In a summer crowded with superhero blockbusters, Captain America: The First Avenger ranks just below X-Men: First Class, and far ahead of Green Lantern and fellow Avengers lead-in Thor. It never quite reaches the highs of First Class or 2008′s Iron Man, but thanks largely to Joe Johnston‘s direction and Chris Evans‘ performance, it is a genuinely enjoyable film that gets right so much of what Thor and Green Lantern couldn’t.
Aside from its World War II setting, the plotline of Captain America is fairly standard superhero-movie stuff: Steve Rogers (Evans) is a spirited but scrawny boy who wants nothing more than to join the war effort. He gets his chance when he’s selected for an experimental procedure that turns him into the supersoldier Captain America. When Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt gets his hands on an object of unspeakable power, Captain America must lead a team of regular soldiers in a mission to stop Schmidt from taking over the world.
It’s nothing we haven’t heard a million times before, but Johnston manages to tell it in a way that feels both fresh and classic. Captain America is a fundamentally old-fashioned character, left over from the days when it was cool to be un-ironically patriotic, so it’s no surprise that the film feels in many ways like a throwback. This isn’t a criticism. There’s something refreshing about a classic good vs. evil fight, a superhero film in which the villain isn’t insecurity, self-doubt, or daddy issues, but superpowered, megalomaniacal Nazis. Johnston finds the balance between taking the film’s world too seriously and not taking it seriously enough, and thankfully never feels compelled to beat you over the head with its patriotic or heroic themes.
On the flip side, however, the film largely ignores some potentially interesting directions. I would’ve liked to see more of the former weakling Steve Rogers adjusting to his new identity as the buff, hyper-capable Captain America. There’s also an intriguing detour in which Captain America is used not to battle the enemy head-on, but to raise money for the war effort. I was hoping for some commentary on, say, Captain America’s relationship to his public, but the film quickly moves him back into a position to kick ass and take names. Oh well.
Much of what works about Captain America comes down to the magnetic Evans, who deserves praise for a job well done in a tough role. Steve Rogers is so purely, earnestly heroic that it’s easy to imagine how he might’ve ended up as either a lifeless figure or a joke to be played for winking laughs. Instead, Evans plays him completely straight, all good intentions and steely determination, while imbuing him with with a much-needed dose of warmth and imperfection. I felt for him as a character, and I believed in him as a hero.
Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell, as Colonel Phillips and love interest Peggy Carter, respectively, are up to the task as well. Jones is gruff and funny as the kind of rough-but-secretly-caring military leader we often see in films like this, and looks like he’s having a great deal of fun with his role. Atwell, meanwhile, strikes the perfect balance between tough and tender as Peggy. The attraction between Peggy and Steve actually feels natural and believable, because it’s obvious what the two see in each other. That the romantic subplot works as well as it does is also thanks in a large part to the screenwriters, who take their time with it and don’t attempt to make it more than what it is (ahem, Thor).
Johnston and his screenwriters are less adept with the villain’s side of the story, which is flat-out boring. Hugo Weaving at his Hugo Weaving-est doesn’t have enough charisma to make Johann Schmidt anything more than a one-dimensional baddie with no surprises whatsoever. Nor is he particularly frightening, as it’s tough to get worked up about a villain with so little of his own personality. Schmidt’s plotline from start to finish feels rote, as if Johnston dutifully shoehorned him in simply because every superhero needs a nemesis. This is especially true in the first half of the movie, before the hero’s and villain’s paths collide. I found myself getting impatient with the film every time Schmidt appeared, wanting to hurry up and get back to the far more interesting story about the supersoldier with a heart of gold.
Happily, the rest of the film is strong enough to make up for that lack. The action is unrealistic, to be sure, but it’s done well enough that it looks cool and exciting, rather than laughable. The performances from the supporting players are quite good. There’s a touch of bittersweetness to the film, despite of its straightforward morality. And I hear there’s a pretty nifty post-credits sequence, though we didn’t get to see it in our press screening. But the best reason to see this film is Evans, who’s fantastically well cast as Steve Rogers. (Even if the pre-transformation CGI isn’t always entirely convincing.) I can’t wait to see him in next year’s Avengers — which is exactly what Marvel wants, of course.
/Film Rating: 8.0/10