Captain America: The First Avenger might be the perfect superhero movie (so far, anyway): It’s exciting, fun, has a hero who’s heroic but not perfect, and makes you feel for the characters. And it honors its source material rather than belittling it as many superhero films these days seem to (taking the source material seriously is a big reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are the best superhero films of the new century so far).
I get tired of movies always showing the character’s origin (previews in the theater showed the trailer for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, which looks like it will show Spidey’s origin again; really?), but Cap’s story is very well done here, and showing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – the prototypical 90-pound comic book weakling – and his determination to join the army to fight in World War II, his friendship with the much more physically-able James “Bucky” Barnes Sebastian Stan), and his recruitment by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to be the test subject for the super-soldier program are an essential part of humanizing Cap. Despite his frail physique, Steve never backs down from a fight, but when Erskine asks him whether he wants to go kill some Nazis, Steve’s character is summed up when he responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just hate bullies.”
One could do all sorts of between-the-lines reading about the jingoistic heroism of the film, but that would miss the point that it’s a World War II film named Captain America, and bringing 21st-century cynicism into it would miss the point of the film (I’m sure we’ll get plenty of that in next year’s Avengers movie). Instead, this is about a good, flawed man fighting the good fight for his friends and his country. Even the somewhat-painful scene of Cap being used as a showman to sell war bonds ultimately pays off when he has the opportunity to show his stuff and becomes the army’s secret weapon against Hitler’s mysticism-loving scientist, Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
While it won’t win any awards, the acting is surprisingly good for a superhero film. Chris Evans played the fun-loving Human Torch in the two unremarkable Fantastic Four films, but he’s a completely different character here. (If anything, I wish they’d processed his voice early in the film since its deepness and richness seems incongruous coming from his body when it’s been CGI’ed into Steve’s pre-treatment physique.) Weaving chews the necessary scenery as the Skull (though Toby Jones as his lead scientist, Arnim Zola, overshadows him at times with his Peter Lorre-esque performance), as does Tommy Lee Jones as the general overseeing Cap’s special forces unit. Hayley Atwell as Steve’s love interest Peggy Carter isn’t exactly the weak link, but she’s not given a lot to do – Dominic Cooper’s role as Howard Stark (father of the future Iron Man, I presume) is smaller, but he frequently upstages her.
The film looks good, too, a little grimy in the European war scenes, with flat colors in many of the New York street scenes, and bright colors at the World’s Fair and during Cap’s tour selling war bonds. The CGI in the action scenes looks fluid, although it still underscores how unnatural superhero fighting is, and what an accomplishment it was for Jack Kirby, et. al., to make it look natural in those old comic books. And the film neatly sidesteps one of my big gripes about superhero films, that they’re always contriving ways for the heroes to lose their masks so the stars can show off their real faces; the extensive focus on Steve makes it feel natural for Evans to appear as himself, but there are plenty of scenes with Cap as Cap.
The weakest part of the film is the Red Skull’s plot. He finds the Cosmic Cube (which in the comics allows a person’s wishes to become reality, but here is simply an über-energy source) and plans to use it to rule the world. He harnesses the power to create energy weapons, and plans to destroy yhe capitals of the major world powers, but since his men are unable to take on the U.S. Army even with their weapons, it’s not really clear how he plans to actually take control of the world, much less maintain control. The story would have made more sense if he were simply causing mayhem to further the conquests of Nazi Germany (in the comics, the Skull is an ardent Nazi and had the utmost respect for Hitler), but oh well. At least it’s a pretext for some lively action scenes.
Cap’s story is, ultimately, a tragedy, but the film ends without really exploring the depths of that tragedy. Presumably the plan is for the Avengers film to work through some of that, but I doubt they’ll really do it justice given the larger cast and the (presumed) need to fit some adventure story in there. (I think Avengers could be a fun film, too, but I think it’ll be easy for the story to get away from the writers and director if they’re not careful.) However, what we do see here is pretty effective.
Overall, Captain America is a really fun ride, only dragging in a few places, but otherwise engaging, action-packed, and even touching. Why can’t they all be like this?