Superhero Summer is coming to a close, with Thor attaining mild success (not nearly the reaction Iron Man received) and The Green Lantern struggling to not only earn back its massive production budget (some estimates reach $300 million), but avoid committing suicide after critical shaming. Captain America: The First Avenger is the season closer and though it may not be as strong as this summer’s X-Men:First Class, it’s about as satisfying as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man: a fun romp with a decently developed hero that doesn’t insult your gray matter.
Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a ninety pound kid who is accustomed to bully battles in back alleys (that he never wins). After repeatedly trying to get into the military, Steve catches the eye of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working to create an army of Übermensch to battle the Nazi R&D division, Hydra. After the application of the Super-Soldier Serum, Rogers goes from Oscar Meyer wiener to an over-stuffed sausage link. He soups up and Hulks out, fighting off bad guys like he’s playing the rest of the movie in God mode.
Which is a mild shame. Clocking in at about two hours, the film takes great care to develop Rogers as an unyielding, noble kid. Despite the uncanny dubbing when Chris Evans’ deep voice emanates from the mousy body of Steve Rogers (using CGI, they grafted Evans’ face onto another actor’s body), Evans does a remarkable job grounding Rogers with charm and sincere humility. Dr. Erskine tells Rogers that a man who has not known power (aka, has been a punching bag) will wield the power of the super-soldier with great responsibility. Both Evans’ subtle performance and the script work to establish that theme, only to have it thrown under the bus once Hydra soldiers need to meet their maker. Given that the goons are no match for Captain America, his real enemy should be an internal struggle to find the balance of his new powers after being chopped liver all his life. Instead, we see a vacuous hour of traditional action beats. After the numbing haze of bullets and brawn, we’re gratefully treated to some less formulaic closing scenes which remind us why we care about the Rogers tale.*
Captain America director Joe Johnston has made some recent films that lacked the pixie dust that made his other WWII flight of fancy film The Rocketeer so much fun. Johnston’s starry eyed love of Classical Hollywood comes through in his filmmaking praxis, which makes it perfect for the Rogers tale in the 1940’s: The cinematography evokes an older era that corroborates the overall art design, from the worn Captain America duds down to the clunky archaic fonts on posters. There’s a clear love for the time period and Johnston’s team brings it to life, with a majority of the film starring physical sets and stunts and bowing out to CGI only when necessary.
Obviously Captain America’s nationalistic origins (wonderfully parodied within the film as the newly anointed Rogers achieves notoriety promoting war bonds) would not have a place in the twenty-first century, in which Hitler has already been KO’d and we no longer go around echoing propaganda posters to “Smack the Japs!” Instead, the film focuses on Rogers’ ambition to fight bullies in any form. This shift underscores the ideals we (the U.S.) wish we could live up to, leaving behind the jingoism.
*Sadly the film ends on a line delivered like an amusing quip instead of a dramatic gesture, which undermines its finest moment.