A lot of comic book movies try very hard to capture a kind of rip-roaring, Saturday matinee atmosphere, the kind of flick that leaves popcorn stuck to the walls of the theatre and giggling kids dashing off in every direction to emulate the exploits of a daring hero. The closest anyone has come (I think) is Sam Raimi with Spider-Man 2, but even then the film got overwhelmed in many ways by its own epic ambition. Which is fine, but sometimes epic isn’t what you want. Sometimes what you want is an honest, simple adventure picture, and in that regard Captain America:The First Avenger might be the greatest comic book movie success of all time.
It’s not the most ambitious film Marvel’s ever done, and definitely not the most ambitious they ever will do. It’s not the darkest, the funniest or the best made, but it may well be the most true to the roots of its hero. A period piece with a war movie’s skin and a superhero’s heart, Captain America is a powerful reminder of how much fun a film can be when it drops its pretenses of glory and just focuses on being cool.
Somewhere in the Arctic, the U.S. government has uncovered something buried in the ice, a massive craft like something in The Thing from Another World. When they crawl inside, they find something unexpected: a red, white and blue shield.
Flashback to 1942. Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is searching for a mysterious object of great power hidden somewhere in Norway. When he finds it, he calls it “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” (and the Thor tie-ins begin), and hatches a plan to use its energy to launch his own private war to conquer the world. Helming his mysterious, occult-driven organization HYDRA, Schmidt defies Hitler and strikes out on his own, developing machines with unheard of power.
In New York City, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans digitally rendered into a runt) is trying like hell to enlist in the U.S. Army. He sees the newsreel footage, the Uncle Sam posters and all his friends, including James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), enlisting, but he’s too tiny and too feeble to get past the Army physical. Desperate to serve his country, he even starts changing his birthplace on the enlistment form in the hope that some Army doctor will finally give him a pass.
His chance arrives in the unlikely guise of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German doctor who fled his homeland after his development of a “super soldier” serum led to his persecution by Schmidt. Before Erskine could flee, though, Schmidt took an early, flawed version of the formula, turning him into a being of great strength, but also a monster now known as the Red Skull.
But the formula has been perfected, and the Americans need a test subject. Impressed by his fighting spirit, Erskine enrolls Rogers in the super soldier program, led by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and a voluptuous but tough English agent named Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Oh, and lurking in the background, helping the project along, there’s a young engineer named Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper).
Rogers fights to be the first man to take the serum, and succeeds. It transforms him into an energetic, Chris Evans-sized superhuman, but just as he’s reaping the benefits, Dr. Erskine is murdered by a German assassin, and the newly-christened Captain America is transformed from soldier to sideshow.
Instead of heading overseas to punch Hitler in the face, Rogers tours the country for the USO, pretending to punch an actor dressed as Hitler in the face and selling war bonds. Comic books are written about him. He stars in films. He becomes a stateside hit, but when he heads to Italy to speak to a few American soldiers, he feels the urge to perform some real service. When he finds that Bucky”s division has been decimated by the Skull, Rogers picks up his shield (still a cheap metal prop at this point) and heads out to test his powers on the a HYDRA base and rescue the men who are left.
What follows is a highly personal, man on man war between Cap and the Skull, all barreling toward a conclusion with the whole of America at stake, and Steve Rogers’ chance to choose between being a perfect soldier or a good man.
The greatest success of Captain America is that it has the feel of a real adventure. There’s something very Raiders of the Lost Ark about it (and maybe that’s just the Nazis), something that really gives you a sense of cinematic nostalgia. Director Joe Johnston (who’s helmed stuff like The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), just knows how to make a movie fun, and even when things get war-torn, Captain America retains that spirit. It’s got the feel of a movie from 60 years ago wrapped in the polish and big budget bombast of a movie from right now, and it’s a winning combination. And, perhaps most shocking of all in the age of CGI gloss, it feels like a real movie, with a barreling plot and a sense of reality, and not just a collection of expensive effects.
The cast adds to this by giving the genuine impression that they’re having fun. Even when Cap is in the midst of a moral crisis, Evans carries the character with the kind of stand-up guy charm that you can always expect from Steve Rogers. Gone is the cocky kid from those Fantastic Four flicks we’d all rather not talk about. In his place is a superhero, and Evans proves it by somehow making even the cornball moments (and this flick has a few) really work. It’s more fun, though, to watch Weaving at work. He delights in walking in the Skull’s shoes, turning every moment into the kind of sinister melodrama that would be just as at home on a comic book panel as a big screen. But even with their hero/villain powers at play, Tommy Lee Jones always manages to steal scenes, from the way he eats a steak to his grudging allowance of Rogers into the super solider program in the first place. Oh, and be sure to keep an eye out for Stan “The Man” Lee’s cameo.
Top this off with some well-placed, well-executed moments of visual power and you end up with very little to complain about. I’ve always been skeptical about Captain America, in large part because I’ve always found him a little uni-dimensional. Johnston, Evans and the rest of the Cap creative team get around this by making The First Avenger a film that’s less about being true to a nation and more about being true to yourself. But all thematic concerns aside, it’s just a damn cool flick.
A Note on The Avengers: I’m always surprised at how many people, even people who I peg as nerds, leave the theater during the credits of a Marvel movie. Don’t do it, kids. Especially this time. The teaser trailer for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers doesn’t give anything away in terms of plot (although there’s a potential villain lurking in one shot someplace), or any of the real interrelations between its stars (though Downey is charmingly silver-tongued, as always). What it does give is a blazing injection of action and pure movie nerd glee. Captain America is a cool movie, but you’re going to leave the theater thinking about this.