For a hero who was there around the same time that Batman and Superman arose, Captain America is rare to see captured on film outside of the comic world and the animated universe, so Captain America: First Avenger should be considered groundbreaking in telling the origin and the exciting exploits of the star-spangled banner icon, but it’s not that groundbreaking as a film itself when it’s a more nostalgic fantastical look of WWII that relies heavily on traditional black-and-white opposites and average writing.
Chris Evans should be considered the most ideal choice for the title role, even better than the Human Torch who he made as just another obnoxious speedy show-off, because he is so fit and gentle in his exterior in being able to play a scrawny teen turned muscular superhero who can believe in patriotism and camaraderie. This time, he’s exploring a more vulnerable and sympathetic character in Steve Rogers as we see him start as the scrawny little teenager who is victimized and demeaned by the people around him on his limits in strength and mind. The digital alteration to his body looked so real that you could relate to Evans as looking as this underdog and follow his journey into becoming a popular icon, something his mentor Dr. Erskine gives advice about in regards to staying a “good” man once he becomes a “greater” man, in comparison to the Red Skull who became a worse Nazi criminal than he was through his hideous transformation. Indeed when Rogers is put through the serum experiment to pump up his body, he remains a decent man by nature, even foolhardy, as he races with all strength to stop a German spy as his first act of heroism. Still, he has a lot to prove when he is used for showbiz to sell off the patriotic war effort to the American public and is made to look more like a light-hearted appeal for family audiences, something that is contradicted by the mockery the American soldiers give him about his colorful costume and naive skits. It’s making him feel more like a joke and has to prove more to the strict and pushy Colonel Phillips that he is made for something more, an idea encouraged to him by the beautiful and spunky spy Peggy Carter.
When he first swings into action to rescue his childhood friend Bucky Barnes from the clutches of the Nazi HYDRA organization, he’s putting his strength, will, and dignity to the ultimate test in an explosive array of bullets, fire, and acrobatics that proves just how ready he is as the newest and strongest contribution to the U.S. war effort. His relationship with Bucky is weighed with an emotional and tender heart in regards to how Bucky had always been there for Rogers in his youth to protect him from bullying, now their relationship is of protecting each other with all their strength. It’s one of the most moving male friendships seen in superhero films so far, which makes me wish there was more of them working together before they are separated by what appears to be certain death at a very abrupt spot on one of their first missions. The thing is that the film establishes Roger’s relationship with Bucky and the other soldiers as they set off on missions against HYDRA, but in about a few minutes of screentime, Bucky is out of the picture and that whole iconic shot of Rogers having his whole own team of Commandos, including Bucky, goes nowhere that important when his best friend falls to certain death on one of their earliest missions. The other Commandos are so underdeveloped and underused, even when they’re being played by recognizable actors like Neal McDonough and Derek Luke, making them more like scenery than real strong additions for the flow of the picture. It’s a hasty move that it makes it seem pointless for Rogers to become a leader with his best friend at his side, assuring us that we will see them kick butt until the end of the movie, then it goes nowhere and all we were left with was a quick montage of what they did. No sooner were they were side-by-side then they were torn apart by a tragic incident and Rogers is pretty much doing everything himself for the remainder of the film. Rogers’ relationship with Peggy has emotional depth, but it still wonders into the amusing aspects the most as they shared many awkward moments before admitting their feelings. The more the film kept getting too comical and colorful on one side then throwing at least one serious moment (Bucky’s fall) into the flow of the film, the more disjointed it became, which made it hard to flow at a coherent pace. The Red Skull, as played by Hugo Weaving, is one of the most caricatured villains known in superhero universes, yet Weaving makes him as evilly delicious and charismatic as he can to bring out this power-mad and wrathful maniac bent on becoming a greater – or worse – leader than Hitler. I guess people can’t get tired of seeing him in the villainous light ever since his role as Agent Smith in The Matrix films, but he’s still a charmingly devilish and menacing villain to watch nevertheless. What he lacks in his villainy is a strong antagonism with Captain America, since they only meet twice in the film and there’s not enough psychological bad blood to intensify their relationship, the way that adversaries like Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, or Professor Xavier and Magneto have displayed. The tool he uses – the Tesseract – to gain the “power of the Gods” is a nod to what was seen in the Thor movie and what plays prominently in The Avengers, allowing the shadow of continuity in the Marvel film universe to creep over.
However, it doesn’t go to the point of losing any excitement in the focus of the story as it pushes Rogers aka Captain America to his biggest displays of strength and nobility, allowing us to feel for him and ride with him on this explosive and arousing adventure in superhero entertainment. It’s not the first time Joe Johnston had tackled action-packed features like this since he worked on the special effects of Star Wars and directed The Rocketeer, which gives this film a feeling of nostalgia and professional approach from a man who knows how to make films with special effects and action, as well as put enough heartfelt character in it. Alongside Evans, Hayley Atwell makes a very decent and tough image out of Peggy in a way that she can prove better than a damsel-in-distress and can do what women were allowed to in those days very effectively. Tommy Lee Jones is rather tough-minded as he usually is when playing charismatic, veteran authority figures, but also knows how to slip in humor between his lines and convey the old-fashioned masculine soldier who won’t let his emotions get in the way. Toby Jones plays the Red Skull’s associate Zola as a rather nervously devious character, who doesn’t always know what to do in times of crisis, but still keeps his greedy and ambitious nature in tact to give off a more sinister edge than Jones has played in his career. Sebastain Stan is likable enough as Roger’s close friend, someone who is waking up to the fact that his childhood friend has grown – literally and figuratively – and is now a leader above him, but still maintaining the brotherly and compassionate love they’ve shared for a long time. Dominic Cooper is very suave and charming as the inventor Howard Stark, whose brilliance, seductive edge, and dark hair and mustache convey that of the man who will be his son (Iron Man), as well as bearing the resemblance to Robert Downey Jr. Stanley Tucci is really immersed in the role of Dr. Erskine with his German accent and plays him as both an intelligent man of science and a gentle mentor of humanity to Rogers in stepping up to become a new experiment in mankind, without losing his good human nature.
By the end, there is both joy and sadness that I could feel for Rogers/Cap America in the journey he goes on, the losses he sustains, and the heroism he performs, which makes him one of the first superheroes so far I’d never read about or watched as a kid, but who I can easily grow fond of. He’s a rather old-fashioned hero, the patriotic gentleman of America who fought a just war against a tyrannical force, but one of the fewest heroes these days that we have seen on screen that can bring back a sense of that romance and nobility that America prided itself on in the days of the second World War, without coming off as too angry or immature or narcissistic the way that a lot of bad-ass heroes are being portrayed lately. At the same time, it’s one of those nostalgic action pictures that finds a hard time compromising between the colorful and the emotional aspects because it seems that the colorful aspects – the flashy special effects, the campy humor, the episodic structure, the good/evil stereotypes, and the average music – outweigh anything deeper or thought-provoking about superheroes, the way that Chris Nolan’s Batman series has touched on. We could use more superhero flicks that have a deeply psychological message about heroism, but since Captain America has less psychology to explore when he’s just a truly good man who is fighting for his country against wicked Nazis and mad scientists, it doesn’t require anything deeper to explore than that.