Releasing Studio: Paramount/Marvel Studios
Disc/Transfer Specifications: 1080p High Definition; 2.35:1; Region 1 (U.S.) Release
Video Codec: MPEG-4 MVC
Tested Audio Track: English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (played back in 5.1 configuration)
Director: Joe Johnston
Starring Cast: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci
OSAGE'S PLOT ANALYSIS:
Like most other Region 1 folks, I picked this up early yesterday morning – release day – from a local Best Buy, opting for the standard 2D variant of the Blu-ray that comes with the DVD version and digital copy. Let’s get the packaging of Captain America out of the way first – I am utterly disappointed that Paramount didn’t give this, or Thor for that matter, steelbook treatment, especially given the fact that Universal gave a ho-hum-at-best title like Fast Five a steelbook package, as they have the Jurassic Park franchise set also just released yesterday. I think fans who enjoyed this film theatrically were expecting something in the way of a steel cover package, perhaps with Cap’s iconic shield raised in relief off the front; instead, what we get is the ordinary slipcase (in the case of Best Buy’s packaging, as they did with Thor) featuring a “clip” from an early Captain America comic on the back. Best Buy likes to call this “exclusive” packaging, but to me, making a DVD or Blu-ray release truly “exclusive” should entail something along the lines of what they did with The Hills Have Eyes on DVD (with the unique “blood packet” in the slipcase) or, of course, given it the steelie treatment. There is also something overtly cheesy and off-putting about the artwork of Chris Evans used on the cover; Paramount could have come up with something much better, even if it was to merely use an image of the shield.
Upon a second viewing of Captain America – that is, in my own screening room on Blu-ray, outside of a commercial theater – it became even more clear to me that Joe Johnston gave this film a bit of a rushed element in order to coincide with the upcoming Avengers launch, and while there’s an interesting enough backstory here, the conclusion is kind of hurried to bring Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers character into modern day society so he can join up with SHIELD. Alas, there’s really no way to connect a genuine Captain America sequel to this unless the plot doesn’t take place circa World War II – now that Rogers (Evans) is in modern day America, the Avengers plot must pick up from here.
That aside, this was a solid origin story effort from Paramount, Marvel and Johnston, and while many have called it a bit slow moving and un-involving due to the war element, this remained true to the comic origins for the most part and fans of the books will be pleased. Was it Marvel Studios’ best effort to date? No. What that is, I’m not sure – I am still loyal to the first two Spider-Man films, in which I truly believe Sam Raimi just nailed the ultimate comic adaptation on film – but Captain America sure was fun, theatrically and at home for the most part, and it was a night and day difference compared to the first travesty we got years ago trying to bring this character to the screen. The main issue I had with the casting here, though, was using Chris Evans in yet a second Marvel character – I realize they’re two separate entities within the comic universe, but Evans was already cast as Johnny in Fantastic 4, and to me that just adds a conflict of interest element within Marvel’s world. Every time I see him as the Human Torch in Fantastic 4, I think of him as Rogers in Captain America and vice versa. It’s almost like this one guy is in two places at the same time, even though in reality it’s just one actor (Evans) portraying two separate roles – but I keep thinking Rogers and John Storm are interchanging their presence somewhere in the world. I know, weird.
But from everyone that could have portrayed Rogers, I believe Evans was a good choice; once in the iconic helmet and costume, his facial gestures looked right and he seemed believable tossing the shield around and taking out Nazis. The strange transformation from scrawny strength less Brooklyn weakling to gung-ho super soldier keeping his genuine rage towards America’s enemy in World War II was totally believable, even if the downright bizarre method used to superimpose Evans’ face and head onto the scrawny little body early on is still a bit disturbing. Johnston does an excellent job with painting the right mood and feel for the era at hand, giving the film a blatant olive/beige/golden hue that really draws us into the time period; without it, I don’t think Captain America would have succeeded nearly as well. We are genuinely transported back to a time when Adolf Hitler ruled Europe and most of the surrounding lands, interrupted by, if anything, the HYDRA weaponry and “advanced” science and technology that seemed way out of place throughout. It is suggested that the secret science division of the Nazi organization, lead by Hugo Weaving’s “Red Skull” character, has tapped into a power harnessed by the gods themselves (references to the Thor world are made in various parts) and has allowed them to create futuristic-like weapons that just don’t feel right in the context of the plot; of course, I totally understand this was a comic adaptation and you have to just go with it, but I am merely pointing out how I felt about that aspect of the story at times. Further, there’s the young “Howard Stark” element; Johnston includes him here but it really feels like a tacked-on tactic to include notable members of the SHIELD/Avengers initiative as we ramp up towards that feature film. I am sure Tony Stark’s father played a major role early on during the World War II days, creating weapons and technologies for the U.S. government via his Stark Industries (in the Cap comic run) but I feel his role in this was a bit on the cheesy/thrown-in-for-good-measure side. Of course, we all remember when elements of Cap’s shield prototype are found in Tony Stark’s lab toward the end of Iron Man 2, suggesting Howard had kept parts of the “super soldier” experiment all those decades. It’s interesting, if anything, how all these themes are converging to steer towards The Avengers scheduled to launch in the summer of 2012.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, Captain America – The First Avenger begins with a team finding a massive vessel of some kind frozen in the ice. As the team makes their way into the bowels of the frozen downed aircraft, they stumble upon the iconic red, white and blue shield and it’s clear SHILED operatives are behind the excavation process. The plot then goes backward in time, depicting soldiers fighting in the war-torn lands of Europe during the second World War; the Germans have designated a secret special science division, HYDRA, to be headed by the egotistical Hugo Weaving (The Matrix). Weaving’s character has tapped into a power perhaps once wielded by the gods themselves, and he has discovered a way to apply it to weapons, creating guns and cannon machines that blast out giant scorching rays of blue light, instantly vaporizing anyone struck by it. Of course, this all hints at the “technology” seen and used by many of the characters in Thor (references to “Odin” are made) and before we know it, Weaving’s character is in a position to go overboard by his rapidly growing powers, many of which were already injected into him by a scientist that has now fled to the U.S. (Stanley Tucci). This all leads to Weaving becoming the iconic Captain America villain, “Red Skull,” partly named for the flaming red color his body is left with from Tucci’s injected serums.
Back in America, U.S. boys are lining up to fight the war in Europe in an effort to defeat the Nazis. Steve Rogers (Evans) is a scrawny American soldier prospect that believes in the defeat of the Nazis down to his very bones, but just doesn’t have what it takes physically to join the armed forces. Early on, we see hints at the hero Steve is about to become – when bullied in a Brooklyn, New York alleyway by a brute twice his size, and ultimately beat up by this thug, Steve dons a garbage can lid to defend himself and mumbles “I can do this all day…” as he continues to be pummeled upon. Steve and his best friend Bucky attend the Stark Expo in Queens, New York, where a young Howard Stark is showing off his latest invention of a car that levitates off the ground – but when Stanley Tucci’s character (now working with the Americans on Stark’s “super solider” program) learns of Rogers’ fanatical patriotism when overhearing a conversation between him and Bucky, he has Rogers brought to a private room of the army volunteer center nearby, where he offers him the chance to be part of a secret experiment. Tommy Lee Jones portrays the commander of this offensive program and doesn’t believe Rogers has what it takes in the least bit – but Tucci’s character convinces him that what they’re looking for is a man that is filled with good intentions and wants to be a good soldier, not necessarily one with physical qualities.
In a secret lab beneath the labyrinth of an antique shop in Brooklyn, Rogers is strapped into a chamber designed by Howard Stark himself, where he’s injected with the “super soldier” serum as well as exposed to “vita rays” to aggressively promote growth. When Rogers emerges from the chamber, he has been transformed into a muscular, ridiculously strong man – the complete opposite of how he went in. The experiment for creating the perfect soldier seemingly worked – but when Tucci’s character is gunned down by HYDRA spies sent to steal the serum he and Stark created right after the experiment, Steve discovers his new “powers” as he chases down the assassin on foot as he attempts to escape in a careening car. This sequence reminded me very much of the first Spider-Man when Peter (Tobey Maguire) is discovering his spider powers and jumping from car roof to car roof as he chases his uncle’s killer; as Rogers chases Tucci’s murderer, he leaps from car to car as well, ultimately catching up with the spy and confronting him but not being able to stop him from swallowing a cyanide tablet so he didn’t have to divulge his identity to Rogers.
Outfitted in silly costumes to be portrayed as a propaganda tool against the German forces in the war, Rogers is dubbed “Captain America” and appears at soldier morale boosters and the like. Tommy Lee Jones’ character Is still not convinced that Rogers has what it takes to be any kind of soldier, despite his new strength, but when Rogers learns Bucky and other members of an elite team sent in to hunt down HYDRA operatives have become prisoners of war, he takes matters into his own hands and goes in to rescue them. Using his powerful new strength as a weapon, Rogers punches his way through HYDRA lines eventually coming face to face with Red Skull, who is already knowledgeable regarding “Captain America” and his “powers.” The buildup in these scenes is exciting and tense, but things really begin to heat up when Rogers returns to the American lines with the POW’s in tow, alive and well, and Jones’ character authorizes him to be fully outfitted as Captain America – the super soldier.
Stark outfits Rogers with a take on the iconic red, white and blue costume, creating a battlesuit-like getup complete with a powerful, technologically advanced shield, as well as specialized motorcycles and other weapons. From this point on, Captain America – The First Avenger turns the action level up big time as Cap and an elite group of soldiers take the war to HYDRA’s front door, smashing, burning, gunning down and killing everything in their way as they try and get to Weaving’s character himself. It’s here that Cap shows off his strengths and abilities with his shield in full force, throwing the shield like a boomerang to take out HYDRA and Nazi operatives while using brute strength to punch guys out. The action sequences here are taut, kinetic and exciting, giving the film a genuine feel of the comic; Evans, as Rogers, looks great in the costume as he flings his shield around and blasts HYDRA agents with specialized weapons onboard his cycle.
Weaving’s character, meanwhile, is putting into place his final plan of world domination – he plots to blow up cities all over the Earth with specialized HYDRA weapons, but before he can do that, we are treated to the prerequisite final fight sequence between hero and villain, as Cap gets aboard the giant aircraft Red Skull is piloting to carry out his mission and the two interlock in battle. The fight sequence is not as violent, or aggressive in delivery, as, say, the sequence at the conclusion of Spider-Man between Peter and the Green Goblin (probably the best fight sequence of any comic book film ever made) but it is entertaining as Steve uses his shield to get the upper hand over Red Skull while defending himself against Skull’s brute strength. The conclusion of Captain America has been fraught with debate since the film’s theatrical launch, specifically in reference to the sequence involving Rogers waking up in what appears to be some kind of hospital after he crashes Weaving’s character’s plane in the ice – of course, this was merely all a prop created by SHIELD who has found Rogers in the ice these decades later and who have thawed him out to join the Avengers in modern-day society. This sequence indeed feels a bit tacked on and rushed, almost as if Johnston simply needed some way to get the Captain America character into modern time, but as I said, this leaves no wiggle room for a Captain America sequel; still, it was pretty cool when Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury character and his men chase Rogers down through Times Square in New York City and Jackson informs him that he’s “been asleep” when Rogers has no clue what time period he’s in. Then, of course, there’s the very cool Avengers teaser at the conclusion of the film’s credits.
In going back to some of the things I believe didn’t work in Captain America, the whole HYDRA technology element just didn’t fit in certain instances; I understand, again, you need to go with this, but I thought the spy coming to steal the serum and shoot Tucci’s character in the beginning getting into his “advanced” submarine off the docks in Brooklyn was just plain silly and out of place. Further, the HYDRA soldiers that appear as Storm Troopers out of Star Wars was ridiculous as well, I thought, as was the gigantic aircraft Weaving’s Red Skull flies at the end of the film, and which Rogers ends up taking control of to ultimately steer into the ice. This HYDRA “technology” and the whole connection to the Norse gods with the tie-in to Thor elements was just too much and bordered on beyond disbelief at times, given the time frame at hand (circa World War II).
VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
From the get-go, there were reports circulating all over the ‘net about this highly anticipated Blu-ray release’s video quality, and its inherent disappointing softness and lack of detail – the 2.35:1 transfer of Captain America in 1080p was nothing of the sort on my display. The film definitely has that olive/beige coating to the image, befitting of the time period being portrayed, but the quality of the transfer itself was outstanding – in fact, it’s one of the better Blu-ray transfers I’ve seen lately. The whole presentation was just wickedly clean and sharp as a tack, with no apparent noise, grain or other anomaly that I was able to detect from my seating distance. That overtly beige/olive look to the film stock, poured on by Johnston purposely, works wonderfully for conveying mood and feel, taking us back to the days of World War II and definitely adding to the drama. There is a smoothness to the 1080p image on this disc unlike anything I’ve seen before, and this could be what others have been seeing and noting as “softness” – but this isn’t softness in any sense of the term really, as the picture quality is rendered with stunning clarity even though the smooth characteristics of the transfer. Colors are purposely muted, but when they pop through, such as sequences involving shots with grass or foliage, the image retained its rock-solid quality and the colors were appropriately lively.
A real knockout Blu-ray transfer from Paramount on this one – not for eye-popping, retina-searing high definition visuals, but for its success in accurately representing the filmmaker’s vision in creating a mood in a specific time and place out of history. Wonderfully film-like presentation here, with smooth images and a solid, twitch-free appearance.
AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
Alas, I was disappointed by the 7.1 Master Audio track in English (running in a 5.1 configuration in my setup), and I went into Captain America forewarned about this as I read many early comments about the Blu-ray’s lack of sonic energy on the audio track. What went wrong here? Was this a purposeful mix by the engineers, using more subtle cues for effect? I’m not quite sure, but Captain America’s DTS-HD Master Audio mix wasn’t what I hoped for in a comic adaptation soundtrack – from the very beginning, the mix was low in overall output, which required me to raise my system’s master volume up beyond its normal operating point. There was a distinct low output in the dialogue channel as well, which caused me to have difficulties making out what certain characters were saying even with my master volume cranked; bass was almost non-existent on my system, and when the LFE did kick in, it lacked aggressive tactile punch.
The surrounds were used aggressively when the sequences called upon them – the HYDRA laser beams flying all around the soundstage was a good example – and there didn’t seem to be a lack of surround activity, but this track just didn’t wow me as a whole. The biggest issue was the fact that I had to crank my master volume up way beyond what I normally listen at to get decently immersed, suggesting to me the mix was simply not mastered hot enough. Bullets pinging during shootout sequences, subtle ambience cues such as gentle winds whipping through the surrounds and other elements were placed in the rear channels perfectly, creating an engulfing environment – but the experience just wasn’t loud enough at a given volume level.
I have heard better on other Blu-rays.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATIONS:
Oh, come on. This is a buy, especially if you have been following the road-to-the-Avengers saga via Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Thor. I can’t comment on the 3D version of the Blu-ray, but this 2D variant – cheesy Best Buy packaging aside – is a solid package for the most part, with interesting extras on the disc about the comic and the production as well as an immensely clean 1080p widescreen transfer. I, for one, would have liked a steelbook package.
As a side note: Cap’s “upgraded” suit he’s set to wear in The Avengers looks great, and the ego rivalry between Rogers and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is clearly evident based on the official Avengers trailer released recently. That’s gonna be one kick-butt ride.