How Else Did You Think We Won?

Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22, 2011)     3.5/5

Directed by Joe Johnston (Paramount Pictures)

Breaking away from the “why so serious?” tone of certain superhero films (cough, cough, The Dark Knight), Captain America: The First Avenger is actually one of the brightest, most comic-bookish “men-in-tights” movies of the new decade.  It is the second of the summer that teases into the Marvel superhero mash-up of 2012, The Avengers (the other being Thor), as well as the second to place its masked characters within a historical setting.  No, Captain America doesn’t have the equal character or story depth of X-Men: First Class, but it does offer that same spirit of nostalgic adventure.

In Brooklyn, circa World War II, shrimpy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has his enlistment rejected on the basis of numerous health problems, despite his courageous will to participate.  He gets his chance when a German scientist, played with zany transformation by Stanley Tucci, offers Steve the chance to participate in a “super soldier” project for the United States army.  When Steve accepts, he is transformed into a buff, all-American hero, and has soon become the mascot for the country’s military effort.  However, he must soon prove his bravery where he initially thought his noble efforts would be placed – on the battlefield.  Harnessing some supernatural gizmo, Nazi scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and his terrorist organization, HYDRA, plans to soon overthrow Hitler and then conquer the world on his own terms.  Captain America, along with his allies, including a best friend (Sebastian Stan), a cute SSR officer (Hayley Atwell), a hard-assed colonel (Tommy Lee Jones, of course), and Iron Man’s father himself, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), know what to do from there.

Although the acting is nowhere near the pristine level of First Class, it is still solid enough to carry Captain America through its predictable storyline.  That said, the film seems to be geared slightly more toward younger audiences than recent superhero flicks.  After all, the movie is directed by Joe Johnston, who was behind the lens on such family fare as Jumanji, The Rocketeer, and October Sky (for the purposes of this review, let’s just forget about The Wolfman).  Yet Captain America is anything from lazy, its exuberant energy separating the film from simple kid stuff.  Considering how well Indiana Jones did the pseudo-serial, Nazi premise without cartoonish CGI, you’d think that it would be entirely unnecessary in Captain America.  Although that nonuse would have made the film at least ten times more interesting, the CGI is used to surprisingly great effect, creating explosive action scenes that bring back the retro vibe just as well.  However, the sole mistake the movie stumbles upon is not going beyond that fun, child-like spirit it creates.

The film is expertly cast, especially Hugo Weaving as the dastardly, supernatural, beyond-Nazi villain.  And Chris Evans sure makes for a likeable little guy who suddenly gets big.  In fact, he could handle a lot more.  There is a plot twist in which we learn how it is possible for Captain America to exist in the present for the forthcoming Avengers, while still being able to help win World World II in the 1940s.  That subplot is adequately executed, but lacks what could have made Captain America a fabulous, stand-alone feature, rather than … well, The First Avenger.

The basic message here is that heart and courage are better than brawn, and a good man is better than a good soldier any day.  Swell.  If only the film could have emphasized that premise a little more throughout the finale, when time-lapse issues could possibly lead to doomed romance with love interest Hayley Atwell.  In fact, that entire romance is slightly understated, considering a stronger tug at the heartstrings could have actually molded a much more compelling film.  It also would have provided a deeper, more thoughtful conclusion, rather than the existing resolution, which is not only blunt, but kinda silly.  But don’t mind all this.  These changes would make Captain America less of a hokey joy, and maybe even give it mildly tragic undertones.  Simply put, that’s not what it’s going for.  The latest issue in the Marvel cannon isn’t looking for moral questions or emotional intensity.  It’s trying to recreate a time when they didn’t matter. 

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