Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun slice of pop culture nostalgia – a 3D film that crosses the gee-whiz imagery of a yesteryear pulp magazine with the rip-roaring action and adventure of a Saturday afternoon serial. Adapted from the Marvel comic book, it evokes an imaginary, almost innocent world of fantastic technologies, sinister domination plots, and gung-ho characters, all of whom believe that good old American moxie can vanquish the forces of evil. Watching it, I saw echoes of films such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Speed Racer, visual treats that were also unashamedly entertaining. I’m not quite sure why it doesn’t quite reach the level of those movies. Perhaps it has something to do with being one of five interconnected films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; if it had stood on its own and not been tied to the other four plots, it might have been truly great.
One of the many ways special effects are typically used is to enhance an actor’s appearance. With the possible exception of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Captain America is the only film I know of in which special effects make the star look like less than himself. This would be Chris Evans; for the opening scenes of the film, his six-foot-tall muscular build had to be digitally manipulated to make him appear short and scrawny. According to director Joe Johnston, this required each of his early scenes to be shot at least four times – first on set with Evans and his costars, second with Evans alone against a green screen, third back on set with only Evans’ costars, and fourth with an on-set body double mimicking Evans’ actions. With this much work involved, it’s no wonder his character looks so small for only about a quarter of the finished film.
Taking place mostly in 1942, the film tells the story of Steve Rogers (Evans), a kid from Brooklyn who’s all pluck and naïve patriotism. He wants nothing more than to enlist in the army and fight in World War II, but he’s turned away at every recruiting station for his sickly build and long list of ailments. His tenacity catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), an expatriate German scientist working for the United States government. He recruits Rogers to a squad of soldiers led by the cantankerous Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), all doubt and pessimism. Rogers passes a psychological test – his willingness to take one for the team – and is selected by Erskine to take part in an experiment that will allow him to aide in the war effort. In a secret underground lab located behind a New York antique shop, Rogers is placed in a metal tube and injected with a serum concocted by Erskine, one that enhances his physical features and brings him to the peak of human perfection. He has become a super soldier.
In any good superhero tale, the villain is almost always an eccentric madman that upstages every other character. Here enters Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a former Nazi whose dreams of world domination have far exceeded Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. He too has been injected with Erskine’s serum, but in his case, there were … some unfortunate side effects. Obsessed with the occult, he’s looking to harness the power of a glowing blue cube, which is said to have been “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” (I hope you all saw Thor back in May). Even before Steven Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis have been among the most reliable of movie-serial villains; Captain America keeps that tradition alive, and it works beautifully.
After donning a hooded blue suit and adopting an impossibly strong red, white, and blue colored shield as a weapon, Rogers quickly graduates from war bond stage show celebrity to full-fledged soldier. At his side is Officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British soldier who will inevitably become his love interest – although they will do no more than kiss. Despite her steely professionalism, it’s impossible for her to not look beautiful; in every scene she’s in, she looks as if she has been prepped for a magazine photo shoot. I’m not really being critical here. Even if it is incredibly silly, it contributes greatly to the stylized comic book atmosphere. The same thing applies to Tucci’s German accent. It’s not too phony, it’s just phony enough.
Along the way, we will meet the showy military inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony Stark, who we know as Iron Man. You saw those movies, right? We will also meet Schmidt’s right hand man, biochemist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), who suspects his master may be einen Vogel haben. I think the main reason Captain America: The First Avenger is so much fun is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously; it retains that air of heightened reality, and it does so with absolutely no apologies. Although not the best entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that distinction belongs to the original Iron Man – it’s still a highly entertaining film. Note: All the recent films in the Marvel cannon have required you to sit through the end credits, and this one is no exception. This time, however, you will see a theatrical teaser instead of an extra scene.