Directed by Joe Johnston
In cinemas now
In a summer when super-hero movies are opening monthly, and a world in which American patriotism could be a polarizing element, the fourth live-action version of Captain America – following a 1944 serial, two 1979 telefilms, and a 1992 direct-to-video release – seems like it would have a difficult time finding a receptive audience. But those who go to see Marvel’s original star-spangled hero in theatres will be rewarded; in almost every sense, Captain America: The First Avenger is a success.
The film follows the origins of the comic character relatively faithfully, tweaking mainly the role of sidekick Bucky Barnes. Steve Rogers is a skinny weakling who longs to join the Army and fight Nazis in World War II, not because he wants to kill the enemy, but because he “hates bullies.” When given an experimental super soldier serum, Rogers becomes a musclebound man with strength, speed, reflexes, and healing beyond mortals. He’s soon utilized as a method of pro-American propaganda, as “Captain America” in USO shows, selling war bonds, movies, and comic books. Eventually, Rogers becomes embroiled in the war for real, rescuing prisoners of war and meeting his dark doppleganger, Johann Schmidt, aka “the Red Skull.” Schmidt plans to use a mystical tessaract (never called the Cosmic Cube, its title in the Marvel Comics, here) to power his plans to allow his organization Hydra to overpower not just the Allied Forces, but those of Hitler as well. But Captain America, aided by a team of tough soldiers, plans to stop him.
Through the talents of CGI, Chris Evans’ face is grafted onto a skinny body for the film’s first third, and the costume doesn’t even appear until the 43-minute mark. Evans is an utterly sympathetic and believable character, unwilling to back down from any fight, even when he’s outclassed in battle, and unskilled in any manner around women. That awkwardness translates best when he’s around tough-as-nails femme Peggy Carter, played with a glorious retro look by Hayley Atwell. Also excellent are Tommy Lee Jones as the rough Colonel Phillips, who doesn’t believe in Rogers’ innate heroism, and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, who knows Rogers will fight to the end. Hugo Weaving does a credible job as the Red Skull, mostly underplaying a role others would chew scenery with, and Stanley Tucci is touching as the doctor who first sees in Rogers the potential to be a hero.
That potential is one of the things that makes Captain America a success more than Green Lantern or Thor, or many of the more recent hero movies. Rogers’ character is almost literally an everyman who is given the chance to be something more. He doesn’t have the money of Tony Stark, the ripped abs of Thor or Green Lantern, or the ninja training and chiaroscuro gadgets of Batman. Instead, he’s a guy who is doing his best to fight the good fight, in whatever way he can. He doesn’t make wisecracks or torture his foes, nor growl and slice at/shoot/hammer/repulsor them. Yes, he’s got super-powers of a sort, but the script and direction – and Evans – never let us forget we’re watching a person rather than a character.
A better director now than in the past – when he gave the world a similar everyman retro-hero in The Rocketeer – Joe Johnston directs Captain America with a steady hand that is aided by practical stunts and explosions rather than too much CGI. And by removing the specific threat of Nazis, as well as damping down any rah-rah American patriotism, the filmmakers should be assured that Captain America will sling his shield well in other countries as well. The film that Green Lantern wishes it could have been, and with more relatable characters than either Thor or X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger deserves a salute.
Verdict: An excellent super-hero film, with a human element that will connect with audiences.10/10