For the obvious money grab it is, The Avengers series has yielded some remarkable comic book entertainment in the last four years. It hasn’t been perfect but between Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and now Captain America: The First Avenger, there’s not a bad movie in the bunch.
As a studio, Marvel’s exacting strategy has produced a consistency in its franchise that is rivaled only by Warner Brothers’ work on Harry Potter. Marvel has done incredible work assembling the respective teams behind each of these Avengers films and Captain America is another magnificent example, an impeccable pairing of director Joe Johnston and lead Chris Evans to the source material.
Chris Evans deserves to be a star after playing Steve Rogers. Evans, like Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, simply is Captain America. His genuine likability takes Rogers’ journey from scrappy Brooklyn underdog to square-jawed, flag-wearing hero transcends believablility and becomes something great. It’s a treat to see Evans shed himself of the terrible stigma of Johnny Storm from the abysmal Fantastic Four films. I’ve been rooting for Evans ever since his excellent work as an unhinged scientist in Sunshine and the jocktacular, second-string action star and evil ex-boyfriend from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim went a long way in showing his range; Captain America makes him an Hollywood A-list leading man.
Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) does a perfect job playing it straight. Nothing in Captain America comes off jingoistic or arrogant or ironic. There’s no tattered flag waving over a decimated battlefield à la every Michael Bay film; instead, Steve Rogers is simply an honest-to-goodness patriot in a time where unabashed love for one’s country wasn’t cheesy. Even as a scrawny kid who’ll sacrifice himself by jumping on grenades, Rogers wants nothing more than to honor the land he loves by protecting it from the bully of the world, Nazi Germany.
Johnston also succeeds in keeping Captain America firmly planted in its pulpy roots which is best reflected in its pace—exposition never lingers past its welcome and Johnston nimbly avoids the long-winded pitfalls of other superhero origin flicks like, say, Iron Man. True, there’s nothing spectacular in terms of action setpieces (although there’s a neat newsreel style montage of Cap and his GI buddies busting up some Nazis) but there’s a slew of great moments such as the newly suped up Rogers running down a Nazi infiltrator in 1940s Brooklyn or the awesome homage to death by propellerblade from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In addition to that, Johnston does a commendable job with the rest of his cast. He creates an adult albeit mostly unrequited romance between Evans and Hayley Atwell, squeezes some great laughs from Tommy Lee Jones’ cranky general, and develops an earnest mentorship in Stanley Tucci’s super-serum inventing scientist. In fact, possibly the only place where Johnston doesn’t succeed is with Cap’s nemesis, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
It’s bizarre. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, a truly horrifying villain in the comics, never once comes off menacing. He does nothing to demonstrate his villainy beyond shoot his own men and there certainly aren’t any atrocities on the level of Hitler or even any ambition beyond the generic “world domination”. Red Skull doesn’t even seem that interested in killing Captain America for all the grief he causes him—it would have played much better if Johnston explored the “thorn in my side” aspect of Cap’s relationship with Red Skull—and he doesn’t do much to antagonize Cap beyond a few brief exchanges of fisticuffs and a couple of “we’re not so different, you and I” quips. Not to mention the rest of Skull’s HYDRA forces who don’t do much beyond a “STEVE HOLT!”-style salute and shoot laser beams (which totally deflates any sense of stakes the surface-skimming action has).
Faults with generic villainy and unmemorable setpieces aside, Captain America: The First Avenger is most praiseworthy for its unprecedented consistency. While it never hits the high notes of X-Men: First Class or Iron Man, the breezy action far outpaces Thor and Iron Man 2 and succeeds in being a genuine, heartfelt tribute to America and the wonderfully campy comic heroes of old. Its super-soldier goodness is just the shot in the arm The Avengers franchise (and comic movies in general) needed.