I never thought I’d be alive to see a Captain America movie hit the big screen with a big ol Hollywood studio budget. Look around you — cheapie Reality TV shows “starring” fame whoring whores all over the networks (and don’t even get me started on the quality wasteland that is basic cable), and post-modern hip kids that are so post-modern and hip that their only entertainment value now is to be killed off viciously in the “Scream” films. In a world like that, where does a unhip, unironic Captain America fit in? The guy wears his patriotism on his sleeves (literally!), for God’s sake. Why would Hollywood make such a movie in such an environment? Thank God for Marvel, because they did, and so I give you … Captain America! (Insert patriotic theme song as sung by Whitney Houston, preferably live.)
Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, who, true to his comic book roots, is a skinny kid from Brooklyn who longs to serve his country during World War II. Alas, Rogers is a “90 pound asthmatic” weakling whose physical stature doesn’t come close to matching his strong-willed spirit. Steve gets his chance when Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the man in charge of America’s super duper secret Super Soldier program recruits him despite cranky old warhorse General Phillips’ (Tommy Lee Jones) objections. Erskine, you see, believes in that oldest of old Marvel adage, “with great power, comes great responsibility”, though in Erskine’s words, it’s more along the lines of, “weak men know the value of strength”. Hey, he’s foreign, not Uncle Ben. Though as it turns out, Erskine and Phillips’ super duper secret program could have used an extra level of duper, because bad guys from the Nazi outfit Hydra — led by the diabolical Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), better known as The Red Skull — soon crashes the party.
Directed by Joe Johnston, the man who gave us a similarly throwback type of movie called “The Rocketeer” back in 1991 (if you’ve never seen that movie, do yourself a favor and rectify that now), “Captain America: The First Avenger” offers up a nice balance of Origin Story in the first half and an “episode”, if you will, in the second half. While most Superhero Origin movie seems to tread water as the superhero goes through the motions of becoming that superhero, watching Chris Evans go from the skinny kid from Brooklyn to getting “superhero-ized” courtesy of Erskine’s super soldier serum (with help from Tony Stark aka Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper)) actually makes up the film’s best moments, a rarity in the genre. Johnston handles Steve Rogers’ transition nicely, thanks in part to a great supporting cast that includes Tucci, very effective as the humane genius, Tommy Lee Jones, and the very capable Hayley Atwell as British secret agent Peggy Carter. Atwell’s admitted on-the-spot adlibbing in regards to her character’s first, ahem, contact with the newly minted, freshly buffed Steve Rogers is one of many nice moments featuring the superhero out of costume.
But of course, what’s a superhero movie without some superhero action? Don’t sweat it, there is plenty of that, too. Armed with his iconic vibranium shield (stronger than steel, but lighter, we’re told), the good Captain eventually leaps into battle against Weaving’s The Red Skull. His first action is against orders, as he’s pressed into service in order to save Brooklyn buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has gotten himself captured by the Skull and his scientist sidekick Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). (Zola’s introduction should delight fans of the comic book.) Soon, Captain America has become a staple of America’s efforts to win the war, and with the howling furies of his Howling Commandos (essentially a loose collection of former POWs like Barnes, Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Gabe Jones (Derek Luke)), takes the battle to the Red Skull’s doorsteps. For the evil fella has gotten his hands on a deadly new power source, and is determined to become a God. Or some such. You know comic book villains. The Red Skull is the epitome of those guys.
There’s no doubt about it, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a rollicking good time. In fact, you could almost say it’s an old-fashioned, heroes in white hat type of storytelling, with great out-of-uniform segments and some nice action beats throughout. The Red Skull’s scheme is actually the least interesting part of the film, and indeed, whenever Hugo Weaving’s villain shows up to do his bad guy shtick, the film feels very cheesy. Of course, it doesn’t help that Hydra consists of a bunch of guys in what looks like S&M gear armed with bulky, shiny cannons that looks incredibly out of place in the film’s World War II setting. But hey, this is a comic book movie, so those types of fantastic elements must be accommodated. Even so, the Hydra parts of the movie are really the film’s least effective, and I kept wishing there were more of Rogers being paraded around the nation selling war bonds. We get about five minutes worth of this, so that’ll have to do.
Chris Evans certainly fills out the costume nicely, even if that costume sometimes looks a bit too bulky and hard to move in for my liking. The later costume, anyway. When Rogers first hops into action, he’s wearing his USO tights, but with pants and bomber jacket and motorcycle helmet. This is actually an excellent look for the superhero, and it’s too bad he had to eventually step into the iconic uniform for the rest of the film. Evans is undeniably terrific in the role, both as a beef cake superhero and as a shy kid from Brooklyn, and he has a great supporting cast to work with. Tommy Lee Jones in particular is hilarious as the cranky Phillips, while Atwell makes for a great love interest; the dame might actually have more guts than all her male counterparts in the movie. Fans of the comics will have plenty of goodies to grab onto, including Stan Lee’s cameo and a couple of tips to the character’s comic book roots. And needless to say, sit through the end credits for a quick look at “The Avengers”.
Joe Johnston (director) / Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (screenplay), Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (comic books)
CAST: Chris Evans … Captain America / Steve Rogers
Hayley Atwell … Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan … James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes
Tommy Lee Jones … Colonel Chester Phillips
Hugo Weaving … Johann Schmidt / Red Skull
Dominic Cooper … Howard Stark
Richard Armitage … Heinz Kruger
Stanley Tucci … Dr. Abraham Erskine
Samuel L. Jackson … Nick Fury
Toby Jones … Dr. Arnim Zola
Neal McDonough … Timothy ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan
Derek Luke … Gabe Jones