This was starting to look like the summer that the superhero movies needed a superhero to save them. Thor was decent but hardly godlike, X-Men: First Class buried its promise beneath scores of uninteresting secondary characters, and Green Lantern was a forgettable, by-the-numbers affair at best. When it looked like all hope was lost, though, Captain America: The First Avenger roared in on a souped-up Harley and saved the day with an appealing lead, a winning supporting cast, and an affectionately retro sensibility.
Captain America begins with a present-day prelude that manages to evoke Aliens, The Thing, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind all at once, with a research team finding a mysterious airship buried in the arctic ice. Within it is the perfectly-preserved body of a visitor from another era. From there, we flash back to the darkest days of World War II, where Hitler’s chief weapons designer, Johann Schimdt (Hugo Weaving) lays claim to a mysterious otherworldly cube, hoping to harness its powerful energy for his own evil schemes. Meanwhile, in the U S of A, a scrawny Brooklyn kid named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is once again trying unsuccessfully to enlist in the army; the 98-pound weakling’s history of illness has him declared 4-F, but all he wants is to serve his country (seen in the film’s trailers, the effect of placing Evans’ face on a much smaller actor’s body is a startling but ultimately convincing effect). Catching the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Rogers is eventually accepted and fast-tracked into a secret military project to create a series of super-soldiers who can defeat the Nazi menace. Injected with experimental formulas and bombarded with “vita-rays”, Rogers is transformed from a scrawny wimp into, well, Chris Evans. An assassin’s bullet ensures the project can never be duplicated, making Rogers a one-of-a-kind hero. Seen by the army as being too valuable to possibly lose in combat, Rogers is sent overseas in a star-spangled outfit and paraded around with showgirls in a series of USO performances. Still, Steve volunteered for the experiment so he would have the chance to save lives, so when he finds out that the platoon of his childhood pal Bucky Barnes has been captured by Schmidt’s nefarious Nazi sub-division, HYDRA, our hero rushes off to save the day, and the career of Captain America begins. Before long, he’s wearing a more practical version of his familiar outfit, and toting around an indestructible shield designed by Howard Stark (father of Tony, AKA Iron Man).
Directed with the same affection for the period he brought to The Rocketeer 20 years ago, Joe Johnston’s Captain America is full of earnest, gee-whiz spirit. It’s a colourful, humourous, action-packed blast, helped along by a robust score from Alan Silvestri (Back To The Future, Predator). Early detractors wondered whether or not Chris Evans would be right for the role, having already played a Marvel hero as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films. They needn’t have worried—he is an actor, after all, and the cocky Johnny Storm is nowhere to be seen (although longtime Marvel fans should keep their eyes peeled during the World’s Fair sequence for a reference to another Human Torch). His Steve Rogers is a likeable do-gooder, eager to save as many lives as he possibly can. It’s a refreshingly un-ironic performance; when asked by Dr. Erskine if he wants to kill Nazis, he responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies”. Hayley Atwell provides the love interest as British agent Peggy Carter, thankfully never reduced to the role of screaming damsel-in-distress, and Tommy Lee Jones enjoyably chews the scenery as Cap’s military overseer General Chester Phillips. Hugo Weaving is nice and dastardly as Johann Schmidt and his crimson-faced alter ego, the Red Skull, and Toby Jones snivels admirably as his sidekick, Dr. Arnim Zola.
It’s become a common complaint lately that the recent spate of Marvel movies (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor) have all merely been trailers for 2012’s Avengers film, which will see the heroes team up for the first time. Captain America: The First Avenger had me leaving the theater much more excited at that prospect than any of the above-mentioned films did, but it also stood perfectly well on its own, even with its wraparound present-day sequence that brings the hero into the present day. I personally can’t wait to see how Evans’ Cap fits into the 21st century, both in The Avengers and, hopefully, a solo Captain America sequel. Easily the best Marvel movie since the first Iron Man, and probably my personal favourite since the original 2002 Spider-Man, Captain America: The First Avenger makes the old-fashioned seem new again. Now let's just hope that Toby Jones' Arnim Zola shows up in a sequel looking like his comic-book counterpart: