It’s hardly a revelation to say that the pricey, glossy, and big-name-casted blockbuster flicks coming out Marvel Comics’ film division have been uniformly successful. Well, save for Iron Man 2, which, while turning substantial profits at ticket booths, was creatively a jumbled, unfocused, and overzealous mess. All in all, though, Marvel’s cinematic run has been a smash, so the following statement might seem a bit odd, but roll with it for a minute: The best thing about Captain America: The First Avenger is just how un-Marvel-like the whole thing feels.
The company’s final piece before next year’s superhero blowout The Avengers, director Joe Johnston’s quick-witted and nostalgic blast of old-school comic sensibilities looks and operates as if it were yanked straight out of an old ’40s reel, or serial. Set in the early part of that WWII-stricken decade, Captain America is a meticulously constructed flashback to an older era of entertainment, one where dames were more than just eye candy, heroic figures were used as go-U.S.A. propaganda tools, and evil was personified by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
Except for a brief prologue and a hokey, yet unavoidably necessary for Marvel’s sake, epilogue, Johnston’s film takes place within the 1942-1943 time span, and Johnston doesn’t waste any chance to milk the time period for all of its pulpy appeal. Consider Captain America as the full-blown manifestation of whatever campy potential Johnston displayed in 1993’s critically respected but publicly shunned The Rocketeer, which toyed with its 1938 setting quite well. As a filmmaker, Johnston is right at home in the film’s older times, making him an inspired, if not risky, directorial choice on Marvel’s part; thanks to Johnston, though, Captain America is uniquely singular, no easy feat for a project churned out within the same hit factory responsible for this summer’s one-two combo of comic book-to-screen triumph, Thor and X-Men: First Class.
In the tradition of the best comic book pics, Captain America works hard enough on its vibrant strengths that the film’s unavoidable flaws are easily overlooked. It’s by no means a game-changing summer popcorn bash, nor will Johnston’s production rank amongst the year’s strongest movies come December’s end. So preoccupied with unapologetically corny fun, the Cap’s long-awaited movie incarnation ultimately goes down like a momentary junk food fix; yet, when the enjoyment factor is so high and the overall spirit is this vivacious, there’s no harm in fleeting glee. Besides, it’s just what heads need to wipe Green Lantern’s lack of fan-expected fulfillment off one’s mind.
Captain America: The First Avenger Is A Nostalgic Good Time
As well as Johnston directs the film, Captain America relies upon its impressive cast to convey its goofy sentiments, and they’re all up for the challenge. Though he’s not as magnetic here as Chris Hemsworth in Thor, or Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man movies, Chris Evans gives the title character the proper amounts of sturdy presence and deadpan silliness. Before he genetically balloons into the diesel Captain, Evans plays Steve Rogers, a 98-pound wannabe-soldier with an unshakable Napoleon complex; even though he’s repeatedly been turned down by the U.S. Army, Rogers continues to apply, in hopes of getting shipped overseas to combat Hitler and goons.
Rogers watches as his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) charms women before heading into military duty; also watching is Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci reliably on-point), a German lab champ working for the U.S. Taken by Rogers’ never-back-down spirit, Erskine helps the scrawny Brooklyn kid finally enlist, and, once he’s proven himself in training sessions, Rogers takes part in Erskine’s biggest experiment: the injecting of a powerful blue serum through which “good becomes great, and bad becomes worse.” Once the procedure’s over, Rogers steps out of a test chamber as if it’s an issue of Men’s Fitness. Quickly donning red-white-and-blue tights and acting out hammy stage-shows, Rogers plays the part of Captain America, a poster-boy for the nation’s pride, as well as a fabricated hero who’s looked down upon by actual gun-toting Army dudes.
All the while, an older test subject of Erskine’s, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), is waging a reign of terror as the deformed, fire-tinted skeleton known as Red Skull. With his sinister HYDRA crew, a deep science division under Hitler’s influence, Schmidt moves up to the tippy-top of America’s enemy list; so, naturally, the Cap goes all out in trying to topple HYDRA and permanently silence the Skull.
The CGI-heavy confrontations between HYDRA and Captain’s self-assembled team of militant underlings satisfy the spectacle quotient nicely, complete with crisp-looking CGI, explosions, automatic weapon spray, and war movie grit. But Captain America is at its highest points when exploring the hero’s initial resistance. The film’s grandest sequence comes before the Red Skull fights; it’s an extended montage showing Rogers’ first days as an unwitting propaganda machine, in which he phantom-punches a fake Hitler in front of sexy chorus girls as little boys cheer in the audience. Johnston painstakingly captures a true WWII-era vibe, with vintage big-band tunes bumping and a self-aware playfulness that’s unlike anything seen in Marvel’s previous big-screen endeavors.
The montage leaves one wishing Captain America could somehow focus solely on America’s desire, at the time, to manufacture a pretty boy hero. But, alas, it’s a superhero movie, and Twizzler-chewers demand the visual goods. To that end, Weaving elevates the film’s good-versus-evil moments as the effective Red Skull; convincingly icy and fiendishly engaging, Weaving’s villainous turn gives Captain America something that too many Marvel flicks lack: a formidable bad guy (we’re slamming the one-sided Iron Man joints, by the way).
Furthermore, Johnston’s film benefits from an element that’s wholly its own in terms of the Marvel universe: a female character that actually registers as a fleshed-out character and not a flimsy love interest. As self-assured, and oh-so-sexy, military shotcaller Peggy Carter, English actress Hayley Atwell has the good fortune of playing a romantic target who’s tangibly valued by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. And she’s equipped with the charm, boldness, and subtle vulnerability needed to embody the film’s atypically useful feminine lead.
Is Captain America This Summer's Best Comic Book Flick? If Not, It's Certainly The Most Fun
In its first act, Captain America flirts with disaster; blame the off-putting computer graphics used to make Evans look like a scrawny runt. When he’s the pint-sized, pre-serum Rogers, the actor is helpless against awful-looking effects, a not-so-Benjamin-Button treatment that leaves 90-pound Rogers with robotic neck movements, herky-jerky interactions with surrounding characters, and Evans’ deep and unfitting voice, a pitch that’s way too baritone for a guy who’d blow away if ever caught inside a wind tunnel.
Fortunately for Evans, and Captain America as a whole, the actors sharing screen time with CGI-Rogers all command attention away from the silly presentation with mighty fine acting, namely a too briefly-used Tucci and a gamely gruff Tommy Lee Jones as Rogers’ primary Commander.
And, what’s more important, the remainder of Captain America’s aesthetical trickery works quite well. There’s a tightly staged action set-piece on a speeding train roaring through the Alps that plays like Indiana Jones spiked with 007; near the film’s end, Cap dukes it out with a couple of HYDRA thugs on top of an airborne mini-plane, and the scene knocks one’s senses with a propeller-issued, crowd-pleasing splash of gore.
It’s far too early to predict how well Marvel and director Joss Whedon will handle The Avengers’ crowded disposition next summer, but, hopefully, they’ll take multiple cues from how Johnston approached the thoroughly enjoyable Captain America: The First Avenger. By totally embracing the story’s distinctive period roots without sacrificing any of its modern-day Hollywood sheen, Johnston and his first-rate cast have done Marvel’s most patriotic character proud.