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If you take a World War II movie, dial up the action with contemporary visual effects and CGI, then give your hero a double dose of steroids and human growth hormones, you wind up in the movie/comic book world of Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie is, of course, Marvel Comics’ and Paramount’s filmization of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Super Soldier series that first appeared in comic books in March 1941, well before Pearl Harbor, so understandably this is one superhero movie that demands that the first movie at least be a period one. So you get an alternative WWII, say like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — only without all that dialogue and enough oversized vehicles and outlandish sets to fit its beefcake hero.
Captain America delivers comic book action that should satisfy Captain America’s fans, old and new, while Chris Evans’ no-nonsense yet engaging portrayal of a man who doesn’t know how to back away from a fight may cause young women to swoon and young men to join a gym. Yet the film will leave others wondering — especially following the film’s long gestation and marketing buildup — “Is this all there is?”
For in terms of even recent films, Captain America lacks the deft touch, appealing character interaction and sophisticated storytelling skills of Marvel Comics’ X-Men: First Class. And let’s not even bother to compare this to Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
Sticking to its simplistic, patriotic origins, where a muscular red, white and blue GI slugging Adolf Hitler in the jaw is all that’s required, Captain America trafficks in red-blooded heroes, dastardly villains, classy dames and war-weary military officers. There is no ambiguity here. Nor does any superhero question his powers. No, sir, not in this war and not with these determined heroes.
While bracketed by a modern-day sequence, the movie otherwise takes place in a heightened rendering of the early days of the fight against Nazi Germany. Brooklyn’s Steve Rogers (Evans), son of a dead war hero, repeatedly tries to enlist in the military, but his physical condition is pure 4F.
In perhaps the movie’s best or at least weirdest visual effect, Evans’ face sits atop an unbelievably scrawny body that recruiting sergeants shoo away until German-American scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci, with the phoniest of accents) sees something special in the young man. Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, having a fine time) dismisses Steve as a “90-pound asthmatic,” not without justification. But the minute Dr. Erskine performs a “procedure” on Steve — with equipment that looks like it was left over from Bride of Frankenstein — suddenly Steve is buff and fast-healing, in fact, nearly impossible to injure. Moments after his rebirth, he faces his first test as he races barefoot through Manhattan streets circa 1942 to take down a Nazi spy. This feat more than catches the eye of British military liaison Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), not to mention the press.
An overnight media sensation, the military doesn’t know what to do with Steve other than send him — shades of Flags of Our Fathers — on a bond-raising tour as the newly dubbed Captain America. When the tour takes him to Europe, he breaks out of the carnival show long enough to save the lives of nearly 400 GIs, including his Brooklyn buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). This rescue cues a new assignment for Captain America.
Steve is now point man for Col. Phillips’ team in Strategic Scientific Research, along with the redoubtable Peggy Carter and inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), in taking on the Hydra organization, a Nazi science division that is even worse than the Nazis. In fact, it’s more like a worldwide criminal organization out of the James Bond era, intent on world conquest and more than willing to kill fellow Nazis. Everyone associated with this evil group shouts not “Heil Hitler” but “Heil Hydra.”
It’s run by the mad scientist Red Skull (go-to villain guy Hugo Weaving), whose red face may be the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong or just pain embarrassment at the Nazi clichés he is forced to play. He even listens to the soothing strains of Richard Wagner. Yes, he does.
Caught between contemporary tentpole moviemaking and a period piece, the movie keeps featuring very odd visual anachronisms. You might accept the battles that feature sci-fi weapons alongside vintage WWII arms, but what can you make of the Hydra soldiers’ Darth Vader costumes, those weird planes, cars and a submarine that maneuver within 1943’s Earth, sky and sea and, most alarming of all, that red dress Peggy wears in the battle zone? It’s a knock-‘em-dead outfit that may be a special weapon all its own.
Director Joe Johnston makes certain that amid all the retro-futuristic nonsense, his nucleus of actors playing SSR heroes fits well together. Evans nicely underplays the role, giving a Gary Cooper-ish air to the young hero who just wants to do the right thing. Atwell is a perfect throwback to that era: Darkly gorgeous yet tough as nails, she would look just at home painted on a bomber fuselage as she is slugging a solider who gives her lip.
Jones knows how to make every moment of screen time count with these grumpy and gruff characters he now plays, but Stan and Cooper aren’t so lucky: Their characters came out a little too thin in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely‘s screenplay. Meanwhile, Weaving is very one-notish as the villain, which leaves it to Toby Jones, as his sidekick, to add a little nuance to Nazi villainy.
The tech team brilliantly supports the comic book action without any single department showing off or adding unnecessary flourishes. A special tip of the hat to Anna B. Sheppard’s costumes and Rick Heinrichs’ production design for maintaining enough period flavor so the production doesn’t go too overboard.
Oh yes, this film is yet another summer fantasy in 3D in certain theaters. For some sequences, the format works well enough, but it’s hardly worth the extra expenditure. This gimmick is truly running out of steam.
Opens: July 22 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a Marvel Studios production
Cast: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci.
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Based on the comic books created by: Joe Simon, Jack Kirby
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Joe Johnston, Nigel Gostelow, Alan Fine, Stan Lee, David Maisel
Director of photography: Shelly Johnson
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Music: Alan Silvestri
Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Robert Dalva
PG-13 rating, 122 minutes
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