Red Skull and ably played as the epitome of evil incarnate by Hugo Weaving), and his assistant, Dr. Zola (played by the underrated Toby Jones), who head up HYDRA, the Nazis' deep-science division. Schmidt has determined to get his hands on a powerful cube long ago taken from the god Odin's treasure room. He believes it can make him and presumably Germany invincible, although he seems really interested only in himself. Meanwhile, one of his head scientists, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, who took the part because he says he always wanted to do a German accent), has developed a serum that enhances one's muscles, reflexes, natural abilities, and mental inclinations to the ninth degree, and Schmidt has taken it, becoming almost superhuman in his physical prowess and almost delirious in his evilness. The fact that it has more than slightly altered his face seems of no concern to him. Now he wants that cube.
Enter Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), your stereotypical 98-pound weakling. Yes, it's really Chris Evans (Johnny Storm, the Human Torch in "Fantastic 4") as the scrawny kid, digitally altered in a most remarkable way. I honestly thought it was a double when I first saw the picture, but it's Evans all right. Rogers wants to join the army and help the war effort, but he's too small and puny, and the army rejects him. Now, re-enter Dr. Erskine, who has escaped Nazi Germany to work for the Americans and is looking for a candidate for his serum. He happens upon Rogers and admires his eagerness to serve his country; he also admires Rogers's innate goodness and knows he needs a decent, honest man, with real compassion, to experiment on. Remember, his serum enhances one's mental traits as well as one's muscles and reflexes. As a result, Erskine turns Rogers from a runt to a hunk, and a sensitive, thoughtful hunk at that.
However, I have to admit I enjoyed the story of the 98-lb. weakling more than that of his bigger, more-muscular counterpart. It was as though the serum increased Rogers's physique at the expense of his personality. The puny Steve had more charisma than the rather dull hunky Steve. Of course, this is a necessity of the plot development. The origin story centers on characterization; once that's over, the ensuing conflict focuses on action. So be it. Fortunately, director Johnston keeps the action moving along at a healthy pace.
I also liked the cast, the ones I've already mentioned and several others I would single out for special mention. Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter is a suitably strong heroine and romantic interest. Sebastian Stan is effective as Steve's stalwart best friend Bucky Barnes. Tommy Lee Jones turns in another funny-tough performance as Col. Chester Phillips, the head of America's anti-HYDRA forces; it may remind you of his work in "Men in Black." Dominic Cooper plays the dapper, billionaire entrepreneur Howard Stark, the father of Iron Man Tony Stark, Howard a character clearly modeled on the dapper, billionaire entrepreneur Howard Hughes. And Samuel L. Jackson shows up once again as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I also liked the movie's period look, one of its primary appeals. From cars to clothes to airplanes and architecture, the film's appearance is always a pleasure to the eye. Speaking of cars, I also liked the Red Skull's screaming automobile, a massive, open-top monster patterned on the Mercedes SSK and 540K Special Roadsters of the Thirties, only bigger and more imposing.
Sure, the film has a few drawbacks; there always are in a comic-book adaptation. For instance, the screenwriters had to take some liberties in adjusting the characters to fit into the current "Avengers" screen framework. Nevertheless, given that Captain America has himself evolved in his various comic-book incarnations over the past seventy years, as have most of his fictional colleagues, we can probably forgive the writers for any liberties they took. And we can overlook a lot of the exaggeration that inevitably accompanies a sci-fi/fantasy adventure. However, it's hard to explain how Rogers not only becomes bigger and stronger (that we accept) but with the infusion of the serum instantly learns how to use martial arts and how to fly an airplane. That seems a leap of faith even for a comic-book yarn.
Because Paramount made the film for both 2-D and 3-D release, one can see a few of the three-dimensional effects too obviously, like Captain America throwing his shield out toward the audience, but the filmmakers keep such effects to a grateful minimum. Overall, the movie makes a good watch; just be sure to follow it to the very end, meaning through the closing credits, for the usual "Avengers" tie-in scene.
Paramount's video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the movie to Blu-ray in its native aspect ratio, 2.35:1. The results look pretty much as I remember them from a theater, sometimes sharp, sometimes soft. The filmmakers shot the film on conventional 35 mm stock and digitally; then, they intentionally altered the color on the final print, dulling it and often giving it a sepia-toned look to draw one's attention to the period setting. Expect bright colors only on occasion, usually to represent the present day. The engineers also retain the film stock's natural grain, although it never makes itself too noticeable.
As we have come to expect from a modern action movie, the audio is half the fun. Here, Paramount use lossless 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio to do the soundtrack up in all its glory. It encircles the listener in surround sound, starting with an opening snowstorm, with deep, strong, taut bass, and a punchy transient impact. Of course, as you become caught up in the movie, you tend to forget the sound and take it for granted. Pay attention to it once in a while and appreciate how good it is.
Disc one of this three-disc Limited 3-D Edition contains the feature film in high definition, along with a number of bonus items. First up, there's an audio commentary by director Joe Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson, and editor Jeffry Ford. Next, there is a series of short featurettes in high def: "Marvel One Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer," about four minutes depicting another moment in the continuing saga of the Avengers; "Outfitting a Hero," eleven minutes on costuming the Captain in various scenes; "Howling Commandos," six minutes on the Captain's team, especially the character of Bucky; "Heightened Technology," six minutes on all the technological machines, devices, airplanes, and such; "The Transformation," nine minutes on the CGI change in Steve Rogers from scrawny Steve to brawny Steve; "Behind the Skull," ten minutes on the iconic villain portrayed by Hugo Weaving; "Captain America Origins," four minutes with "Captain America" co-creator Joe Simon; and "The Assembly Begins," two minutes on getting the various superheroes together for their "Avengers" movie.
Then we get four deleted scenes in high def totaling about five minutes, with optional commentary, which include an alternative ending. And after those, there are several trailers: two theatrical trailers, a game trailer, and an animated adventure trailer.
The extras on disc one conclude with seventeen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two presents the feature film in Blu-ray 3-D. For this, you'll need a full-HD 3-D television, compatible 3-D glasses, a Blu-ray 3-D player, a high-speed HDMI cable, and, possibly, a receiver that supports 3-D audio.
Disc three contains the feature film on DVD as well as on digital copy for transfer to Windows Media or iTunes. (Codes may not be valid after October 25, 2012.) The three discs come housed in a non Eco-case (thankfully) with an inner sleeve, the case further enclosed by an embossed light-cardboard slipcover.
Unlike many of the other superhero movies that arrived in 2011, "Captain America: The First Avenger" is good humored and uncomplicated. It concentrates on a single character, a single villain, a clear path to the present, and some excellent supporting performances. Because of its period atmosphere and its successful combination of characterization and action, it tops my list of best superhero films of the year.