The First Marvel

In the 1930s DC was the premier comic book publisher with the Superman and Batman series, but there were upstarts laboring under DC’s shadow.  One publisher that started in 1939 was Timely Comics.  With the war raging in Europe, Timely created a comic series to appeal to people’s patriotism – Captain America.  It became a gargantuan hit.  The third issue marked the writing debut of an 18-year-old kid by the name of Stanley Martin Lieber, who used the pen name Stan Lee.  Lee became Timely’s editor-in-chief by the end of 1941 and, except for service during WWII, remained in that position until the 1970’s when he took over as publisher.  By then, Timely had gone through several name changes before becoming Marvel Publications.

Captain America disappeared after the war, except for a brief period in the early 1950’s.  Then came what is known as the Silver Age of Comics in the 1960’s, with Marvel’s creation of Spiderman, Ironman, Thor, and the Fantastic Four.  Several of the characters would team up in a series known as The Avengers, and in the 4th edition Captain America returned, thawed out of suspended animation.

2012 will see the release by Marvel Entertainment of an Avengers movie.  All of the main players – Ironman, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Hawkeye (in a cameo in the recent Thor) – have been introduced in movies, leaving only Captain America to have his story told.  Now that has been accomplished.

When Captain America – the First Avenger begins, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny, sickly 4F Army reject who would need to gain weight to become a 98 lb weakling.  He’s regularly beat up by bullies, except when he’s rescued by his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).  Yet Steve has intelligence, courage, and a desire to serve, which brings him to the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci).  Erskine is working with Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) on a secret project to create super soldiers.  Steve is taken to a military base where he and other volunteers are tested, under the watchful (and beautiful) eyes of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British agent seconded to the project.

It’s a project the Doctor was working on in his native Germany before he fled the Nazis.  As he explains to Steve, the serum he created takes what is in a man and magnifies it.  An earlier version had been administered to Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the Nazi head of Hydra, a division seeking technological advances to help Germany win the war.  It turned Schmidt into The Red Skull, a megalomaniac who’s aiming to take over the whole world for himself.  This time Erskine was looking for a weak but brave man as a test subject, someone who would know to value power, but would also be compassionate.

Erskine, assisted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), administers the treatment to Steve.  The experiment is a complete success, with Steve turning into a tall, muscular uber-man who can outrun cars and leap like a pole-vaulter without needing a pole.  However, a Hydra agent who has infiltrated the test kills Erskine.  Colonel Phillips dismisses Rogers, since he doesn’t believe a single soldier can help him.  Steve ends up doing War Bond publicity shows until, on a visit to the frontline troops, he gets the chance to prove himself.

Joe Johnston (October Sky, Hildalgo) returns to the time of his second movie, The Rocketeer.  This is a visually lush movie that evokes the WWII era perfectly.  The sharp repartee between the characters echoes the movies of Howard Hawks.  Another resemblance to Hawks’ work is Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter.  She’s a tough, competent woman who is a crack shot and is not above decking a soldier with a right cross when he disrespects her.  Yet she is richly feminine at the same time.  In a movie such as this, it’s often the villain who controls the conflict – you need a compelling nemesis to bring out the hero’s strength.  A weakness of the recent Green Lantern is that the heavy is basically a large cloud.  While Hugo Weaving leaves some teeth marks on the scenery, overall he is a great match for Evans.

The digital face grafting used to create the before version of Steve Rogers works exceptionally well.  You have Evans’ face and expressions (and his dubbed voice) transferred onto a different actor.  It’s the same process that created the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network.  After the experiment takes place, you have all Evans.  He has ventured into the Marvel Universe before, playing the Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies.  Here, though, he communicates the richer character of Rogers with his social awkwardness left over from his years of being bullied.

There are a couple of minor missteps (a kamikaze-style flying bomb with an ejector seat – really?) but overall the story holds together, helped by the chemistry between Evans and Atwell.  There are times when you’ll laugh out loud, and other times that will touch your heart, including the final coda.  Captain America may have a tough time, coming out the week after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, but it deserves to be watched.  In the interconnected world of Marvel, this movie fits in well.

Do stay to the end of the credits and you’ll see the first teaser trailer for next year’s Avengers movie.

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