To call Captain America: The First Avenger “perfect” would be something of an overstatement– the opening scene serves absolutely no appreciable purpose whatsoever for the movie’s narrative, and the denouement gets a little choppy and falters in set-up and execution. The unsavory frames of film that bookend what you could call Joe Johnston’s masterpiece (with a straight face, too), however, only constitute around ten or fifteen minutes of the picture’s total running time, and everything sandwiched in between those two unappealing slices of celluloid comes together so harmoniously that Captain America comes out a winner despite the bumpy take-off and rough landing.
So, no, I wouldn’t describe this final piece of Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero collaboration extravaganza, The Avengers, in terms of total perfection; it has its flaws, however minor they may end up being and regardless of well it wears them. But it does do a number of things perfectly, and for that it deserves some appropriately enthusiastic praise. How does anybody make a film about a character like Captain America palatable? Or even watchable? Concerns abound when dipping your pen in the schlock-tones of retro ink in the first place, but as far as properties of that description go the Cap may well take the cake– start with the name and work from there. There may be no popular mainstream superhero as inherently hokey as Captain America, so how does a director sell a character to a modern audience?
Johnston has experience with this sort of picture (see 1991’s The Rocketeer), and here he similarly embraces the corniness at the heart of his narrative rather than try to disguise it with unrelenting seriousness. One can’t treat a movie of Captain America‘s sort with too much gravity; we’re talking about a story based around a genetically modified soldier who wears red, white, and blue spandex and fights evil with a similarly embellished shield (which he enjoys throwing like a boomerang). Washing over that congenital silliness would result in a picture that’s straight-laced when it has no right to be. There’s a line Johnston must walk, of course, to make sure that the film doesn’t go too far in the other direction, but he maintains that balance splendidly and lets Captain America: The First Avenger be as giddily absurd as it should be without taking an ounce of the popcorn fun out of the movie’s basic conceit or downplaying the cartoonishness with needless solemnity.
By now my opinion on Marvel’s final superhero picture of the year should be clearly identified as “positive”; while it wouldn’t be fair for me to call it the best Marvel movie since Spider-Man 2 (I have seen neither Thor nor X-Men: First Class), it’s definitely the best of the bunch that I have seen short of that 2004 watermark. Here, we’re treated with an altered version of World War II, where our hero first makes his mark, but the Captain of the title isn’t actually a captain at all– he’s Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny little chap from Brooklyn who zealously tries to enlist in the US army no matter how many times he’s 4F’d. His enthusiasm and attitude earn him the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who finagles recruitment for Rogers and uses him as a subject in an experiment designed to produce the perfect soldier, pushing the puny fellow to the peak of human perfection and then some– tall, muscle-bound, untiring, and gifted with super-human regenerative capabilities.
What do you do with a science project like Rogers? Not a minute after he gets off the operating table, he runs down a Nazi assassin in the street and yanks him out of a submersible craft with his bare hands and feet, so clearly he’s a cut above the rest and more than capable of fighting the Fuehrer and his armies. But it takes time after Rogers has his hero’s rebirth before he lands in Europe and takes the fight to one of cinema’s favorite group of bad guys, and it’s in this section that the film shrugs off any interpretations of chauvinistic jingoism. Rather than get shipped overseas, Rogers is instead sent around the country in a gaudy and embarrassing ensemble to sell war bonds. It’s in these scenes that Captain America: The First Avenger appears to show a distaste for boorish arm-chair patriotism, poking fun at the patently ludicrous philosophies driving the propaganda machine sending Rogers from state to state. As a character, Captain America isn’t about blind support of one’s nation; really, the Cap is meant to represent the best qualities one can plumb from the myth of the American ideal, among them compassion, kindness, and courage, and like the character, Johnston’s film believes in fighting for what’s right rather than fighting out of misguided loyalty.
Eventually, Rogers gets whisked to the front lines and dukes it out with members of HYDRA, the personal army of Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Once HYDRA’s on the table, Captain America breaks from realism entirely (which is to say that it doesn’t have the most solid relationship with reality in the first place) and spills over into superhero territory as the Captain and his rag-tag band of soldiers raid HYDRA bases and blow up their weapons supplies in a series of energetic and terrifically shot action sequences. This half of the film is where the archetypal hero-villain relationship develops; Schmidt is a man so thoroughly evil that he sees Hitler as a weakling and an obstacle, and like the best ham-handed cartoon antagonists he’s bent on world domination for the sake of world domination. Schmidt’s only missing a curly mustache to twirl with his fingers, while Rogers acts as the opposite side of the proverbial coin– he’s a altar boy carved in the image of a Greek god.
I think Captain America really lives or dies based on the ability of its hero and villain to play off of each other and relish the exaggerations of their characters. Thankfully, Johnston picked the two best men for the jobs. Evans might be primarily known to us as a comedic actor, but he’s got the physique for action cinema and knows how to make swinging a patriot shield around look great. More importantly he knows how to sell Rogers with his tongue firmly in cheek while abstaining from winking at the audience too much, something that almost definitely comes from his comedy chops. Weaving, on the other hand, is supplied with a villain painted broad and nefarious strokes, and he cuts a great villainous figure by going big in every moment he has on screen. They make an excellent duo together, Weaving chewing the scenery while Evans plays the archetypal goodie-two-shoes hero.
Taken outside of its individual context, Captain America makes for a strong capstone to the string of films Marvel studios have output to build up to The Avengers. It’s kind of amazing to think that their long-term marketing plan is finally coming close to realizing its goals, and I’m curious to see where the studio goes once that future blockbuster is in the bag. But rather than act as just a lead-in to The Avengers, Captain America functions on its own two feet and marks one of the best offerings of the summer if slightly imperfect. For many, this might be the Marvel movie you’ve been waiting for since Iron Man, one that’s filled with the sort spectacular action associated with comic book cinema but whose best features are tight storytelling and outstanding character work. Flaws aside, you’re not likely to have as good a time at the multiplex this summer with any other picture.