A weakling becomes a big strong solider (with a heart of gold, of course) in Captain America: The First Avenger, another Marvel entry in the comic book movie genre.
And another entry in the movies-leading-up-to-2012’s The Avengers category, which is practically a genre of its own at this point.
When we first meet Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), he’s a skinny, nearly hollow-chested young man trying desperately to join the army and fight in World War II. With his asthma, his short stature, his scrawniness and a variety of other physical conditions, he is the definition of 4F. Dejected, he agrees to go to a World of Tomorrow-type fair with his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who is in uniform and ready to ship out. Despite having been beaten up in an alley earlier in the day and only saved by Bucky, Steve decides to give enlisting another try when he sees a recruitment booth at the fair. This time, however, he has an edge. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Steve giving his heartfelt reasons for wanting to join up and decides to question the young man himself. Do you want to go kill Nazis, he asks Steve. I don’t want to kill anybody, says Steve, but I don’t like bullies. Stamp — 1A and Steve is headed to training.
But this isn’t just your standard boot camp. Except for Steve, all the soldiers are big guys with exceptional strength. They are being prepped for a project whose goal is to create super soldiers. It’s not enough for them to be strong men, Erskine warns. Because the project will augment all facets of them inside and out, the soldiers must also be good men. Which is why Steve is eventually picked as the one to undergo Erskine’s super soldier process first. He enters the contraption looking like Barney Fife and leaves looking like, well, a very buff Chris Evans who can run fast, jump far and catch a Nazi spy who happened to slip into the project lab. He wants to be involved in fighting the war, specifically in fighting Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a former colleague of Erskine’s and the man who inadvertently received the first version of the treatment similar to Steve’s. His side effects include increased evil and a skin condition that led to the name Red Skull. But the powers-that-be at first think Steve’s most useful power is as a personality who gins up publicity and urges people to buy bonds.
The toast of the country, Steve enjoys this job a bit at first, but a trip to the war zone reminds him that the battlefield is where he’d prefer to be. In Europe, he reunites with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British agent who was a part of the super soldier project, and fast-talking inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and take on Red Skull and his nefarious, world-domination-seeking group HYDRA.
That’s right, Red Skull is so black-hat even the Nazis are too wimpy for him and he creates his own, even more evil sub-group.
Yes, this is an origin story, so we get a bit of the requisite “with great power comes great responsibility” stuff. And, yes, as the name “Howard Stark” might suggest, we are being set up for further Avengers adventures. The movie actually starts off in what appears to be modern times with the discovery of what appears to be a spaceship-type craft wedged in the Arctic ice and Captain America’s shield among the wreckage inside. The film’s final moments also point to a future for this character (I didn’t stay for the “secret” obligatory Marvel post-credit teaser stuff, but The Internet seems to indicate that you get a glimpse of the forthcoming film). But thankfully — and unlike, say, Thor and Iron Man 2 — these promos don’t overtake the movie you’re watching now.
Captain America is fun. The movie calls to mind the geez-wiz-mister tone of earlier super hero stories but with a sense of humor about the earnestness of the hero and a don’t-worry-so-much laxness about the way it fiddles with history.
Evans seems like the perfect kind of blank-canvas actor for this movie. He is handsome, but in a general way so you aren’t just paying attention to his looks (as, say, one might with Chris Hemsworth in Thor). He has an all-American likeability to him — Superman-ish but not so epic. Steve/Captain America is a character you might not put on your top 10 list of all-time favorite heroes, but he’s one you don’t mind watching either.
And this sense of all-right-ness carries through for the rest of the movie. The special effects aren’t extraordinary, but they fit with the story and the action and aren’t so ambitious that intention outstrips ability. The supporting characters are, for the most part, fun — Hugo Weaving makes a nice banality-of-evil villain and we can believe that Dominic Cooper is the kind of showman with big ideas who eventually fathers Tony Stark. And the romance — because of course there has to be one — that develops between Steve and Peggy doesn’t light up the screen but it works well enough (it isn’t flatly ridiculous, speaking of Tony Stark).
So where does this rate among the recent superhero movies? It isn’t one of the greats, it isn’t the second X-Men (or this summer’s reboot), the second Spider-Man or the most recent two Batmans. It isn’t even quite the zippy good time of the first Iron Man. But this movie is head and shoulders above this summer’s Thor, either of the Hulk movies, the Fantastic Fours or the also-rans like Green Hornet. It is lively, enjoyable, a bit silly but with spark, with enough going in its characters and its mythology to keep it from feeling like the same old superhero thing. B
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action. Directed by Joe Johnston and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The First Avenger is two hours and five minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures.