'Captain America,' a superhero film with a heart for the little guy
By Ann Hornaday
Thursday, July 21, 2011
In any other cinematic era, “Captain America: The First Avenger” would be a bona fide movie event, the kind of swiftly moving, eye-popping, effects-heavy spectacle for which movies were made. But we live in the midst of a comic-book-movie glut, where no sooner has “Thor” opened than it must make way for “X-Men: First Class,” which then has to scoot down to make room for “Captain America,” the better to set up next year’s superhero-pa-looza, “The Avengers.”
Meanwhile, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman and the Hulk wait in the wings — tinkering, spinning, brooding and turning green with anticipation of their next moment in the spotlight.
So “Captain America” arrives already in danger of being lost in that wildly genetically enhanced shuffle, which is a shame, because it’s a terrific movie. The ultimate origin story of the original ur-myth of Marvel Comics’ seemingly endless comic-book universe, the World War II-era drama returns the form to its classic roots with the square-jawed forthrightness of its straight-arrow protagonist.
Even his name exudes an America that time forgot: Steve Rogers, who as channeled by Chris Evans embodies the kind of wisdom, bravery and fairness that a country mired in debt and political rancor could use right around now. “I don’t like bullies,” Rogers says simply before joining the U.S. Army in 1942. Some time later, after he’s been pumped up by a muscle-building serum even Roger Clemens would envy, someone asks Rogers, “What makes you so special?” “Nothin’,” he replies. “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” Sure, but one who was knocking Hitler on the jaw when he was first introduced to comic book readers in 1941 (goading a recalcitrant administration into doing the right thing).
Evans brings just the right amount of confidence and aw-shucks modesty to Rogers, who surely counts as the most appealing Marvel hero, starting out as a 98-pound weakling (achieved by some clever computer imagery and body-double work in “Captain America”) and winding up as a superbly chiseled super-soldier whose heart still goes out to the little guy. Director Joe Johnston has surrounded Evans with a wonderful cast of supporting players, including Stanley Tucci as the German doctor who turns Rogers from puny to magnificent; Hayley Atwell as a comely British military liaison named Peggy Carter; Dominic Cooper as millionaire inventor Howard Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man’s dad) and the scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones, who nails the movie’s most amusing lines as the crusty Col. Chester Phillips.
Then there’s Hugo Weaving as Captain America’s nemesis, Red Skull — a role that requires delivering a genuine performance from behind grotesque crimson prosthetics, which Weaving accomplishes with admirable dexterity. In fact, everyone hits their marks with energy and finesse in “Captain America,” which with its clean, Art Deco lines and sprightly spirit exemplifies why comic book movies are such reliable fodder for Hollywood. They come pre-storyboarded, after all; their gadgets, dinguses and doo-dads are a production artist’s dream, just as those tights, capes and masks must provide fetishistic frissons for the most on-trend costume designer.
Throw in the requisite special effects, iconic roles actors live for and male-safe makeover fantasies, and you have a full-employment program for an industry uniquely suited to provide the escapism, wish fulfillment and telegraphed narratives audiences crave along with their jumbo popcorns and super-size Cokes.
Johnston understands all these impulses, but he doesn’t dumb “Captain America” down in order to assuage them — unless you count the nonsensical decision to present the movie in 3-D, which does nothing to enliven the experience but instead dims what should be a crayon-bright palette into a muddy glop. Instead, he revels both in the fantastical elements of the era and the era’s embrace of the fantastic, staging the retro-futuristic 1942 World’s Exposition and the War Bond road shows Rogers stars in with lavish affection and splendor. Indeed, more than its Marvel predecessors (or successors, depending on the medium), “Captain America” shares an aesthetic sense with Quentin Tarantino’s pop pastiche “Inglorious Basterds,” about a ragtag team of soldiers similar to the ones Rogers assembles, on a similarly unlikely Allied mission.
Steve Rogers, of course, is a glorious good guy, not superhuman as much as super-humane: It’s revealing, somehow, that he chooses a defensive shield for his talismanic identifier rather than a metal sheath or gun (fill in your own blanks, compensation-wise). With “Batman” mired in its own sense of solemnity and self-importance, “Spider-Man” franchised into bloated Broadway oblivion and “Iron Man” in danger of succumbing to its protagonist’s own arrogance and entitlement, “Captain America” might hold the most promise, not just of saving the world, but of saving comic book movies from themselves.
Contains intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.