A movie throwback to the era of the Little Guy
Defining what constitutes a superhero movie can be tricky. Does Darkman count? Do the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? By my narrow and perhaps idiosyncratic reckoning, Hollywood released nine real superhero flicks in the 30 years from 1970 through 1999, or about one every three years: four Batmans, four Supermans (forgot that last one, didn’t you?), and a Captain America that went virtually unseen. In the 12 years since, by contrast, there have been—again, by conservative estimate—about two per year: Five X-Mens (including Wolverine), three Spider -Mans, two Hulks, two Batmans, two Iron Mans, two Fantastic Fours, and one each of Superman, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Watchmen, Thor, Green Lantern, and, as of today, Captain America. And that’s not to mention next year’s The Avengers, which will assemble its heroic talent with the promiscuity of a 1980s rock supergroup.
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Given the superhero genre’s ever-more-central role in the pop-cinematic imagination, it was perhaps inevitable that some actors would have to start performing double duty. (In more innocent times, Randolph Scott averaged three or four cowboy films per year.) Ryan Reynolds was first out of the gate by a nose, having played Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and, just last month, protagonist Hal Jordan in Green Lantern. But Ryan at least had the decency to do his moonlighting in different comic-book universes, one Marvel, one DC. With Captain America: The First Avenger, Chris Evans—who played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies—has bent the space-time continuum more radically, offering his second performance as a Golden-Age Marvel hero. (If the studios eventually get desperate enough to plunder a 1950s-era, anti-communist storyline teaming the Captain and the Torch, they’ll need Winklevossian technology to get enough Evanses up on screen.)
While this may not be Evans’s first foray in tights, the result this time out is a good deal more satisfying. Captain America is not in the top tier of super-flicks, with the Dark Knight cycle and the better Spider-, Iron-, and X-Men, but it is near the top of the second, evidence that a genre that intermittently feels taxidermied (viz. Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Green Lantern) still has some life left in it.
As its title announces, the movie is the final appetizer for, and most explicit prequel to, The Avengers. So like its Marvel cousin, the similarly colon-titled X-Men: First Class, the film is an exercise in self-conscious retro. This time, the year is 1942; the look, sepia; and the tone, amiably gee-whizzy. Steve Rogers (Evans) is a scrawny but big-hearted Brooklyn kid, evidently on hiatus from his gig modeling as the “before” in Charles Atlas ads. He’s tried repeatedly to join the Army and fight the Reich but his weight (90 lbs.) and list of past ailments (asthma, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, and too many others to recount) have, sensibly enough, kept him out. (In an impressive feat of CGI—if, perhaps, one that will prove of limited use to Hollywood—the decidedly strapping Evans is persuasively rendered, Benjamin-Button-like, as a textbook case in puny.)
Witnessing Steve’s pluck and persistence, a kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) gives him a chance, as such types do, enlisting him in a secret program to produce the perfect American soldier through a regimen of injections and “vita-rays.” The experiment proves successful but, inevitably, irreproducible, and in no time Steve finds himself chasing Nazi saboteurs down the streets of Brooklyn and into the East River. Such heroics obviously meriting promotion, Steve is detailed to crisscross the nation promoting war bonds, in his familiar (if ridiculous) red-white-and-blues, as the “Star Spangled Man with a Plan.” Meanwhile across the Atlantic, a depraved Nazi scientist, known formally as Johann Schmidt but to his friends as the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is plotting the overthrow of the global order, Hitler included, through the use of futuristic technology fueled by a mystical cube of unimaginable power. That is until, while performing in a USO show for servicemen in Italy, Steve learns that the unit of his childhood best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) was captured just a few miles away by the Skull’s cult-like secret society, HYDRA…
Captain America is a by-the-numbers diversion, but a charming one. There are strong echoes of Hellboy and the Indiana Jones movies, with the Skull boasting, at one point, of the progress his own diabolical plots are achieving “while the Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the desert.” The action sequences are solid, if hardly revelatory. (The best is probably the pre-costume chase in Brooklyn.) And the careful interweaving of franchises that has characterized recent Marvel films continues, but unobtrusively, with links to Iron Man (Tony Stark’s father, played by Dominic Cooper, shows up as the Army’s top weapons engineer) and Thor.
Evans displays the easy likability he’s brought to earlier roles, in particular Cellular; as the Red Skull, Weaving offers the most villainous sneer this side of Alan Rickman; and the rest of the cast—which includes Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, and Tobey Jones—is uniformly solid. The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (with a light, uncredited polish by Avengers director Joss Whedon), is sharp enough to remain just this side of hokey. And apart from an all-too-common sag around the two-thirds point, director Joe Johnston keeps things moving briskly, right up to the unexpectedly touching conclusion.
What lingers most about Captain America, though, is its innocent, throwback ethos, a firm, unqualified embrace of the Little Guy. Early on, when scrawny Steve is asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies, no matter where they’re from.” That sentiment, the idea that even when made inhumanly powerful he will retain his compassion and aspire to be “not a perfect soldier, but a good man,” is a tonic change from the bleak vision of The Dark Knight and the unpleasant overdogging of Green Lantern. Incongruous as it may be today, it is a particularly appealing vision of a man who is, after all, the imagined embodiment of a national ideal.