Editor’s note: This review first ran July 22, 2011.
‘Captain America’ a good old-fashion superhero flick
Propelled by self-effacing and quippy ingenuity, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” like its scrappy hero, has a surprisingly earnest, pulpy spirit. Whether it’s when a 90-pound asthmatic brawls in the alleys of Brooklyn or a beautiful dame clocks a soldier for being sexist, there’s something undeniably resonating about watching the little guys prove they have the mettle to compete with the big boys. And despite the Captain’s muscular physique, this resonance is the strongest asset in “Captain America,” which, after an action- and energy-packed two hours, sadly stumbles at the end. (The trailer for “The Avengers” after the credits somewhat makes up for it.)
“Captain America,” based on a character that first appeared in Timely Comics — a precursor to Marvel in the early 1940s — pulls a Tarantino and starts in the present (somewhere in the Alps), only to rapidly shift to 1942 New York, shortly after the United States has entered into War World II. With a dusty color scheme and designs that capture the futurism of an earlier time, the movie evokes a sense of nostalgia, even if you aren’t a part of the Greatest Generation.
We’re soon introduced to Steve Rogers (a digitally altered Chris Evans, “Fantastic Four”), the puny antithesis to all things big and powerful. But what the little guy lacks in natural strength he more than compensates for with an unwavering belief in himself and all things just. And because of this belief, he continues to try to enlist in the Army to serve his country, only to be rejected time and time again. The dues ex machina soon follows, with émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, “The Terminal”) offering Steve the chance to participate in an experimental super-soldier program, which he of course accepts.
Using the ingenious medical formula of Erskine and technological prowess of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, “The Duchess”), Steve is transformed into a muscle-bound superhero in an American flag motif. But instead of leading the calvary, the newly dubbed Captain America is sent across the country as a pitchman/novelty act for war bonds. And though the song-and-dance number that follows is truly campy, watching Steve’s dismay at being a dancing monkey for the masses is the real scene-stealer. The entire montage may be the best sequence in the movie, a sincere exercise in self-referentiality that’s surprisingly witty.
But we soon leave the stage and enter the danger zone. The Captain is pitted against a villain so insanely crazy he frightens Nazis. This baddie is Schmidt, aka Red Skull (a sinister Hugo Weaving, “The Matrix”), a diabolical madman in possession of some Norse power cube (reference “Thor”) that has the ability to alter not only the outcome of the war, but the outcome of the world. So, Captain America sets off to defeat the evil powers that be.
Along with his iconic, nearly indestructible shield, the Captain has a reliable support staff, including his commanding officer (Tommy Lee Jones, “No Country for Old Men”), a man seemingly never out of witty euphemisms; his love interest, Peggy Carter (the era-appropriate British actress Hayley Atwell, “The Duchess”), an agent both capable of throwing a punch and handling a firearm; and his loyal team (Derek Luke, Neal McDonough and Ken Choi; his best pal is Sebastian Stan), who follow him to the far-flung reaches of the world.
As for the headache-inducing digital enhancements that have become so prevalent in today’s action movies, “Captain America,” for the most part, spares us. But that doesn’t stop director Joe Johnston (“The Rocketeer”) from getting lost in the bigness of the project. The best features of the movie were the details: the snappy romantic chemistry, the American Exceptionalism running rampant. (Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve most of the credit here.) But when we do get to the major action and themes, everything just came across as blasé and more a precursor for “The Avengers” than anything else. (That’s not to say watching Captain America demolish entire armies isn’t exciting; there’s just nothing fresh about it.)
The greatest loss here, though, is that we won’t get to see any sequels set in the same era. The end of the movie places the Captain in modern-day New York, which, while allowing him to partake in the much-anticipated “The Avengers” next summer, removes any feasible method for the audience to again enjoy the ‘40s-style cinematography.
But time marches on, and it could do much worse than having Captain America leading the helm.
Four “never back down” stars out of five.