He’s been waving the flag and stomping evil for seven decades, but Marvel Comics stalwart Captain America never has had a fair deal in Hollywood; from chintzy matinee serials to cheesy TV movies and a stinky straight-to-video disaster in the ’90s, Cap just hasn’t caught a break. Finally, at long last, after such C-listers as Blade and Elektra, the shield slinger gets a big-budget summer popcorn spectacular, and mostly delivers the goods: a goofy, old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness superhero movie worth saluting.
After a decade of Dark Knights and doom and gloom predominating the spandex set, it’s a relief to see a noble, essentially uncomplicated funny book character, even if the good captain is square as a brick.
Chris Evans, who’s made his living playing smug, cocky jerkwads, makes a surprisingly likable and humble hero as Steve Rogers, the prototypical 98-pound weakling who has been stamped 4-F by the draft board time and again. It’s 1942, and he wants nothing more than to pitch in to the war effort and follow his best pal James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) into service. Asthmatic Steve is just too scrawny to hack it as a GI, but his determination catches the eye of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a kindly German scientist who fled the Nazis to work for our side. The doctor has cooked up a serum: a wonder drug that “enhances everything you are inside,” in an effort to create an army of super soldiers. Tough as nails Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) doesn’t want a sickly wimp fouling up his beloved army, but Rogers shows he’s got more heart and smarts than the rest of the burly meatheads lined up for the experimental program.
The formula works, pushing Steve to the peak of human perfection — faster, stronger and more agile than any man on the planet. He’s raring to sock old Adolf square in the jaw; instead, the brass dresses him up in a gaudy red-white-and-blue getup and sends him on the road shilling war bonds in comic books, USO tours and in propaganda films, all of which are smartly spoofed here.
Cap finally gets into the action when he runs afoul of Hydra, a super-secret, advanced research division even nastier than the Nazis, led by the sinister Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who spits out a Teutonic accent somewhere between Christoph Waltz and Wolfgang Puck. Schmidt is called the “Red Skull” because he took an unfinished version of the serum and ended up deformed and deranged; now he plans to use an ancient Viking power source to destroy New York City and Berlin — or something; his plan isn’t really all that clear.
Evans has a nice spark, with British spitfire Peggy Carter played to perfection by Hayley Atwell, though their sweet little romance never gets in the way of a fight scene. The rest of the support staff includes winks to the larger marvel universe (hey, look, the Howling Commandos!) including tech wiz Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who builds Cap’s indestructible shield, and grows up to father Iron Man — and he even looks a bit like Robert Downey Jr.
These nods remind us we’re being set up for next year’s Avengers, where the Captain will team up with modern stars like the Hulk and Thor, but this movie stands on its own nicely, thank you.
Director Joe Johnston knows his way around retro comic books — his adaptation of the Rocketeer is a cult favorite — and he threads the needle between camp and clever homage. A more confident stylist like Paul Verhoeven would have played all this for edgy satire, but Johnston is less concerned with politics than delivering thrills and a few laughs. My colleague rolled his eyes at the dreaded “action scene montages,” and rightfully so, but they are fairly brief. Evans plows through waves of goose-stepping goons, but we rarely sense that he’s in any real danger. The set pieces, including a motorcycle chase, an assault on a mountain retreat, and battles on trains, planes and submarines, are well-staged, though there’s no signature showstopper. There is a bit more grisly violence than you might expect; one baddie gets shredded into a red mist by an airplane propeller. You won’t need 3-D glasses to see the splatter, or anything else for that matter; the process adds to nothing but the ticket price. Besides, Captain America is an old-school, 2-D kinda guy, a black-and-white moralist from a simpler time, but certainly colorful enough to save the day.