When you see Captain America: The First Avenger this weekend the biggest decision you’ll face at the box office isn’t when to see it, but how to see it. Like nearly ever big blockbuster set to be released from now on through 2013, Cap’s first adventure is being released on both higher-priced 3D and more budget-friendly 2D screens. We’re here to help you decide which version to see.

Our “To 3D or Not to 3D” series does not review the relative merits of a movie like Cap as a piece art or entertainment. If you’re interested in an in-depth review of the film, just click the “review” button on the site’s menu bar. Instead what I’m going to give you here is an unbiased, 7-point analysis of The First Avenger’s 3D on a technical level. To make that easy for anyone to digest, I’ll total up the resulting score and give you a simple guide to determining whether you should see Captain America in 2D or 3D theaters. We’re coming for you Red Skull…

Does It Fit?
Not every movie is suited to 3D, the technology works best on big, splashy, summer blockbusters which is, of course, what Captain America: The First Avenger is. 3D also tends to work better on movies which contain a lot of computer generated effects. That, to its credit, Captain America isn’t. The film does contain CGI wizardry but it’s not cranking out CGI on the level that movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon or even Marvel’s Thor have to. Since Captain America is set in World War II and not on some alien planet, and since it’s about people and not robots, the film is able to use as lot of practical effects. That’s great news for the audience, but practical effects are always a bigger challenge for 3D than computer generated ones. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, but it does mean they’ll have to put a lot of effort into it, in order to get it right. More on that next.
Fit Score: 3/5

Planning & Effort
First the bad news. Captain America was not shot in 3D. It’s a 3D post-conversion. That’s not ideal, but it’s also not always a recipe for disaster. Post-conversion can work if the movie is shot in 2D with the conversion in mind. Director Joe Johnston chose to shoot in 2D on purpose and, knowing that it would eventually be converted to 3D, planned his movie with that in mind. He chose to shoot in 2D because it let him shoot faster action sequences than 3D cameras will, and it pays off in the final film. He had plenty of time to work on it too, months and months of time were spent converting the film and it shows in every single frame of the movie. So yes, this is a post-conversion, but a post-conversion planned well in advance with a lot of thought and effort put into it. This isn’t some slap-dash, last-minute 3D cash-grab. This was a movie created with 3D in mind.
P&E Score: 4/5

Beyond the Window
Done right 3D can be used to give the illusion of depth. It creates the feeling that instead of looking at a picture projected on a flat surface, you're looking through a window into another world which exists just out of your reach on the other side of the screen. Captain America not only does that, it does that better than any other 3D post-conversion has before. Every frame of the film is a brilliantly designed world of depth and distance. Characters feel as though they have dimension, objects racing away from the screen really feel as though they’re traveling away from the audience. Cap uses depth in a fantastically complex way, with every object in every frame placed as though it exists in its own separate plane of dimension and light, giving every scene multiple layers of depth. It’s wonderful. Very few other live-action movies, post-converted or otherwise, have ever done this better.
Beyond The Window Score: 5/5

Before the Window
Done right 3D can make it seem as though objects in the movie are actually out in front of the “window” or the box outline of the screen or even make it seem like things are flying over your head. Done wrong this can become a gimmick, but it doesn’t have to be. Using this tool as more than a gimmick though, is incredibly hard, especially for post-converted 3D. Because of that, many modern 3D movies don’t even use this aspect of the format, and though Captain America does, it does so only very rarely. When the film pushes objects out beyond the window it does so sparingly and usually in a very subtle way. It’s done so well in fact that you won’t even notice it’s happening and will instead just think what you’re watching is a product of the movie’s depth. Still, the movie doesn’t do a lot of it, preferring to stick with doing the things it knows it can do well.
Before The Window Score: 3/5

Brightness
When you put on a pair of 3D glasses, you're basically wearing sunglasses in a movie theater. Because less light reaches your eyes and because the quality of projection varies so much from one theater to the next, good 3D films attempt to compensate for this by using a lot of bright, sharply defined images. Captain America has the advantage of being set in the forties, with the era’s angular metal gadgets and bright indirect lighting. Even though parts of the movie take place at night, or even in dark factories, for the most part Johnston’s film pulls it off. He finds light sources everywhere, enough to keep his picture bright and engaging. He even throws in a few lens flairs, which should randomly delight JJ Abrams’ fans while also keeping the movie bright enough that 3D audiences will be able to see all the action through the haze created by their glasses.
Brightness Score: 4/5

The Glasses Off Test
Take off your 3D glasses while you're watching a good 3D movie and the picture in front of you will become a blur. A simple explanation is to say that the blurrier the images you see the more fully utilized the movie’s 3D is. To test that I took my 3D glasses off periodically throughout The First Avenger, and was impressed by what I saw. Captain America uses an incredibly complex arrangement of varying levels of 3D to create all sorts of different depth perceptions while you watch. It doesn’t just change from one scene to the next, it changes parts of each image. At times each object in the frame is working at different levels of depth, clear evidence that a lot of care and effort went into making this film look flat out good. Many filmmakers using post-conversion simply flip the 3D “on” switch and walk away, but Johnston’s film uses it at a level of subtlety and nuance I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other post-converted 3D film.
Glasses Off Score: 5/5

Audience Health
Some people can’t see 3D at all, others get sick no matter what. This score is aimed more at hardy moviegoers, people who only get sick occasionally from 3D. When those people get sick, it’s usually caused by a movie that’s not bright enough or by careless post-conversion. Captain America suffers none of those problems. A lot of care and effort went into making this movie what it is, and the results are perfectly executed. If there’s any cause for concern here it may simply be that First Avenger is more than 2 hours long. That’s 2 hours of 3D to sit through, and that can be a little taxing, particularly to moviegoers less used to 3D. Also, because the movie contains a lot of fast-paced action, it could be particularly susceptible to bad projection at theaters with lower standards. I wouldn’t worry. Odds are you’ll be completely fine.
Health Score: 4/5

SCORES RECAP
3D Fit3
P&E4
Beyond The Window5
Before The Window3
Brightness4
The Glasses Off Test5
Audience Health4
Total Score28 (out of a possible 35)

RESULTS

Final Verdict: With a 28 out of 35 Captain America: The First Avenger stands tall as the very best 3D post-conversion we’ve seen to date. Only a scant handful of live-action 3D movies have scored better on our chart and all of them were shot in 3D. It seems clear that the 3D post-conversion process is finally improving and it may not be long before post-converted 3D is indistinguishable from the Avatars of the world. As for Captain America, it’s the first superhero movie of the year that may actually be worth those extra three or four dollars you’ll have to pay for a 3D ticket.

For more 3D analysis, visit our To 3D Or Not To 3D archive.

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