Captain America: The First Avenger outranks every other superhero film released this summer, joining Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 as the elite genre movies of 2011. It is a rollicking adventure yarn; the kind they used to make all the time.
The film benefits immeasurably from its World War II-era, old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys simplicity, which paints Cap as a hero for whom we can all cheer, up against villains everyone can hiss. Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) takes the time to sketch in Steve Rogers’ character and establish him as a paragon long before he takes up that symbolic shield to defend the free world against the worst of the worst: the Red Skull and Hydra, a renegade branch of even more evil Nazis.
Captain America:The First Avenger tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a 4-F runt desperate to fight the Nazis in Europe. Impressed by the youngster’s pluck, German refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) enrolls Rogers in a secret scientific program to create a “super-soldier” to win the war. Erskine’s secret serum transforms the puny Rogers into the ultimate physical specimen, a strapping guy gifted with superhuman strength, endurance and healing powers. But no sooner is the experiment a success than an Axis agent murders Erskine, and the secret to creating more super-soldiers dies with him. Rogers is detailed to the PR circuit to sell war bonds, but when his best friend is captured by the Nazis, Rogers parachutes behind enemy lines to rescue him – and 400 other prisoners – and then takes his place as a true super-soldier.
But the Nazis have a scientific program of their own, dubbed Hydra, run by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who was himself a test subject of Erskine’s who received an earlier version of the super-soldier serum with less beneficent results: his face was left disfigured, earning him the moniker “Red Skull.” The Skull’s attention is on a strange device of incalculable power he calls a tesseract (fans of the Thor movie might recognize it as the Casket of Ancient Winters from Odin’s treasure room) which he uses to create energy weapons for use against the Allies. But not if Cap has anything to say about it!
The entire enterprise is anchored to Evans’ Captain America, who blazes through the film as a beacon of hope. Cap is not an afterthought in his own movie, overshadowed by a lurid villain the way Batman so often is. Cap is a Hero, a man who always does what’s right because…well, it’s the right thing to do. But Cap is not insufferable because Evans plays him as utterly sincere. With Evans’ square jaw and blond hair, both Rogers and Cap are noble do-gooders, and it never feels campy because Evans resists the urge to overplay or wink at the camera. If even a single scintilla of Evans’ cocky Human Torch persona from the Fantastic Four movies had leaked through, Cap would have been toast as a character. But Evans is masterful as the hero who stands up to the self-declared “master race.” Perhaps it helps that Cap is fighting Nazis – seemingly the only group left in today’s world that is universally despised; there is no doubt that he is fighting the good fight, and that every ratzi he kills (and they are legion) deserves it. Cap saves countless soldiers while dispatching the baddies.
The movie gets everything about Rogers and Cap right: He is brave and compassionate, and hates bullies, no matter who they are. Erskine said he chose Rogers because a weak man knows the value of strength. Well, Rogers believes in himself, and he believes in America with an earnestness that qualifies him to wear the flag as a costume. The moment that best illustrates Rogers’ right to become Captain America came when he leaped on the grenade during the training exercise to save his fellow trainees. Bravery and self-sacrifice are two of Cap’s hallmarks, as indelible as his red-white-and-blue costume and indestructible shield. The movie costume is a workable distillation of uniform he wears in the Ultimate Captain America comic books, and the shield is spot-on. There are even nods to minor bits of Cap lore from over the years, such as Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the unnamed-but-recognizable “Howling Commandos” Cap liberates from the Skull’s prison camp, Rogers’ artistic tendencies, and even the famous cover of 1941’s Captain America Comics #1, which depicts Cap socking Hitler in the jaw!
However, the flick does take some pretty serious liberties with James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who served as Cap’s costumed sidekick in the comics. The flick makes him older and alters the familiar beats of his story in ways that will shock fans of the comics. However, in the context of the movie, the changes work – and serve the positive function of keeping Cap buffs guessing. Along those same lines, the movie also drastically reimagines Cap’s experiences at the end of the war but, again, the alterations are fitting, and certainly in keeping with the spirit of Cap’s established story. On the other hand, Atwell’s British agent feels tacked-on, as if the producers suddenly realized they needed a female character and grafted her to the screenplay. But these are minor quibbles that do not ruin the overall enjoyment of the movie.
Especially not when there is a fun villain like the Skull. As the mutated Schmidt, Weaving is much livelier than his repressed Agent Smith from the Matrix trilogy, but he doesn’t go over-the-top with Nazi sadism. Weaving builds a rumbling sense of menace that makes him a very real threat even though the Skull’s appearance is unreal – thanks to fantastic makeup that accurately replicates the Skull’s hideous look in the comics.
In fact, the visual effects are very impressive overall – none more than the technology that erased parts of Evans’ hulking physique to make him look scrawny in the early stages of the movie. The world of the 1940s is recreated in all its old-timey grittiness without looking like a fake computer program.
Viewers should be sure to stay through the end credits and catch a bonus sequence that will have fans of Marvel movies salivating for next summer! But until then, Captain America: The First Avenger ranks as the best superhero film since 2008’s one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight.