Captain America isn’t an extraordinary superhero blockbuster but a culturally appropriate one. It’s heavy, you see, with nostalgic Forties atmosphere that fits its Marvel Comics origins to a T. It’s a franchise-starter set squarely in the era where all the Marvel Comics got going, in the middle of World War II. There’s a quaintness to the uniforms, the big-busted pinup gals, the war bond drives. Even the too-earnest fantasies of defeating an arch-evil enemy fit with the period from which the Marvel Comics came and makes sense in the World War II context. It may sometimes sound like a low-rent knockoff of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino’s warped pulp vision of the War has burned itself into our psyches. Schmidt, the arch-villain, played by the Matrix baddie Hugo Weaving, is a role that might be ideal for Christoph Waltz if it weren’t so comic-book extreme, and if all the Germans weren’t relegated to speaking English. But even imitation Tarantino may be better than most summer cinema offerings. If you stay through to the end, you’ll get the best part: the closing credits are a series of bright-colored evocations of patriotic World War II poster art that are eye-poppingly gorgeous. And along the way, this is a sprightly actioner that never falters.
Another essential Forties comic book symbol celebrated in Captain America is the 90-pound weakling — sneered at on the beach when he took off his shirt and revealed his puny muscles. The ubiquitous comic book ads called on readers to send away for a Charles Atlas body building course. The picture of Charles Atlas, with his puffy muscles and broad shoulders, was just like one of the comics’ superheroes. And this is the very essence of the original Forties comics. They provided fantasies of macho muscularity for young boys whose hormones hadn’t even begun to flow. At the heart of Captain America is the plucky but frail and underweight Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a patriotic Brooklyn-born weakling, lion-hearted but the target of bullies, who can’t get the Army to take him despite five tries. What would be worse for a patriotic boy of America’s late entry into the War than to be declared 4F, unfit for service? A wartime project devised by German defector scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, doing his best to sound Teutonic) comes to the rescue.
Some of director Joe Johnston’s resume (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, the quickly forgotten Wolfman) makes him look like a hack, but he’s hit on something more authentic this time. A weary-looking but salty-talking Tommy Lee Jones adds flavor as Colonel Chester Phillips, the officer in charge of the experimental subjects Steve gets assigned to. The Brit up-and-comer Dominic Cooper plays the wealthy weapons contractor Howard Stark (father of the Robert Downey Jr. character in the Iron Man movies). Little Toby Jones (still looking mmore like Truman Capote than anybody else) is suitably cartoonish as Dr. Arnim Zola, the megalomaniac Schmidt’s sidekick working in his “deep science” laboratory hidden high up in the Alps where Schmidt has his special unit hailed instead of Hitler. “Heil Hydra!” they go. .
The movie begins with Schmidt’s seizure of the Tesseract—an all-powerful cosmic cube that was originally “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.” True fanboy stuff, leading to the harnessing of a power so great it seems like lightning, or a thousand laser beams.
Steve gets injected with special serum and blasted in a kind of hi-tech Iron Maiden that makes him into — Charles Atlas! But since the project is sabotaged and Erskine isn’t able to produce an army of big boys, Steve gets humiliated at first, relegated to the sidelines — still an outcast. Colonel Phillips wants relegate him to Los Alamos where he’ll be a forgotten guinea pig. His champion (and love interest) is the project’s British liaison Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who saves him from that. But at first he’s just a man in tights sent around to shill for bigger War Bonds purchases (scenes full of more Forties flavor). Finally Steve, AKA Captain America gets his big chance. Armed with his new superpowers, plus a circular shield of light, impenetrable vibranium (“the rarest metal on earth”) that he wields like a lethal frisbee-boomerang and wards off death rays with, he rescues a multi-national unit trapped deep behind enemy lines. Doing so he also saves the other big human interest in his life besides Peggy, his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan).
At last, his talents are recognized and he’s ready to go directly for arch-villain Schmidt, who rips off his prosthetic face mask to reveal that he’s — Red Skull! It’s not fair to think of Weaving as merely a Christoph Waltz knockoff: he’s a dynamic supervillain in his own right. And Chris Evans is appealing as the ordinary Joe turned by (Yank-coopted) “deep science” into an invincible hero. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have stuck to the rich Marvel material here and come up with something cohesive.
Flawed individuals are more interesting than perfect ones, and once Chris Evans loses his CGI-ed small face on a small body and becomes Captain America he becomes bland. Neither Evans nor the writers can make him as complex as Downey’s Iron Man. But by the same token this feels more like a fun comic book evocation and less like a blockbuster clambering to be recognized as something totally special. It’s got gadgetry and boyish wish-fulfilment galore, it’s got colorful action that doesn’t let CGI take over, and best of all, along with the period atmosphere, it remembers the “comic” in comic book. As the 2011 American summer blockbuster season goes, this is more unified than the schizy Thor, livelier than the snooze-fest Green Lantern, less of an ultimate disappointment than Super 8 — but not quite as cool as X-Men: First Class. Transformers 3? I forget.
Captain America: The First Avenger is in UK cinemas 29th July 2011.
DIRECTOR: JOE JOHNSTON
WRITERS: CHRISTOPHER MARKUS, STEPHEN MCFEELY
STARS: CHRIS EVANS, HUGO WEAVING, TOMMY LEE JONES, HAYLEY ATWELL, SEBASTIAN STAN, TOBY JONES, DOMINIC COOPER
RUNTIME: 125 MIN