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.
photo courtesy of UIP
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.
This makes him just like the real — which is to say the original, fictional — Captain America. He collides with reality (or at least with combat-movie-style realism) when an audience of GIs in Italy fails to be impressed by his cartoon antics. But then the Captain, and the movie, zoom permanently back into the cartoon realm, springing into action to fight a villain so crazy and diabolical that he makes the Nazis uncomfortable.
His name is Schmidt, he is played by the reliably sinister Hugo Weaving, and he is in possession of a magic Norse ice cube (or something) that makes him powerful enough to have a lot of weapons for Captain America to smash with his shield. Evans is genial and easy on the eyes, but a superhero with a mask, whether bland or brooding, is rarely as interesting as the sidekicks and baddies who surround him.
Weaving, with a bright red, noseless face and a classic Hollywood “Chermann” accent, is a fine nemesis, and Captain America is well stocked with colorful supporting players. Among them are Tommy Lee Jones as a crusty Army officer; Stanley Tucci as an emigre scientist; Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, an important link to Robert Downey Jr and the Iron Man franchise; and Toby Jones as the assistant bad guy.
Captain America’s team includes Derek Luke, Neal McDonough and Ken Choi; his best pal is Sebastian Stan. The British actress Hayley Atwell, as Agent Carter, the hero’s love interest and supervisor, takes advantage of the opportunity to be more than just the Girl, though she is basically that. Johnston and the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, clearly appreciate the snappy romantic chemistry of dames and fellas in the movies of the 1940s, and they also accommodate the modern expectation that a woman in an action movie should be able to throw a punch and handle a firearm.
There is enough energy and imagination packed into Captain America to make you a bit sorry to see it all evaporate at the end. It might have been nice to be able to look forward to a few more sequels in the old, cheap, Saturday matinee style that the movie, at its best, pays tribute to, instead of another slick blockbuster. But progress is relentless, and superheroes can stay current only by changing with the times and synergizing their commercial powers.
That was a challenge for Steve Rogers in the 1960s, when Marvel brought him out of retirement as an avatar of Greatest Generation values in a world of baby boomer alienation. It is nice, all these years later, to see him restored to his native time, and it’s also a little sad. Captain America is a reminder, at once successful and self-defeating, of the kind of fun that comics used to be.
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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