Entertaining 'Captain America' fights foes with '40s flair
Sure, you're fed up with comic book superhero movies. Who isn't? But if someone holds a gun to your head and forces you to see one, you could do a lot worse than Captain America: The First Avenger. What makes this one stand out is its fidelity to its source material, and the era that produced it—the 1940s, when America was the last hope of the free world, the war against evil was considered just, and the favorite pulp reading matter of kids were still called comic books (not graphic novels).
Working from a clever script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, director Joe Johnston works the comic book aesthetic for all it's worth: shiny period cars, sexy dames, tough, red-blooded fighting men.
But at its core is a human story guaranteed to gladden the heart of everyone's inner fanboy; a stout-hearted guy in a misfit's body given the chance to prove he's a hero inside.
Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers with an appealing mix of modesty, gee-whiz enthusiasm, and gutsy courage. It's 1943, the war against Hitler is in full swing, but Rogers, an asthmatic, 90-pound weakling from Brooklyn, can't get drafted. Every time he tries, he's classified 4-F. He's also too scrappy to give up in a fight, so he's always getting the stuffing beaten out of him by neighborhood bullies. (The CGI effects by which Evans' head is evidently morphed onto someone else's undernourished body in these scenes are convincingly done.)
But expatriate German scientist, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Steve talking about what the war effort means to him, and invites him into a secret government program. Over the doubts of his new commanding officer, Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Steve distinguishes himself with brains and bravery (if not athleticism) in basic training. He's the first one chosen to be injected with a mega-steroid-type serum that enhances his physical prowess (and the only one; the lab is blown up by saboteurs before the Army can create an entire unit of super-soldiers). The serum, we're told, not only pumps up the body, but deepens whatever is inside—in Steve's case, passionate morality and goodness.
An example of the serum gone wrong is Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi honcho in whom Erskine's potion not only burned the skin off his face (he's now known as the Red Skull), it intensified the evil inside as well. Breaking off from Hitler, Schmidt is waging his own campaign against the world, with his own mad scientist (Toby Jones), his own fleet of rocket-powered vehicles, and his own army of robotic super soldiers (who can't shoot any straighter than the Star Wars Storm Troopers).
As the inevitable battle looms between these good an evil supermen, Steve's team expands to include beautiful Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a sharpshooting British army officer who doesn't take any guff from the boys, and master-builder/tech genius Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). But Steve takes a detour en route to his destiny in the movie's most inventive subplot, when he's co-opted by the Army PR machine to zip his impressive new physique into a spandex "Captain America" outfit and tour the country selling war bonds. A hero to little kids, he inspires a comic book and appears in Saturday matinee movie serials.
This is a nice touch by which Johnston is able to pay homage to the character's pulp fiction origins, but it also allows the movie Steve to break away from them. When his act doesn't go over with the men at the front, he ditches the star-spangled outfit, gets Stark to design him some functional equipment, and joins the war effort in earnest, applying his newfound prowess to a one-man mission to rescue an Army unit taken prisoner by the maniacal Schmidt.
There's a whole lot of other business about an ancient artifact of the god, Odin, an energy cube that functions into the plot somehow or other, pitched battles between good guys and bad guys, stuff blowing up, and things flying off the screen in 3-D (only one of which is kind of cool, involving Steve's boomerang shield). But Evans, Jones, and Atwell keep things on point in this entertainingly retro adventure.
THE FIRST AVENGER
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, and Hayley Atwell. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Directed by Joe Johnston. A Paramount release. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.
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