Watching "Captain America: The First Avenger" is akin to walking back in time: a throwback to the summer adventure movies of yesteryear, "Captain America" inhabits a world where the bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and the day is saved in the nick of time -- though with some original twists along the way.
The latest superhero flick from Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures, "Captain America" is a solidly entertaining movie that, while lacking the wow factor of "Thor" or "X-Men: First Class," tells an otherwise interesting summer yarn. "Captain America" is a superhero period piece that begins in modern day, swooping over an icy wilderness as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents begin to dig up a mysterious object in the ice -- an object that contains Captain America's shield. The film then cuts to the past, a gorgeously sepia-toned 1940s New York City where 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) attempts to register for army service for the fifth time. Disqualified for his myriad health problems, Rogers shows his true grit minutes later as he stands his ground against a bully in the alleyway outside the recruitment office. Rescued by his best friend, the already-enlisted Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Bucky tries to cheer his buddy up with a double date to the World's Fair. Persistently uninterested, Rogers wanders off yet again to try and enlist at a new recruitment center, and it is there he meets the compassionate Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). His fate takes a 180 as he enrolls in Erskine's super soldier program, eventually becoming the first test subject injected with the super soldier serum.
At this point, most summer blockbusters would jump into super-powered high gear, guns blazing and fists pumping. "Captain America," however, is in no such rush. Instead, the film takes its time getting to Rogers' first adventures as Cap; after all, Rogers may have superpowers but that does not mean his life is any easier. In a stark departure from this summer's multiple other superhero films, post-serum Rogers still has a hard road to tread, earning scorn from the very people he wants the respect of the most: his fellow enlisted men. Powers, the movie seems to say, are not what makes a hero -- it is how they respond to adversity. By the time Rogers is finally deployed in battle he has well and truly earned his hero status.
The one thing you can always look forward to in a Marvel Studios movie is an impeccable cast and "Captain America" comes through with aplomb. Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones (as Colonel Chester Phillips) are hilarious opposites; Tucci plays his character with a dry, improvised wit while Jones revives his tough-as-nails old-timer routine, still funny in his capable hands. Haylely Atwell is sympathetic as Peggy Carter, Rogers' love interest and his most faithful supporter. It is unfortunate the movie does not make more use of Atwell's tough-yet-feminine Peggy; outside of a gun fight and an incident where she clocks a full grown man Peggy is given very little to do other than stand in the background and look competent. Dominic Cooper steals the scene as Howard Stark, channeling Howard Hughes and setting up the family arrogance his son so abundantly displays. Even the bad guys are fun: actor Toby Jones is a surprisingly likeable Nazi/Hydra scientist, his breathy gulps and panicked looks alerting us that this strange little man is in way over his head.
This may also be the first movie audiences see Hugo Weaving in without automatically comparing him to the Agent Smith role he played in "The Matrix." Weaving's Johann Schmidt (AKA Red Skull) is worlds apart from his inhumanly terrifying Agent Smith. The thespian imbues Red Skull with a dangerous and quiet energy, joy erupting out of him when he is able to vaporize his enemies -- this Red Skull is a guy who really loves winning. Weaving also gives the character a complex about Captain America, a sibling rivalry over the attention of Dr. Erskine that helps bring Red Skull to life.
The only weak link in the acting is Evans himself, and this is not entirely his fault -- earnest optimism is hard to play interestingly for two hours. Evans shines when he is able to express Rogers' frustration at being ignored because of his stature, or when he's able to crack a joke. The car scene with Peggy where the two compare being underestimated -- one for his strength, the other for her gender -- is one of the great character moments in the movie and a chance for Evans to show his acting chops. Unfortunately, outside of these glimpses Chris Evans is saddled with portraying a bland goody two-shoes. Rogers has no demons to overcome, no vices to pepper his personality, and the movie has to kill not one but two of his friends in order to get him close to anything like rage. Steve Rogers is so upstanding it's hard to see how he'll stand out from the rest of the Avengers come their own film in 2012.
On the other hand, there are not enough good things to say about the film's cinematography and visual effects. Director Joe Johnston is clearly in his element as he renders 1940s New York in lovingly stylized strokes. This is a movie that revels in the fashion of the time: dames are dressed to the nines even on duty, men are chisel-jawed and handsome, and even the bad guys look good in their Hydra skull-octopus emblazoned uniforms. But "Captain America" never gets overwhelmed with feelings of nostalgia. If anything, it is conscious of the imagery and propaganda surrounding the war and makes full use of it. The best scene of the movie is the USO tour musical number where Johnston pokes fun at the World War II-era Captain America comic books, dressing Rogers in a velvety version of his classic costume while Rogers gravely tells the audience to buy war bonds. Yes folks, Cap will punch out Hitler over 200 times -- but all onstage and surrounded by toothy showgirls.
Needless to say, the World War II of "Captain America" is not the World War II of the history books. In fact, there's an endearing innocence to the film that mirrors the innocence of its protagonist, Steve Rogers. This is a time when duty to one's country meant a non-ironic fight for freedom; when good men and women shipped overseas not to "kill Nazis" but to stop the wholesale slaughter of innocents, as Rogers himself points out to Dr. Erskine. This is the World War II of the black and white serials and cheerfully colored pulps, giving gravitas to the most cartoonish aspects of the film. Is the Hydra salute silly? Absolutely. Does Red Skull look like someone epoxyed red foam to Hugo Weaving's face? You bet. But none of this distracts from world of the film. In this World War II super science is real, as is patriotism and duty. There is blood -- oh boy is there blood -- and you never doubt for a second that they are fighting a war, but it's a war we've seen in "Indiana Jones," "The Rocketeer" and all other adventure movies of their ilk. Indeed, I would argue that this is the first real comic book movie of the year -- "Captain America" is not trying to tell a story set in the real world, it is trying to tell a story set in the Marvel Universe.
The one caveat to my visual praise: see the movie in 2D. It's the format the movie was shot in, and the conversion to 3D is terrible. The camera pulls rack focus so many times it leaves you feeling dizzy and the 3D cheapens the look of the whole film, leaving the backgrounds a fake-looking blur.
Despite its dedication to the material and the story, "Captain America" has some pretty major problems, most stemming from its two hour running time. The film is simply too long. The first time Cap and Red Skull meet it feels like the logical end of the movie, yet the film continues for another hour. The movie drags, slogging through montages; scenes go on minutes too long, dialogue turns into lengthy soliloquies and even individual shots hold their gaze for a second or two more than is really comfortable. The pacing is uneven and it is hard to grasp what the filmmakers intend as the climax of the movie -- is it when Cap battles Red Skull? The plane scene? The scene in contemporary New York? Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spend so much time trying to establish Cap as a legend they beat the audience over the head with it. We get it, he's a hero in and out of costume -- now can he go punch some Nazis?
The action is also curiously lackluster, especially when Red Skull and Cap battle. Compared to previous scenes where Captain America sends men flying through walls with his punch, the fight with Red Skull does not look like two super-powered behemoths going mano-y-mano, it looks like two regular guys grappling poorly. And events can be just a little too coincidental to be believable, like when Rogers fortuitously stumbles onto Bucky at a Hydra base or when he unconvincingly becomes best friends with the Howling Commandos two seconds after they are introduced.
The film score presents another low point, as the music by Alan Silvestri does not so much score as hammer, sharply crescendoing at dramatic moments so often it becomes a tiring parody of itself. The best song in the whole movie is the USO tour musical number, "Star Spangled Man," written by Alan Menken in a bit of positive Disney/Marvel synergy. Incredibly catchy, it gives the middle of the movie a fantastic jolt of energy and makes you wish the entire film moved as fast as the springy USO number.
Overall, "Captain America" is a fun, pleasant romp through the pulp world of the 1940s. Yet despite all the good going for it, there is still something missing from the film. It lacks the energetic spark that imbues the world of "Thor" and "X-Men," and no matter how well Chris Evans portrays the earnest Steve Rogers it does not reduce the fact that Captain America is a boring guy. It's hard to see how Cap will stand his ground next to Chris Hemsworth's cheerfully arrogant Thor or Robert Downey Jr.'s slick and sarcastic Iron Man in "Avengers." And while a lot of the movie's "blah" factor can be blamed on the slow pacing (I cannot repeat enough that the movie needs to be 20 minutes shorter) pinning down exactly why "Captain America" disappoints is a bit tricky. On a comic book level the movie satisfies, incorporating nods and references from Cap's 70-odd year history and successfully translating even the corniest characters (looking at you, Howling Commandos) to the screen. Non-fans should love the "Indiana Jones" meets "Rocketeer" feel and the stylized World War II world. But at the end of the day, the reason "Captain America" does not wow is because in many ways this is a film that is not intended for an adult audience -- this is meant for the kids, the teens and preteens who in previous decades flocked to see those same adventure movies "Captain America" so assiduously mimics.
The strength of "Captain America" is its weakness: the film is overly simplistic and lacks greater depth for adults to sink their teeth into. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and... that's it. The movie coasts on a supremely one-dimensional version of the Greatest Generation, never bothering to give audiences more than shallow platitudes and boring action scenes. In many ways it reminds me heavily of "The Rocketeer," Johnston's earlier film. At age ten, "The Rocketeer" riveted me in a deep and influential way, and I loved how unthinkingly simple it was. However, decades later when I re-watched the movie I was able to see what I could not as a kid: the flaws. "Rocketeer" still rates as one of my favorite movies of all time, but if I had seen it as an adult first it would not have made any impression.
"Captain America" is cursed with this same problem. Its pleasant and light-hearted tone is great for younger audience members, but it never dips below this surface of mindless entertainment. Overall "Captain America" is a pleasing popcorn movie: it's a light, easy snack of a film, but don't expect anything to stay with you after the movie is over.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" hits theatres nationwide July 22.