Captain America: The First Avenger does accurately reflect a few things from actual history. But while the United States did flirt with eugenics for a while, and Nazi Germany did try to vaporize whole populations, those scenes played out a lot less wholesomely in real life than they do as plot points in this adaptation of the Marvel Comics character’s story. Even having the word “avenger” in its title at all seems bold for the movie, whose emotional baseline is so safe, so neutral, that for a while there, he might as well be Captain Switzerland. Take the perforated cheese of the plot into account, too.
But just have a little faith, director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely aver, for maybe you can get a good summer blockbuster from a comic book based on a 70-year-old propaganda trope. (Just like how you can maybe get a metabolically enhanced “supersoldier” from a puny and sickly but brave and eager kid.)
Chances of success are better than average if the kid’s played by Chris Evans, who got into superhero movies as the Human Torch in Fantastic Four, but now at last inhabits his more suitable element. Here he is as Steve Rogers, a willing World War II enlistee who actualizes a pronouncement made by Stanley Tucci’s sagely/schmaltzy German scientist: “A weak man knows the value of strength.” However weird it is to behold those early scenes with Evans’ head digitally grafted onto somebody else’s much less brawny body, his face and voice seem durable and reassuring. Swerving away from self-pity and into plausible humility, passing tests of character with declarative pluck, his Steve is as ready for this particular promotion to captain as anybody can be—ready to stand up and sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the privilege of luxuriating in chastely spiffy, square-jawed Americana.
This is twice-filtered nostalgia, really, as Johnston draws much from the vintage Lucas-Spielberg playbook, itself a study of the pulp serials those directors grew up with. But moral reductiveness affords a certain popcorn-compatible clarity of presentation. In Captain America, every Allied soldier is a decent guy (take Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes), every woman a pin-up-worthy beauty (Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter), every authority figure an avuncular wit (Tommy Lee Jones' Col. Chester Phillips) and every villain a faceless monster—be he a bondage-hooded foot soldier or the aptly named Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Each actor poses very naturally in his or her respective category, enjoying and enlivening the proceedings considerably.
But affability can’t—and doesn’t—last forever in a film so willing to neutralize its own personality for the sake of humdrum plot. Overall, it does compare favorably with recently reviewed YouTube snippets of the draggy 1979 Captain America TV movie, which plays like educational film-strip kitsch, and the 1990 feature, which appears to just plain suck.
Determinedly, this one works as another component of a now familiar franchise kit. Iron Man’s father is here, as is the inter-dimensional portal that brought us Thor and so on. Noting that extra bit of the film’s title, it obviously sets up next summer’s The Avengers, encouraging us to wonder how the good captain’s super-square valor and virtue will play in (the comic book movie version of) America now.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
With Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci and Sebastian Stan
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14