Just when it seemed the whole comic book/superhero thing had burnt itself out in a conflagration of too much money and not enough inspiration, along comes Captain America: The First Avenger to make us remember why these movies can be so much fun.
Captain America is corny in all the right ways. It’s tongue-in-cheek funny, touching when it needs to be, warmly nostalgic, and it perfectly captures its WW2 setting.
It has more than a few things in common with The Rocketeer, director Joe Johnston’s flawed 1991 attempt at a period superhero yarn, but while that movie seemed tentative, this one suggests a filmmaker who knows what he wants. And how to get it.
The time is 1942 and young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is desperate to show his mettle by enlisting in the military. But he’s always classified 4F because he’s a 90-pound weakling with a long list of health issues.
The poor guy has never had a girlfriend. “Women aren’t exactly lining up to dance with a guy they might step on,” he notes.
Then a scientist with a German accent (Stanley Tucci), sensing a purity of spirit beneath the puny physique, recruits Steve for a top secret military project to create a superman with which to fight the Nazis ... who are themselves working on an army of uber-augmented warriors.
Result: The wimp becomes a muscled he-man. The special effects technology that reduces Evans to a painfully thin wraith and then reassembles him as a buff stud is flawless ... much better than it was just two years ago when it turned Brad Pitt into a little old man in Benjamin Button.
But Steve’s dream of fighting for freedom gets sidelined. Dolled up in cheesy tights and helmet, he’s dubbed Captain America and sent out surrounded by a bevy of chorus girls to sell war bonds in big patriotic revues. He becomes the star of a comic book and a series of films.
This is to be his contribution to the war effort?
You know better than that.
With the help of a British special agent (Hayley Atwell) and the reluctant cooperation of a crusty general (Tommy Lee Jones at his surly best), Steve/Captain America goes behind enemy lines (sans the silly tights ... his new combat duds are far more manly) to confront Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), an occult-obsessed Nazi officer who has gained possession of an ancient power source and has transformed himself into the Red Skull, a villain whose own plans for world domination far surpass anything envisioned by his boss Hitler.
As much fun as Captain America is, big chunks of it seem to have been cribbed from other movies.
Schmidt’s woo-woo fascination reflects that of the baddie in Raiders of the Lost Ark and his storm troopers (right out of Star Wars only in black armor) carry ray guns that vaporize humans like those of the Martians in War of the Worlds.
An opening sequence set in the present day in which a huge craft is discovered buried beneath the Arctic ice, is right out of the very first version of The Thing.
Evans, who has often seemed just a pretty face, expresses real soul as Steve, a guy chosen for this experiment precisely because of his compassion and decency (the theory is that a man who’s been bullied all his life will, when he gets great power, be less likely to bully others).
The action is much more well staged than is usually the case with this genre, and the production design is a wonderful blend of the futuristic and the retro.
Superhero movies rarely truly matter (unless you’re a bean counter for one of the studios), but they can provide great fun and diversion. Captain America does just that.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.