Anyone who has gone to high school in the U.S. remembers those lectures about the American Dream, but never has someone mentioned Captain America, a man who epitomizes it. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, Captain America became the comic-book world’s most nationalistic superhero. And though the serial was meant as a statement for its creator’s disdain for the actions of Nazi Germany, it has since withstood the test of time. But when Stan Lee reintroduced the fearless Cap., his recognizability skyrocketed. This weekend, director Joe Johnston (“October Sky”), alongside writers, Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely, brings the character to the big-screen with Captain America: The First Avenger, which stars Chris Evans (who many believed would become the cause of the film’s failure) as the eponymous hero and leader of the super group, The Avengers. And in his sincerest role to date, Evans lends irresistibility to this blockbuster.
It’s fortunate that, although Marcus and McFeely do use the film as an opportunity to set up the upcoming Avengers megahit, it rarely feels like it’s meant only as a prelude of things to come. In fact, it opens with a desolate shot of the Arctic as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents comb the remains of a crashed aircraft and discover the star-spangled hero frozen in a slab of ice. And that’s the last you hear from the Marvel universe’s espionage and law-enforcement organization (save for a short sequence at the end which features a cameo by its ringleader, Nick Fury, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson). From there on out, we’re transported to WWII, as Steve Rogers (Evans), a rail-thin son of a soldier and chronic asthma sufferer, desperately tries to enlist in the armed forces . . . despite being immediately rejected after all his physicals (and when he finally does make it into basic training, Rogers can barely climb a rope). But his courage and dedication to his fellow men, attracts Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who’s working on the American front, and the hard-assed Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), both of whom are working on a secret government program meant to create the first-breed of “super soldier,” whose mission is to “personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of Hell.” Naturally, knowing that Rogers understands the value of strength, they strap him into an ominous looking contraption (in a laboratory hidden beneath a Brooklyn antique shop) and after a short lightshow (and a couple dozen injections containing a serum that increases muscular growth and speeds up metabolism), Steve comes out a new man — his buffed-up new physique even impressing the tough-skinned beauty, Peggy Carter, who is performed by Hayley Atwell and is one of the only women on the field.
And with an able-bodied hero comes a maniacal villain. In Captain America: The First Avenger, it’s Johann Schmidt, also known as, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). The leader of the Nazi’s deep science division, Hydra, Schmidt, a fan of occult powers, searches desperately for an artifact, The Cosmic Cube (it was once apparently in Odin’s possession), which can power up all of the Third Reich’s weaponry (and make for one helluva’ cannon). But after he acquires the cube (after desecrating an entire Norwegian village), it no longer becomes about following orders. As a man who’d like to watch the world burn (and now has the ability to ensure it does), Johann quickly sets his sights on upstaging Der Fuhrer and eliminating any nation that’s against his tyranny. As expected, Weaving, a top-notch choice for playing antagonists of any kind, delivers with an asinine performance, resulting in one of the more memorable characters of the summer.
Also noteworthy is Atwell. Resembling one of those vintage pin-ups, Carter isn’t just any dame. She’s smart, sultry, has a deadly aim, and next to Pepper Potts (immortalized by Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man“), is one of Marvel Studio’s most likable love interests. Basing her performance off of the late, great Ginger Rogers (known for her role in “Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman,” which netted Rogers the Oscar), Atwell explains her character’s charisma in that she can “do everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels.” This is the type of onscreen romance that films should template; in which both parties benefit from their respective partners.
Granted, the writing does suffer from a few dry spells. Although the mix of pulpy-dialogue and some intentionally-bad jokes (surprisingly) adds to the atmosphere, there are moments that are drawn-out and just plain boring. These stretches are most common in the first act (of these includes a few long scenes in which Rogers, in his new form, is forced to become a traveling mascot for war bonds, before he impresses Phillips enough to join in on the action). There are also far too many superfluous characters. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is one who comes to mind. As the name suggests, Howard is Iron Man Senior, a playboy inventor on the verge of creating the first flying car and the Army’s go-to guy for weapons development. He’s the one that crafts the Cap’s suit and hands him his iconic shield, which is made from a metal that’s lighter and stronger (but also rarer) than steel. I saw no purpose (other than hinting at some personal drama in the forthcoming “The Avengers“) in the character being emphasized as THE Howard Stark — for all I cared, it could’ve been a no-name schmuck and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Cooper has garnered some attention, but his work isn’t all-too impressive (I’ll hold off on further judgment until his headline debut “The Devil’s Double” releases).
Speaking of The Avengers, based on what I’ve seen here, it’ll be interesting to see how personalities collide. And those who sit through the credits in Captain America: The First Avenger will be rewarded with a short teaser. With Steve Rogers’ modesty, Thor’s arrogance, Tony Stark’s demons, and Bruce Banner’s unpredictability, it’s all gearing up to be one of the biggest events in cinematic history. Until then, comic-book fans can rejoice knowing that by seeing Joe Johnston’s latest, they’ll not only be entertained by the impressive WWII-era set-design (in contrast to the generic cityscapes) and narrative but will also leave feeling peculiarly patriotic.