Fri, Jul 29, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Movie review: Captain America: The First Avenger

‘Captain America,’ like its unapologetically corny hero, is propelled by unpretentious and plucky ingenuity

By A.O. Scott  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

photo courtesy of UIP

Captain America: The First Avenger turns out in the end — and this is really the opposite of a spoiler — to have been a two-hour teaser for another movie. That picture, foreshadowed in the second Hulk, the first Thor and both Iron Man episodes and scheduled to open next May, will be called The Avengers. Whether you regard its imminence with resignation, dread or uncontainable glee depends on your standing in the Marvel Universe. Shareholders and die-hard fans no doubt already have the opening date circled on their calendars, and many of the rest of us will probably show up as well, either out of curiosity or solemn duty.

But in the meantime this origin story, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans as the square-jawed, shield-throwing, red-white-and-blue Captain, is pretty good fun. The succinct judgment of my 15-year-old screening buddy was “Better than Thor or Green Lantern,” and while that isn’t saying a lot, it may be saying enough. Captain America, based on a character that first appeared in Timely Comics, a precursor to Marvel, in the early 1940s — the era of Batman, Superman and other old-growth, popular-front superheroes — has a winningly pulpy, jaunty, earnest spirit.

With a dusty color scheme that evokes newsprint and cheap ink, and a production design that captures the deco-inflected futurism of an earlier time, the movie is nostalgic without making a big fuss about it. And though there are plenty of the usual digital enhancements and overscaled effects, the pseudo-operatic grandiosity that has become a staple of the genre is mostly missing. Instead Captain America, like its unapologetically corny hero, is propelled by unpretentious and plucky ingenuity.

Captain America: The First Avenger


Joe Johnston


Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Tommy Lee Jones (Colonel Chester Phillips), Hugo Weaving (Johann Schmidt/the Red Skull), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), Toby Jones (Arnim Zola), Neal McDonough (Dum Dum Dugan), Derek Luke (Gabe Jones), Ken Choi (Morita) and Stanley Tucci (Abraham Erskine)

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Currently showing

Some of this can be attributed to Johnston, whose affection for the pop culture of the past was charmingly displayed 20 years ago in The Rocketeer. (Subsequent, less charming credits include Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman.) Captain America is hardly groundbreaking in its mining and mixing of old pop culture motifs and real-life history — its hero fights Nazis in the shadow of not only his own earlier incarnations but also Indiana Jones — but its goal seems to be refreshment rather than reinvention. It is enjoyably preposterous, occasionally touching and generally likable.

Unlike many of his peers, the Captain, alter ego of a scrawny “kid from Brooklyn” named Steve Rogers, is endowed with fairly modest powers. He is injected with a special serum that builds his muscles and improves his metabolism, a bit of juicing that today’s professional athletes might envy, since it is not accompanied by side effects or public disgrace.

There is a wonderful scene in which Steve — who had previously been a slightly grotesque figure formed by superimposing Evans’ chiseled face onto the frame of a puny body double — tries out his new body in a shirtless pursuit of some minor bad guys. Evans, catching sight of his reflection in a store window as he runs past, and looking down at his arms and chest, registers the estrangement and delight that are part of every superhero’s self-discovery.

He is even better when conveying the newly minted Captain’s dismay at being turned into a novelty act, sent out on the road with a line of chorus girls and a stage Hitler to sell war bonds. The montage of his tour, a tumble of peppy music and gee-whiz hamminess, may be the movie’s best sequence, a surprisingly witty and sincere exercise in post-postmodern self-referentiality. Before he has accomplished very much, Steve is a media-made hero, starring in comic books and serials intended to boost American morale.

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