"When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shiiiield..." (KLANG!)
"Yeah, I've Knocked Adolf Hitler Out Over 200 Times."
This is the one that needed to work.
It all hinges on this one and it would be a tough fight. Captain America is the one Marvel A-lister who has seemed to defy the switch to other media. There were the '60's cartoons—basically limited-animation panels from the comics—a bad '90's film, a serial film, a couple of lousy TV movies. Next year's The Avengers extravaganza depends on the character, so this is the one to be nervous about.
"Cap" is Marvel's version of Superman, a Big Blue Boy Scout, but like DC's Big Guy, it's tough to write for him—the fight always has to come to him and a lot of the time he plays defense, he has no motivation other than an altruistic manner, and he's seemingly unstoppable, meaning the villains have to be more elaborate and more interesting than he is. Like Superman, the character is often changed—costume, identity, or even, when all else fails...killed. Up until this time, the few live-action CA interpretations have seemed like shielded "Six Million Dollar Man" episodes, cheap and stunted. It's tough to replicate the dramatic moves the character pulls in the comics (he's usually shown in mid-move, suspended, too) as opposed to Spider-man. Captain America: The First Avenger has to work.
It does. Like gangbusters.
Director Joe Johnston has been down this road before—he directed The Rocketeer, another WWII-era superhero flick, after all—but he's never made a film as good as this one (he made The Wolfman last year). CA:TFA takes the story back to its comic-book origin roots when it was created by street-wise kids Joe Simon* and Jack Kirby—fighting Nazi's and flying colors. At the same time, it pays affectionate tribute to past Cap incarnations, while delivering the action goods in a neat retro-futuristic environment, a bit like what Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow should have been.**
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 98 pound Brooklynite weakling (such things do exist, I've heard), who wants to join the Army and is constantly turned down for any number of good reasons and envious of his pal James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who's off to fight in the European Theater with the 107th. In a note that ties in with locations from the Iron Man movies, Rogers goes to the New York World's Fair on a double-date with Bucky, and his G.I. jones is noticed by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who gets the kid a hitch, and a washout in training, signs him up for a "super-soldier" program that Hitler was very interested in before Erskine fled Germany. Meanwhile, half a world away, one of Erskine's test-subjects Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is blitz-krieging around the world looking for ancient artifacts, ostensibly to help with Germany's war-effort, but secretly to gain ultimate power to form his own Reich, with his science group, Hydra. Erskine's experiments on Schmidt have drastically disfigured him, but for Rogers, the attempts are a stunning success. Rogers wants to fight, but the government instead presses him into service as a war-bonds spokesman, as "Captain America," which goes over well at home, but is a joke to the soldiers on the line. Under the auspices of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who laconically nearly walks away with the movie) and Major Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, plucky—she doesn't blink when she fires a gun), Rogers goes against orders and inserts himself into the fight, rescuing a squad of Hydra prisoners, including his pal Bucky and a motley crew of dog-faces familiar to anyone who's read the comics.
The sight of The Howling Commandos brought a big smile to my face, but even without them, Johnston makes a fun, goofy film, with some nice war action mixed in with well-done super-hero antics, and shot along the lines of a film Johnston storyboarded early in his career, Raiders of the Lost Ark (with the occasional nod to Leni Riefenstahl). Johnston does some nice movie cross-referencing by making the character of Howard Stark, very Howard Hughes-like after his own The Rocketeer, and casting Dominic Cooper in the part, often resembling Leonardo DiCaprio from The Aviator. Chris Evans, who plays Steve Rogers, is a good funny actor, but he's tamped down here, playing everything completely straight and without irony, very much the Boy Scout. This is one of the better Marvel movies, and one of the better superhero movies to come out, as well.
As with the other Marvel films, stick around until after the credits for a big surprise, that will whet your appetite for next year. "Some assembly required." Heh.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect Saturday Matinee.
* Simon is still alive (bless him) at age 97, and still active—he has a new comic coming out this year. As Stan Lee has his customary cameo in this film (he's good, too) it would have been nice—really nice—if Cap's REAL creator was included in the film. The legendary Jack Kirby died in 1994.
** It's a combination of Kirby-esque pod-forms, more suited for the 1960's, and lo-tech '40's dials and toggles (which spit sparks in duress), and my favorite joke in the film is the non-LED (not invented yet) countdown indicators used in the Red Skull's lab—as any timed pyrotechnician will tell you, the only reason to have such a device is to build suspense in movie audiences.