Captain America: The First Avenger

Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci
Review: 4 stars (of five)

Captain America: The First Avenger is easily the best of this summer’s dense crowd of comic book movies. (Maybe you want to stretch that definition to include Cowboys & Aliens or even Conan, both of which have yet to open. I’ll still put my money on Cap. If you want to put it into a historical context, it’s not as good as the first Iron Man, and not as weak as the second.

Director Joe Johnston The Wolfman, The Rocketeer and Jumanji shows reverence for the material and brings the solid sensibilities that have marked his work, which seems often to be quite good, but never really blockbuster. I’ve seen a few early reviewers call his work here “old-fashioned,” but isn’t that what you would want for a period Captain America movie?

The best aspect of the film is its sense of character and the touches of humor that arise from it. The film got a surprising number of laughs, and the half hour spent leading up to Chris Evans’ transformation into “super soldier” was spent on character development. Next-best aspect is the cast. Evans is perfect as Steve Rogers (though his voice seemed too deep when he was CG’d as a scrawny pre-transformation runt), and Hugo Weaving is surprisingly restrained in the inherently over-the-top role of the Red Skull. Add in Tommy Lee Jones being as wonderful as ever, with simply perfect timing, and an excellent Hayley Atwell as love interest Peggy Carter, and you’ve got a really nice movie percolating.

Drawbacks? The Skull’s got some kind of magical, god-derived weapon (a line of dialogue ties it squarely to Thor) that … is never explained. It simply powers laser weapons and other advanced technology employed by Hydra, his Nazi science splinter group. So while Weaving is great, overall the “threat” aspect of the conflict is just vague and a little unsatisfying.

Also, Steve Rogers is a patriotic, straight-shooting hero, a square-jawed classic, and too many moviegoers will say he’s boring for that reason. Sure, Downey’s flamboyant, borderline-alcoholic Tony Stark had more layers, but if you can’t have a solid good guy in a superhero flick, where can you? That kind of jaded, cynical thinking leads to movies where Superman is a deadbeat dad, you know? So this drawback is all right in my book.

The filmmakers have a number of challenges in the origin story to overcome, not the least of which being that Cap needs to end up in the modern day. While they give him a suitable “hero’s death” in WWII, and a clear victory, it’s still kind of unsatisfying, and the final sequence seems a little … abrupt. Not that it should’ve been longer, just that it didn’t quite gel.

Less Nazis is Better Nazis

Surprising fact about this WWII film about fighting a Hitler henchman: There is not a single swastika. Even the one Nazi officer in the film (as opposed to soldiers in the Hydra splinter group) is carefully shot to never let his armband on camera. Instead it’s Hydra uniforms and Hydra logos. Considering the real evil that the Nazis represented can sometimes seem belittled when mined for action-flick thrills, it’s a great, respectful choice.

Similarly, the bad guys are equipped with Marvel Comics technology, so most of the bloodshed involves disintegration rather than bleeding to death from gut wounds. In a film bound to attract young audiences and more focused on fun than on deriving any greater message from its war setting or violence, it’s an excellent show of restraint that doesn’t diminish the film.

The filmmakers throw in a lot of nods to the source material. At a World’s Fair, the “synthetic man” who would become the original Human Torch (not the one Evans played in the Fantastic Four flicks) has a cameo, and we see Rogers displaying artistic talent (a nod to his sometime career in civilian life as an illustrator). The first shot of Hydra scientist Arnim Zola is a sly reference to his Jack Kirby design in ’60 Cap comics, etc. Good stuff, all, and appreciated by a knowledgeable fan while amiably sliding right past those less steeped.

Best of all, Cap’s military sidekicks are the Howlin’ Commandos, a mixed-race, international group of enlisted men from ’40s war comics. The film seems to make an effort to balance race issues within the scope of realism for the era (a fine tribute to Jack Kirby’s artistic legacy, by the way). No one will accuse it of bending over backward, but it beats this summer’s X-Men flick by a mile and a half.* And it did a great job of making the film’s love interest, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, believable in a 1940s context but still a kick-ass character who more than held her own in a cast dripping with testosterone.

The film montages its way through the bulk of Cap’s WWII career, and presumably all sequels will be set in the modern era. That will surely open up more story possibilities for the filmmakers, but I wouldn’t have minded a little more of the war-era adventures. As it is, the film is a lot of fun in its own right and a great precursor for Joss Whedon’s Avengers, due next summer.

*I noticed the race problems in X-Men: First Class as I watched it, ’cause you couldn’t miss that lingering shot on Darwin as the “slavery” comparison was made, for starters, but I neglected to address them in Badmouth’s review. See this excellent article instead.