“Captain America: The First Avenger” succeeds where “The Green Lantern” utterly failed. It gives us a superhero, one from the Marvel Comics universe, who is distinct from those of his ilk, and he is one we quickly come to care about and root for. Steve Rogers isn’t just some cocky kid from Brooklyn with an overinflated ego. He’s a sickly young man who desperately wants to fight for his country, but who has been rejected by the military countless times. But what he lacks in health and strength he makes up for in spirit. Steve wants to fight for his country not because Uncle Sam wants him to, but because, and he said it himself, he never backs down from a fight.
I liked how this movie didn’t shy from its American roots the way “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” did. While that movie tried to make you forget the slogan “a real American hero,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” doesn’t do the same. At the same time, it doesn’t beat you over the head with blind American patriotism. It has its share of American pride, but it’s really about the spirit of this unlikely soldier which keeps him sane after he is transformed into a super soldier. The outside may be different, but the inside of this man remains the same to where he sounds like a relation to Robocop.
Playing Steve Rogers/Captain America is Chris Evans who you may remember him from those dopey “Fantastic Four” movies. As for myself, I remember him best for doing a skateboard grind down an icy railing which led to his ultimate demise in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Evans is perfectly cast and does great work in keeping his character from becoming just another clichéd war hero. His heart shines throughout the entire movie, and he never allows Rogers to become laughable or indulge in behavior which would seem cringe inducing.
Once Steve is turned into Captain America, you root for him to go into battle and defeat the Nazis. But seeing him become a pawn for the United States Government in hawking War Bonds is depressing even when his irrepressible spirit and love for country shines through. We understand his desire to prove himself, and our spirits rise along with his.
Of course, with every superhero movie we get a vicious villain. In this case, this would be Johann Schmidt, Adolf Hitler’s right hand man who is later revealed to be Red Skull. This particular Skull has his own plans for world domination through his organization of HYDRA, and he gets his followers to raise both hands instead of just the one for Hitler. With a stolen tesseract, HYDRA can eliminate their foes faster than those phasers that vaporized all the red shirts on “Star Trek.”
Hugo Weaving portrays Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, and he gives “Captain America” the formidable villain it needs. Still, after being in all “The Matrix” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, I kept waiting for him to say, “Welcome to Rivendell Mr. Anderson!”
“Captain America: The First Avenger” also has the other requisite characters like the Army drill sergeant and the beautiful woman who dares the most macho men to treat her as just a woman instead of the tough as nails soldier she is. It’s not hard to guess who gets their ass kicked here when other men foolishly hit on her. Still, director Joe Johnston succeeds in getting the best actors available to inhabit these roles and give them life beyond the mere superhero movie stereotypes they could have been.
Tommy Lee Jones is highly entertaining as Col. Chester Phillips, a gruff, no nonsense military leader who expects nothing but the best from his soldiers. Jones, however, gives Phillips a wry sense of humor much like the one Sam Gerard had in “The Fugitive.” Watching him being subtly dismissive of others and later coming around to see Steve Rogers is the man is a hoot, and he never ends up screaming all over the place like R. Lee Emery did in “Full Metal Jacket.”
Then there’s Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter, the female officer who eventually becomes Steve Rogers’ love interest. I really liked how Peggy was drawn out to where she doesn’t just exist for the sake of the movie’s superhero. Atwell sells us completely on her tough demeanor to where it cannot and should not be mistaken as an act, and she travels across the screen with an assured confidence which no one should ever doubt. If they do doubt her, it will say much more about her.
Johnston got the job of directing “Captain America: The First Avenger” based on the period movies he made such as “The Rocketeer” and “October Sky.” There’s a lot of attention paid to detail here (the story takes place 1942 to be exact), but it isn’t held prisoner by it. Heck, many of the tools HYDRA ends up using seem far removed from the 40’s, and they look like they came out of a sci-fi movie made in the 1970’s or 80’s. While Johnston hasn’t made a great movie here, he still has given us an undeniably entertaining one, and it didn’t even need another terrific film score by Alan Silvestri to prove this.
When it comes to the 2011 summer movie season, “Captain America: The First Avenger” isn’t better than “Thor” which for me had far more interesting characters, but it easily outdoes “The Green Lantern” which is one of that year’s biggest disappointments. Thanks to Evans’ performance, Captain America finally gets the cinematic respect this character has long since been denied.