For moviegoers, the Marvel Comics universe has been hard to avoid these past few years. We’ve been treated to the excellent (Spider-Man 1 and 2), the pretty damn good (Iron Man), a nice try (The Incredible Hulk), and the god-awful (the Fantastic Four movies). Captain America: The First Avenger slides comfortably into Iron Man territory.
As comic book film-making goes, Captain America is everything it needs to be, with a likeable hero, the right tone, nice retro touches, and a straightforward story, briskly told. Director Joe Johnston doesn’t do anything radical or adventurous with the material, but that’s probably not why you hire Johnston to direct a movie like this. The producers got what they paid for and nothing more.
The story opens in 1942, as a Nazi scientist named Jonathan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), AKA Red Skull, storms into a Norwegian town to steal a Norse object with supposedly god-like powers. Meanwhile, back in New York City, proverbial 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants desperately to enlist in the war effort but the Army keeps throwing him back.
I'm just a kid from Brooklyn.
Sensing that sincere desire to serve, a scientist named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) enlists Rogers in a secret Army program. The man in charge, General Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is unimpressed with Steve as a physical specimen, but sufficiently impressed with his bravery to give him a chance.
The experiment successfully transforms him into a super-strong muscle man who is still sensitive little Steve Rogers on the inside. Unfortunately, his first use for his new abilities is to chase down the man who assassinates Dr. Erskine right after the experiment.
Believing that the program is now pointless without the man who developed it, the generals and politicians dispatch Steve on a war bond tour rather send him into action. When his old friend from Brooklyn, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), turns up missing and presumed dead after fighting against Schmidt’s seemingly invincible forces, Steve convinces two of Erskine’s team, Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Mr. Stark (Dominic Cooper) to drop him behind enemy lines.
While clearly taking place in a comic book version of World War II, the film respects its period roots. Most importantly, the character of Captain America is not a loner like other superheroes in this kind of film. He’s a leader and a team player, fitting nicely in the patriotic ethos of the World War II saetting. Chris Evans, finally well-served by a characters after wallowing the narratively empty Fantastic Four films, is sufficiently empathetic as skinny little Steve Rogers that the audience can still identify with him even after he starts tossing Nazis around like so many sacks of wheat.
Fortunately, the special effects that turn the already Captain America-sized Evans into scrawny Steve Rogers are almost seamless. Only in a couple of spots is the illusion broken.
While not the deepest, most compelling villain in comic book movie history, Red Skull benefits from the presence of Hugo Weaving under the makeup. The actor dials back his Matrix/Lord of the Rings intensity, knowing that the character doesn’t need over the top. When playing a Nazi scientist for whom Adolph Hitler is only a bump on the road to world domination, chewing scenery is probably a bad idea.
This movie does contain a few echoes of Joe Johnston’s other period comic book movie, 1991’s The Rocketeer. Other than the period and the Nazi bad guys, both films contain a Howard Hughes-like character. In the older movie, it was actually Howard Hughes, but here it’s a mysterious industrialist named Howard Stark, better known as the father to Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark in Iron Man, another movie about a dude that flies around in a rocket powered suit.
As befits a Marvel movie, Captain America also contains some inevitable references to other movies in the franchise, neatly laying the groundwork for last year’s Avengers movie. I’ve yet to see that film, but as it moves up on my Netflix queue, I hope that the level of craftsmanship is consistent with what I’ve just seen for the last two-hours.