Just as the viability of the superhero movie genre is being questioned in the wake of the lackluster GREEN LANTERN, Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA swoops in, a rousing, old fashioned action adventure with heart and brains.
Based on one of Marvel’s oldest heroes, CAPTAIN AMERICA is great fun, a movie that has thrills and romance along the lines of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and Johnston’s own wonderful-but-unappreciated ROCKETEER.
Short, sickly Steve Rogers wants to serve his country in the dark days of World War II, but keeps getting marked “4-F” every time he volunteers. A kindly Einstein-like doctor, Abraham Erskine (a great Stanley Tucci) decides Rogers is the perfect man for the job, rationalizing a weak man is perfect for his super-soldier experiment “Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power…” The scene where he proves Rogers is the best choice over another candidate is inspired. Its an unabashed sweet, patriotic, goodnatured epic.
Created in the ’40s by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Cap is a deliberate byproduct of radiation and planning, unlike the Stan Lee heroes like Spider-Man and Hulk, who are basically walking nuclear accidents.
Chris Evans, who was a perfect Human Torch in the FANTASTIC FOUR movies, is also a perfect Steve Rogers/ Captain America. He humanizes a character who could easily be reduced to a cardboard cliche–Evans spends 30 minutes as a scrawny weakling before he becomes a superhero and makes a sympathetic character. When Erskine asks him if he got in to kill Nazis, Rogers explains, “I don’t like bullies–I don’t care where they’re from.” To Evans’ credit, he’s truly believable.
The movie is perfectly cast–from Evans’ as the kind but tough Captain America, Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff soldier and Hugo Weaving’s sinister Red Skull to the smaller roles Toby Jones is fun as the evil but opportunistic Dr. Zola, Neal McDonough is a hearty Dum Dum Dugan (Fun Fact: One of McDonough’s first big roles was playing Bruce Banner on a ’90s HULK cartoon) and the adorable Amanda Righetti has an amusing cameo as a SHIELD agent, as does Stan Lee, as a general. Hayley Atwell makes love interest Peggy Carter an appealing, involving character, not a cloying superhero movie girlfriend from the Vicki Vale mold, as a lot of these films do. Samuel L. Jackson has a cool cameo, where the film homages Mark Millar’s ULTIMATES. The script by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the NARNIA trilogy) is fast and enjoyable.
How they made Chris Evans as a believable nebbish and what they did with Hugo Weaving’s nose when he’s the Red Skull is anyone’s guess, but it’s the most entertaining Marvel movie since Jon Favreau’s first IRON MAN.
And speaking of IRON MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA is actually a prequel to that film. Tony Stark’s father, Howard, is a supporting character in this. Played by Dominic Cooper (who is a dead ringer for the comics’ Tony Stark), Howard is a womanizing weaponsmaker–and is constantly creating technology familar to anyone who has ever looked at a Marvel comic. He designs Cap’s shield and even invents the first flying car. Cap’s sidekick Bucky is also in the film. A scene at the New York World’s Fair seems to sport a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by the 194os Human Torch and the film adds Hydra to onscreen Marvel villains.
The 3-D is put to great use–you will actually flinch when Cap’s shielf comes at you and impales itself into a wall.
Tech credits are superb; production designer Rick Heinrichs creates a believably fantastic 1940s–all the tech gear looks like it was designed by Jack Kirby and Mike Mignola–and D.p Shelly Johnson actually shoots it like a ’40s movie. Many scenes look like Kirby/Steranko/Byrne comic book panels come to life. They even work in a tribute to the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 and you do see Cap belt Hitler! A fantastic late-summer surprise.