It's big and it's fun, but this Made in America superhero romp is not at all dumb
Captain America doesn't have the same popularity outside of the USA as Spiderman or Batman, for instance, but he's going to have to win over audiences worldwide. After all, next year he plays a major role in the superhero team-up movie The Avengers.
While DC Comics dithers over the new Superman, Marvel keep the superhero movies coming thick and fast. Admittedly, some of them do feel like all the Saturday morning cartoons from your childhood rolled into one, and their latest offering is suitably big and boisterous.
Yes, Captain America: the First Avenger is big and fun, but it is also surprisingly subtle. Not bad for a superhero who has been presumed dead, defrosted and sporadically mothballed repeatedly during his 70-year long career. (In fact, he is only recently back from the dead in the comics themselves.)
After a prologue in the present, the movie rolls back time to the early 1940s. Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) is a typical little guy. The sort who appeared in the Charles Atlas weightlifting advertisements in comics of yore. He is bullied, and probably gets sand kicked in his face too, but is determined to join the army and do his bit.
Unfortunately, he is rejected time and time again, until he's taken under the wing of refugee scientist, Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and military officer, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Against all odds, they feel Steve is perfect for the top-secret Super Soldier program engineered by inventor/aviator Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony Iron Man Stark.
'Want to kill Nazis?' asks Dr Erskine. Instead of the expected anti-German sentiments, Rogers answers that he doesn't want to kill anyone, he just wants to stand up to bullies, no matter where they're from. It has been argued that World War II was the last morally unambiguous war of the 20th century. If that is true then Roger's character embodies that clarity. He wants to fight not for glory, but because it's the right thing to do.
Even quickly sketched characters are believably human, and they're far more than the boring bits between the explosions. We care for them and feel their pain, and there is plenty of that. No character makes it out of this war unscathed.
One hideously painful dose of serum later and Rogers is reborn to beefcake proportions. However, the Super Soldier project gets cancelled, and the now somewhat redundant Rogers finds himself on a tour of propaganda, not duty, shilling for war bonds.
The film's production design soars as the bemused Rogers takes stages across the US as 'Captain America', complete with a hokey costume, a groan-worthy spiel and a musical number with feathered dancing girls and an irritatingly catchy tune.
Just as he gets comfortable, and starts to believe that he is the People’s Hero he portrays, he is sent to entertain the troops in Europe. These are real soldiers, and they are not impressed. Rogers realises he's merely gone from lab rat to performing monkey. But there's no time for self-pity: he learns that his pal, Bucky, is among a platoon feared captive or dead, and goes to the rescue. Can Captain America prevail?
Proceedings take an explosive turn due to the Red Skull, a rogue Nazi general who wants to put Hitler in his shadow, and won't let a Super Soldier get in his way. He too was injected with Dr Erskine’s serum, but it magnified his evil, just as it did Roger's goodness.
'We have left humanity behind,' he tells Captain America on their first encounter. As comic villains go, he's more intriguing than many of the traditional variety, because the genesis of his powers makes him more than just a foil to our hero. In a way the Red Skull and Captain America are brothers, and such familial rivalry is the stuff legends are made of.
All in all, this is a movie with heart, and a production designer to watch. Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to period fantasy; in 1991 he directed The Rocketeer, which obviously made him a favourite for this gig. Historical war movies such as Doctor Strangelove and A Matter of Life and Death get apt, unforced references, and there are enough allusions to the comic book history to keep fans happy.
The film alternates action sequences with slow-burning romance, and 21st century effects with mid-20th century aesthetics. Most importantly, Captain America is played straight and avoids the irony and jokeyness that would ruin it as a period movie.
Real emotion is chosen over stock 1940s characters, and incorporating details like the Teutonic myth and occultism that fascinated the Nazis also helps to ground the film in real history, however fantastical its premise.
Captain America may be a tad long, and flags a bit after a climax halfway in, but ultimately keeps its end up through sheer charm, and the well-handled surprises and shifts in tone that keep it from getting predictable.
Captain America is on general release now.