Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee once half-jokingly described the first-ever adventure of shield-wielding Captain America as “so full of lightning-swift action scenes that you’ll almost suspect we somehow forgot the story itself!” Now Captain America is a big-budget blockbuster that resembles the remark, delivering pulpy fun in the cliffhanger vein.
A few liberties aside, this latest incarnation of Captain America hasn’t strayed far from the hero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940. In 1943, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the archetypal ninety-eight pound weakling, but he wants nothing more than to join the Army. A litany of health issues, including asthma, repeatedly get him branded 4F, but as a bully tells him during the middle of a beatdown, he just doesn’t know when to give up. Steve’s All-American sticktoitiveness pays off when he’s selected to be part of a super-soldier program. Treated with super-serum and “vita-rays,” scrawny Steve Rogers becomes brawny Captain America.
After a thrilling impromptu field test of his powers, Rogers finds himself frustratingly removed from the action again as a promotional tool of the war-bond effort, complete with theme tune, a star-spangled costume (cleverly patterned on the tights worn in the original comics), and a starring role in movie serials (Cap had one in our reality, too, in 1944). But born-hero Rogers will not be denied, and soon he’s taking the initiative to rescue American POWs and lay waste to the facilities of the Nazis’ nefarious “deep science” HYDRA Division, lately under the rogue direction of power-mad officer Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, amusingly channeling Werner Herzog in a bad, bad mood).
Marvel has done a fine job of “casting” the directors for its comic-book movies, pairing Jon Favreau with Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh with Thor, and now Joe Johnston with Cap. A protégé of Lucas and Spielberg, Johnston previously helmed the underappreciated, serial-style, period superhero adventure The Rocketeer, which Captain America happily recalls. Since his credits include the first two Indiana Jones movies, it’s no surprise that Captain America also has a distinct Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe, down to specific action beats and the supernatural MacGuffin wielded by a Nazi villain obsessed with “occult power and Teutonic myth.”
In time-tested comic-book-villain fashion, Red Skull is a sort of photo negative of Captain America, the former made more capable of evil by super-serum and the latter made more capable of good. The film’s early going is most interesting and entertaining, establishing with humor and heart that—even after becoming a steroidal hero—Cap still has that compassionate “little guy” inside of him, the one with something to prove and the unalloyed bravery to run into harm’s way. Still, his superheroic lack of physical vulnerability becomes something of an Achilles heel in the final stretches, as the action begins to feel a tad obligatory.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely work in a romance between Rogers and never-daunted Strategic Scientific Reserve officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and there are prime supporting roles for Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones (who seems to be having an uncharacteristically good time, which ought to tell you something). The most noticeable motif Johnston plays with is the use of a garbage-can lid as a shield: more important than $140 million dollars worth of toys is Johnston’s childlike sense of play.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]