Captain America is the first Marvel adaptation of a superhero that predates the era of Stan Lee, who revolutionized the industry by giving his heroes neuroses and everyday concerns. Cap is a contemporary of Batman and Superman, and wasn’t much more than a patriotic symbol and a square jaw. When Lee figuratively and literally thawed him out of an ice floe in the 60s, he seemed an anachronism, yet has been a staple in the Marvel Universe since then (even though he was killed off at one point).
The film, directed by Joe Johnston, takes the same approach. Steve Rogers, played winningly by Chris Evans, is not a very complex character. He’s scrawny and weak, but he has the heart of a lion, and wants nothing more than to fight against the Germans in World War II. He is classified 4F, but catches the eye of a scientist (Stanley Tucci, great as ever). Tucci, along with Tommy Lee Jones as a classically gruff colonel, are developing a serum to turn men into super-soldiers. Evans is their first guinea pig.
Meanwhile, the head of a Nazi scientific outfit called Hydra, played menacingly by Hugo Weaving, who has a distinctly crimson complexion, has secured a rare artifact that supposedly comes from Odin himself (you would think that since Thor is part of this, they would have mentioned it in his movie. Maybe they did and I didn’t catch it). This, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, echoes the claim that Nazis are obsessed with the occult. Weaving, along with his scientist right-hand man (Toby Jones, who has the appropriately bulbous cranium for such a role) have developed a weapon from the artifact that can win the war.
After Evans is turned into Captain America (the special effects of putting Evans face on another body is seamless) he is turned into a propaganda figure, selling war bonds and appearing in comic books and serials, a kind of meta approach. Of course when he finds out that his old friend, Bucky Barnes (who was a homoerotic sidekick in the comics) is in danger, he heads out to help him.
Captain America is a lot of fun, with the right mix of action, adventure and humor. Evans, who I despised as the Human Torch, is much more tolerable here. Hayley Atwell, who is the super-cool British Agent Carter, is both his boss and love interest. Evans is teamed with an old-fashioned all-American platoon, including a black and Asian guy (no mention is made of troop segregation), and is a film that celebrates American pluckiness without being jingoistic.
It also looks great. Setting the film in the 40s was a great idea, as this was when comic books were simple and cut and dried, with no gray area between good and evil. The colors are muted, like the newsprint of a pulp novel, and and instead of wearing a Lycra bodysuit, Evans wears what looks like a heavy denim. The only thing he carries that is fantasy is an impenetrable shield made of “vibranium” (I believe in the comics it was adamantium, the same substance that Wolverine’s claws are made of, but I quibble). A superhero carrying something as quotidian as a standard-issue sidearm just feels right.
As fun as the film can be, it doesn’t set the bar very high. For what it is, it couldn’t be much better, but it stops short of attaining an epic status like Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2. But not all superhero movies can be that sweeping, nor should they.
Be sure to stay after the credits finish for a sneak peek at The Avengers film, coming next May. I have to admit I’m excited by it. And I wouldn’t consider Red Skull gone, either (his defeat shouldn’t come as a spoiler to anyone with half a brain). As a guy I knew who wrote for Marvel said of the Marvel Universe, “No one stays dead, except for Uncle Ben.”
My grade for Captain America: B+