BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Unfit to fight the Nazis at the outbreak of the Second World War, Steve Rogers allows himself to be the test subject of a top secret experiment that transforms him, ultimately, into America’s greatest hero.
PROS: Joe Johnston’s deft, speedy direction; earnest cast that neither takes things too seriously nor plays anything too lightly; good script; minimal jingoism; complete, requiring no knowledge of The Avengers or previous comics issues.
CONS: Never fully engaging; jarring anachronisms; lack of emotional investment leading to unnecessary sappiness toward the end; occasionally sloppy special effects.
How refreshing. Really, think back to the last time you actually enjoyed a superhero movie without reservation. Was it three years ago, with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, or even longer, as with Spider-Man 2 or X2: X-Men United? Granted, The Dark Knight is on its way to becoming a classic, but was it actually fun? Well, the good news is that Captain America: The First Avenger is as fun as not only any comics fan but also a general audience could hope, never bogging down in the same artistic pretentions that drowned Ang Lee’s interminable Hulk or in the ironically arch posturing that made Iron Man 2 so lifeless. Even though it never reaches the same level as the great comic book movies, it possesses enough heart and even wit to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.
Mostly. As written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to enlist in the United States Army not out of some need to satisfy jingoistic patriotism but instead to do what is right. “I don’t like bullies,” he tells Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). But where the Army sees Rogers as ineligible for service–his draft card reads 4F–Dr. Erskine sees potential (hats off to the CGI team that transformed Evans into a scrawny kid during the first act), and selects him for an experiment to turn him into a supersoldier despite the protestations of Project Rebirth lead Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who adds just enough personality to keep from slipping too far into cliché). Phillips would rather see another soldier selected, but Dr. Erskine and Phillips’s assistant, SSR officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), find Rogers’s bravery far more favorable; at one point, Rogers throws himself on a grenade during basic training to protect his other trainees. Nonetheless, in a secret lab in Brooklyn, Dr. Erskine and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) inject Rogers with a serum doused with “vital rays,” transforming him into a tall, muscular, and very powerful being…who must chase down an assassin who has snuck into the lab and assassinated Dr. Erskine, the only person in the world who knew the mixture of the serum.
As origin stories go, Captain America: The First Avenger provides nothing new, at least not at first. And fortunately, that’s where it gets interesting. Project Rebirth may die with Dr. Erskine, but the State Department sees potential in Captain America…not as a soldier, but a piece of propaganda. Immediately they fit Rogers into a colorful costume and send him on tour to sell war bonds. When on tour in Europe, however, Rogers learns that his friend Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan, and thankfully a far cry from Cap’s sidekick in the comics) has been captured with other soldiers by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer also known as the Red Skull, who has plans for the world that dwarf even Adolph Hitler’s. He even has his own splinter organization, HYDRA, and equips them with weapons powered by “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.” (Yeah, he’s that bad.) And so Rogers decides to rescue Bucky, along with the other soldiers, from the Red Skull, and enlists a group of soldiers to destroy HYDRA’s weapons factories throughout Europe.
If it all sounds corny, well, it is, but the screenwriters and director Joe Johnston maintain an old-fashioned earnestness and sincerity about the entire enterprise reminiscent of one of the greatest of all superhero movies, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which was made before audiences viewed every blockbuster through an ironic lens. It also contributes to the movie’s appeal; Captain America, after all, is a product of a previous era. And that era shows up not only in the attitude but in the costuming and production design, all of which has the same 1940s appeal found in the best retro entertainments. The Red Skull’s souped up bomber resembles the flying wing in Raiders of the Lost Ark turned up to 11. It’s wonderfully fantastical, and acceptable up to a point; buying Nazi superweapons powered by Schmidt’s tesseract is acceptable, but mention of genetic engineering ten years before Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA is another matter.
But not a crippling one. Johnston’s direction keeps everything moving at a brisk pace. He’s helped by strong performances, specifically from Evan and Weaving as Rogers and the Red Skull. Though when faced together they generate little antagonism, both possess the requisite qualities of good and evil, respectively, to make them interesting despite any real depth. Atwell, too, provides the sex appeal and aspiring love interest for Rogers; she plays Carter with a great deal of charm and wit, despite being given little to do. More depth for all of the characters would have added more emotional impact, but it also might have hampered the pace and deft touch…and perhaps sprouted a picture with more heads than a hydra, since part of Captain America’s team includes “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough) of S.H.I.E.L.D.
And while the effects are often superb, occasional sloppiness mars the finished product, specifically in the action sequences. Though many appear far more real than most of what transpires in the Halls of Asgard in Thor, on occasion the CGI doesn’t quite mesh or feels rushed, taking us back to the days of the slipshod effects of the first Spider-Man, or the rushed feel of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
It shouldn’t matter. Far from being the placeholder of The Incredible Hulk or Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger turns out to be a complete picture in its own right, far less self-conscious about its origins and intent and thus far more entertaining. And, as a result, something that makes one look forward to The Avengers.