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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

November 4th, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack

The Avengers is truly a rare case. While franchise crossovers have happened in the past, it's very rare for a movie franchise to be created with the intent of creating a crossover. Granted, Hulk and Iron Man made their theatrical debuts before The Avengers was given the green light, but Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were made specifically with the other franchises in mind. It's a daring plan, but is the latest installment a promising sign for next year's main event?

The Movie

The film begins in the Arctic with some men from Washington arriving at a site. A massive object was found by some Russian oil workers and no one is quite sure what it is. They are able to breach the hull with a drilling laser and while two men start exploring they find a round shield with a star in the center and some red, white, and blue strips. The higher rank officer knows exactly what they've found.

Flash back to 1942 to Tonsberg, Norway. Johann Schmidt, a high ranking Nazi officer and a member of H.Y.D.R.A., has come to this small village looking for an object of legend. Something most modern men dismiss as superstition. After he threatens to kill the children of the village, the guardian of the of the object hands it over, only to to have Schmidt give the order to destroy the town anyway. Before Schmidt kills him, the guardian warns Schmidt that the object is too powerful for humans, and he won't be able to control it.

Next we arrive in New York City at an army recruitment office with Steve Rogers eagerly awaiting his chance to serve his country. His dad died while in the military (he was part of the 107th Infantry) and his mother died while working as a nurse in a TB ward. Unfortunately, he has just about every medical aliment out there that would render him unfit to serve and he's rejected, again. He decides to take in a movie, but when someone starts yelling at the projector to skip the news on the war and go right to the cartoon, Steve tells him to shut up, only to be pummelled by this bully. Fortunately, Bucky Barnes, Steve's friend, is there to save him. Bucky has some bad news and some good news. Bucky's shipping out, but he's got them dates for tonight's world's fair.

Steve's not that interested in his date, nor is his date all that interested in him. So when he sees another Army Recruitment center, he tries his luck again. Bucky tries to talk him out of it, suggesting Steve just wants to enlist because Steve wants to prove he's a man. When Steve instead gives an impassioned speech that he just wants to do his share. Millions of men are risking their lives every day, the least he could do is join them. Abraham Erskine, a scientist with the Strategic Scientific Reserve, overhears this and when he learns Steve has tried to enlist five times, he's impressed with this and for Steve's reasons for wanting to go to war, so he uses his sway to allow him to enlist.

Back in Germany, Johann Schmidt is working with Dr. Armin Zola in order to harness the power of the artifact found. It seems to have worked.

Back in basic training, Peggy Carter and Chester Philips are training the men Abraham Erskine has selected for his new program and this includes Steve Rogers. Chester thinks Steve Rogers is a bit of a joke, but Abraham thinks he's the best candidate for the Super-Soldier program, because what he lacks in physical prowess, he more than makes up with intelligence and courage. And as he explains to Steve later, "...a weak man knows the value of strength. And knows compassion."

The next day Steve Rogers is set to undergo the procedure and it works. That's the good news. The bad news is that Johann Schmidt has found Abraham Erskine. Abraham Erskine had developed the Super-Soldier Serum when he was back in Germany and Johann Schmidt demanded to be the first test subject. It had worked before, but there were side-effects. Now Johann Schmidt knows that if he can perfect the serum, then the resulting soldiers would be a threat to his plans. In order to prevent that, he managed to get a spy into the very testing chamber, who destroys the apparatus used to transform Steve Rogers, kill Abraham Erskine and run off with the last vial of the serum. Steve is able to capture him, but apart from a, "Heil Hydra!" he is unable to get any useful information from him.

Since there's only one super soldier, the military thinks Steve Rogers's too valuable to put on the front line, but he's perfect as a recruiting tool and for selling war bonds. There's only so much of that he can do and, when he learns Bucky's unit, the 107th Infantry, was destroyed in a battle with H.Y.D.R.A., he decides to mount a rescue mission, solo if he has to. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark fly him behind enemy lines where he parachutes down...

At this point I'm going to interrupt the plot summary to point out, we are about an hour into the movie and we are finally getting to our first really big action scene. Sure, Steve Rogers chased down the H.Y.D.R.A. spy much earlier, but that was a foot chase. This is the first time we've seen real fighting for extended periods. Normally, having such a long delay would kill an action film. However, this is not a problem, as the film can thrive on the quality of the characters.

After an epic battle, one in which Steve Rogers rescues Bucky Barnes, Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi, James Montgomery Falsworth and Jacques Dernier, Steve Rogers forms a crack unit dedicated to taking down H.Y.D.R.A. They are able to do serious damage to H.Y.D.R.A.'s operation, constantly delaying Johann Schmidt's final plan. That's when they set their sights on Johann Schmidt himself, but in order to do that, they'll need to capture Dr. Armin Zola to get vital information from him.

This is where we run into some major spoilers, so I'll stop the plot there.

Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor opened within ten weeks of each other. They earned nearly identical reviews. They opened with nearly identical opening weekends and finished within $5 million of each other at the domestic box office. The easiest way to review the movie is to say, if you liked Thor, then chances are you will like Captain America as well. It has many of the same strengths, including strong action scenes. In fact, I would argue that this film's action scenes are better staged than Thor's were. There certainly was never a problem with a scene being too dark to follow the action. The character of Steve Rogers is a lot more compelling than a lot of other super heroes, Thor included, because he's a lot more relatable. In fact, he's a lot more relatable as Steve Rogers than he is as Captain America. On the other hand, I think Thor had better humor and the redemption story meant the character became more engaging as the film went along. Also, the supporting cast in Thor was better, because they were more developed. (Plus they had Kat Dennings, and she's always a plus.)

Captain America also shares some of the same weaknesses. For instance, it's an origins story; so much of the movie is spent telling how Steve Rogers became Captain America that we don't have enough to time to get to know the super hero and the Howling Commandos are barely there. Fortunately, there will be sequels that can flesh out those characters more. I can almost guarantee the sequels will look at the battles that were fought in montage form in this movie. There are some problems common to all prequels. Firstly, we know how it ends and who survives. We know Captain America will be alive in the end and we know that since this movie takes place 65 to 70 years ago, none of the rest of the characters will be. The journey is compelling enough that these flaws are not really damaging to the overall film.

The Extras

Extras on the DVD start with an audio commentary track with the director, Joe Johnston; the D.P., Shelly Johnson; and the editor, Jeffrey Ford. It's a technical track, but there's good energy and quite lively. The next extra is a short film called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer, which tells the story of what happened to Agent Coulson while traveling to New Mexico. There are seven Featurettes on various subjects from the uniform, the Howling Commandos, H.Y.D.R.A. Weapons, Super-Soldier Serum transformation, Red Skull, Captain America's comic book origins and finally a look at The Avengers. In total, it's about 50 minutes of featurettes. Finally there are four deleted / extended scenes, three of which have audio commentary with the same trio as above. Overall it's an excellent package.

Strangely, the Blu-ray has no additional extras; however, it does come with a DVD / Digital Copy of the movie. Additionally, the film's video and audio presentation is impressive, for the most part. Except for the prologue / epilogue that take place in modern day, much of the film has a softness to it to help emphasize the period nature of the story. These artistic choices make sense and you can't fault the transfer for that, but it is not the best looking first run release you will see. The audio is among the best with excellent separation, directional effects, rumbling bass, etc.

The lack of additional extras is disappointing, but the technical presentation is worth spending the extra 40% to make the upgrade.

The Verdict

The Avengers experiment is proving to be a major success. By combining stories from several franchises, it is much easier to introduce an idea that would strain suspension of disbelief otherwise. The Norse gods are real in the Marvel universe. Had we not seen that in Thor, it would have been really hard to explain in Captain America: The First Avenger. Because of this, the films as a whole are better than the sum of their parts. If you are a fan of the previous films and are looking forward to The Avengers, then Captain America is a must have. There are plenty of extras on both the DVD and the Blu-ray Combo Pack and while there are no exclusive, exclusive extras, the latter is worth paying extra for.

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Filed under: Video Review, Captain America: The First Avenger