Captain America The First Avenger turns out in the end (against the spoilers) to have been a two-hour teaser for another movie. That picture, hinted in the second “Hulk,” the first “Thor” and both “Iron Man” movies and scheduled to release next May, will be called “The Avengers” .
Whether you see its happening with resignation, boredom or uncontainable joy depends on your standing in the MCU. Shareholders and die-hard fans obviously already have the opening date noted on their calendars, and many others will probably show up as well, either out of curiosity or solemn duty.
But in the meantime this origin story, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans as the firm, shield-throwing, red-white-and-blue Captain America, is pretty entertaining. The precise judgment of my 15-year-old screening buddy was “Better than ‘Thor’ or ‘Green Lantern’ ”, and while that isn’t saying a lot, it might just be enough. Captain America The First Avenger based on a character that first introduced in Timely Comics, a precursor to Marvel, in the early 1940s – the time of Batman, Superman and other old-growth, early famous superheroes – has a winningly pulpy, playful, sincere spirit.
With a dusty color scheme that provokes newsprint and cheap ink, and a production team that nails the Deco-inflected futurism of an earlier time, the film is nostalgic without making a big of a deal. And although there are handful of the normal digital enhancements and overscaled effects, the pseudo-operatic grandiosity that has become a statue of the genre is mostly nowhere to be found. Instead Captain America The First Avenger, like its unapologetically corny hero, is driven by modesty and courageous ingenuity.
Some of this can be ascribed to Mr. Johnston, whose affection for the pop culture in the past was appealingly displayed in “The Rocketeer” 20 years ago. (Later, less charming credits involve “Jurassic Park III” and “The Wolfman”). Captain America The First Avenger is hardly innovative in its mining and harmonizing of old pop culture motifs and real-life history – its hero battles Nazis in the shadow of not only his own earlier incarnations but also Indiana Jones – but its aim appears to be refreshment rather than reinvention.
It is enjoyably irrational, occasionally touching and genuinely likable. Different from many of his fellows, the Captain, alter ego of a weak “kid from Brooklyn” named Steve Rogers, is granted with fairly modest powers. He is injected with a peculiar serum that enhances his muscles and increases his metabolism, a bit of juicing that today’s professional athletes might jealous of, since it is not accompanied by any side effect or public criticism.
There is an incredible scene in which Steve – who had previously been a slightly strange figure designed by superimposing Mr. Evans’s chiseled face onto the frame of a puny body double – experiments his new body in a shirtless pursuit of some minor baddies. Mr. Evans, seeing of his reflection in a store window as he runs past, and looking down at his arms and chest, discovers the estrangement and happiness that are part of all superhero’s self-discovery.
He is even better when delivering the newly minted Captain’s fear of being turned into a novelty act, sent out on the street with a line of chorus girls and a stage Hitler to sell war bonds. The sequence of his tour, a bustle of peppy music and gee-whiz hamminess, might be the movie’s best scene, a surprisingly clever and sincere exercise in post-postmodern self-reference. Before he has achieved very much, Steve is a media-made hero, starring in comic books and serials made to improve American morale.
This makes him just like the real, original, fictional Captain America. He meets reality when an Italian audience of G.I. fails to be impressed by his cartoon antics. But then Captain America, both figure and the movie, zoom constantly back into the cartoon realm, battling a villain so wildly and diabolical that he makes the Nazis uncomfortable.
His name is Schmidt, he is portrayed by the trusty sinister Hugo Weaving, and he possesses a magic Norse ice cube that makes him powerful enough to have a lot of weapons for Captain America to smash with his shield. Mr. Evans is nice and easy on the eyes, but a superhero with a mask, whether gentle or brooding, is hardly as exciting as the sidekicks and foes who surround him.
Mr. Weaving, with a bright red, noseless face and a classic Hollywood “Chermann” accent, is a fine enemy, and Captain America The First Avenger is filled with colorful supporting roles. They are Tommy Lee Jones, a crusty Army officer; Stanley Tucci as an immigrant scientist; Howard Stark played by Dominic Cooper, an important connection with Robert Downey Jr. and his “Iron Man” franchise; and lastly, Toby Jones as the assistant baddy.
Captain America’s crew consists of Derek Luke, Neal McDonough and Ken Choi; his best friend is Sebastian Stan. The British actress Hayley Atwell, as Agent Carter, the love interest and supervisor of our main protagonist, benefits from the opportunity to be more than just the Girl, though she is basically that. Mr. Johnston and the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, clearly appreciate the vivid romantic chemistry of the couples in the movies of the ’40s, and they also adapt the modern expectation that a woman in an action movie should be able to fight and handle a firearm.
There is enough energy and imagination packed into Captain America The First Avenger to make you a bit distress to see it all disappear at the end. It might have been great to be able to be anticipated for a few more sequels in the old, cheap, Saturday matinee style that the movie, at its best, pays tribute to, instead of another normal blockbuster. But progression is relentless, and superheroes can stay current only by changing with the flow of time and harmonizing their commercial powers.
That was a challenging task for Steve Rogers in the ’60s, when Marvel brought him out of retirement as an avatar of Greatest Generation values in a world of increasing alienation. It is pleasing, all these years later, to see him restored to his native time, and it’s also a little sorrowful. Captain America The First Avenger is a reminder, at once successful and self-defeating, of the kind of entertaining that comics used to be.