We’ve certainly seen plenty of superhero movies this summer, but the new film Captain America is a very enjoyable, unabashedly old-fashioned action-adventure story that is full of two-fisted fun and isn’t afraid to be earnest, even a little corny. It’s an interesting departure for Marvel Studios, in both tone and manner of storytelling, and it’s one of the best films they have made.
It’s 1942, and all Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to do is to serve his country in World War II. But Steve is a 98-pound weakling, riddled with infirmities ranging from asthma to flat feet. The army keeps rejecting him for health reasons, but Steve won’t take no for an answer, applying again and again.
This determination catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), an expatriate German scientist who is developing a serum for the U.S. army that will turn a normal person into a physically perfect super soldier. Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), the military leader of the project, wants to use a bigger guy in the program, but Erskine sees in Steve the qualities of courage and nobility that he believes would make a great soldier, if only his physical qualities matched his inner virtues.
The villain of the piece is Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who runs HYDRA, the Nazis’ science division, and is insane and ambitious enough to have destructive plans that outstrip even Hitler’s wildest notions. Red Skull was the first test subject of Erskine’s super soldier formula, but the early version had a few problems. Yes, it made him stronger, but it also made him crazier, not to mention turning him into a magenta nightmare, with a head that literally looks like a red skull. After finding the Tesseract, a seemingly magical blue glowing cube that contains enough energy to power a countless number of advanced weapons, Red Skull has the ability to make his plans a reality.
After a stint as a prefab media hero, selling war bonds in front of a line of chorus girls and appearing in propaganda films, Steve actually gets to earn his fame and do a little soldiering. Along with his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and the Howlin’ Mad Commandos (though they’re never actually called that in the film), led by Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough), Steve blazes a trail through Europe, bases and trying to find Red Skull.
Evans is great here. His performance as the Human Torch was probably the best thing about the mediocre Fantastic Four movies, and he was very funny in last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in which he had the smarm turned up to 11 to play a conceited movie star, so it was kind of surprising that he was so good here playing an incredibly earnest and noble character.
By design, Steve doesn’t really have much of a character arc, since he is supposed to be the same good man on the inside regardless of what he looks like on the outside, and this could make Steve bland, but Evans really sells the character’s sincerity.
The entire movie reflects that surprising earnestness. It’s become standard with superhero stories lately to be either very snarky and postmodern or very dark and psychologically tortured.
Captain America doesn’t have an ironic bone in its body. It reflects the moral certitude of World War II, when we wanted to give Hitler what for and that was all there was to it.
Director Joe Johnston brings the same awshucks earnestness and optimism to this movie that he did to The Rocketeer and October Sky. With the help of some great production design, Johnston really nails the tone of the movie, which is a sort of heightened version of the time period. I wouldn’t exactly call this movie’s version of the 1940s realistic. Every scene has a burnished quality to it, a sort of art-deco sheen over everything, and there’s one scene in particular at the World’s Fair that is particularly stylized and otherworldly, but those qualities suit the larger-than-life story the movie is telling.
The special effects here are top notch. All the battles and explosions look great, but the real standout special effect is how, at the beginning of the movie, the filmmakers were able to put Evans’ head on top of a skinny body. The effect can be a little jarring at first, but soon it just becomes part of the scene.
The film almost falls into four or five discrete sections, but the script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, makes the film like it’s telling a larger tale instead of several short stories.
Despite the sincerity that pervades the film, the writers make it consistently funny.
Evans is surrounded by an amazing supporting cast. Jones is acidly funny here, but also brings his part a gravitas that it could have lacked in lesser hands. Tucci lends a great warmth and paternal energy to his scenes with Evans.
Hayley Atwell is quite good as Agent Peggy Carter, a Brit who is on loan to the American army. She is strong and capable, able to throw a punch or shoot a gun if she needs to, and she admired the skinny, pre-serum Steve, although his buff new body doesn’t hurt, it was his humanity that drew her to him. The romance here is probably the best one of any of the Marvel movies.
As anyone who has seen the Matrix movies knows, Weaving makes a great villain. He is very frightening here under his red make-up, going for full-on megalomania while never being too overthe-top or campy.
The rest of the movie is filled with great supporting characters, including Toby Jones as HYDRA’s head scientist, who doesn’t necessarily agree with the super-insane direction the organization is taking but doesn’t really see a way out.
One place in which the film stumbles is the ending, which doesn’t wreck the movie but is a little disappointing, and seems to exist mostly to help set the table for next year’s film The Avengers, which will feature a teaming of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and others. The way the movie ended was precedented in the comic books, but as much as I liked this movie, I have a hard time believing it would have ended this way if The Avengers wasn’t coming. I like the casual ways the Marvel movies establish that they’re all in the same universe, such as Tony Stark’s father working on the super soldier project, or the Tesseract having once resided in Odin’s treasure room. However, whenever the Marvel movies spend time maneuvering to set up The Avengers, from the ending here to the anemic SHIELD subplots in Thor and Iron Man 2, they do so to their own detriment.
I’m interested to see The Avengers next summer, even if the buildup to it hasn’t exactly been beneficial to Marvel’s films, but with Captain America they have made one of their best, and prove that they aren’t afraid to take a chance on a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.