Captain America isn’t just the first Avenger, he’s the first Marvel character to get a complete, fully functional movie. The superhero studio’s had its successes, but none of those successes have ever had the stem to stern finished feeling of this one. The original Iron Man is a lot of fun, but the second half is a little less fun than the first. Thor has great characters, but sometimes seems a little light on story. All of the studio’s other films have worked in spite of some flaw, some glaring misstep which the better parts must overcome to varying results. Not Captain America. This is stem to stern, an honest to god film. Not a bunch of great characters in a weak script. Not a good idea with nowhere to go. Not an advertisement for some upcoming franchise connection. The First Avenger is a movie and a good one.
Maybe it works so well because it’s also the first Marvel movie that doesn’t feel as though it set out to be a superhero movie. Captain America is less interested in its character’s super powers than in what it took for him to get them and how he’ll use them. When it comes to Cap’s abilities, the movie barely discusses them. If Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) spends any time after his transformation from scrawny wannabe to mega-muscled hunk on testing the limits of his new abilities, we never see it. Instead the movie starts by showing us who Steve Rogers is, and then once it transforms him, focuses entirely on showing us the man he’s become.
When we meet him Steve isn’t a hero. He’s too little even to be a soldier, let alone a heroic one. The special effects used here to turn buff Chris Evans into a diminutive midget, are nothing short of stunning. Though America is in the midst of World War II and desperate for warm bodies to fill out uniforms, Steve is so small and weak that he’s repeatedly rejected by the draft board. They don’t want a 90-pound weakling with chronic asthma, but Dr. Abraham Erskine does. Played with gentle wisdom by Stanley Tucci, Erskine recruits Rogers for a super soldier experiment he’s conducting with the army. Erskine believes that only a weak man knows the true value of strength and gambles that giving it to Steve will only make him a better man. It does.
Chris Evans plays Rogers with a sort of earnestly serious, gee-whiz determination before his transformation, and the really interesting thing about his performance is how much Steve remains that same man even after he’s pumped up and put in his costume. First Avenger keeps Steve’s road rocky, no matter that he’s given power beyond that of normal men, life remains a struggle. Inside he’s still the little guy who keeps getting knocked down but refuses to stay down. Captain America’s real strength isn’t in his arms or in his ability to throw his shield, it’s in his ability to keep getting back up, to keep going, no matter the cost.
Eventually Captain America ends up in the thick of World War II, fighting a Nazi splinter-group headed by a nefarious super villain. These Nazis have mastered technology beyond the normal Hitler loyalist, and calling themselves Hydra, they run around blasting Allied troops with laser guns. Don’t let that throw you. Cap’s on a collision course with their leader Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and along the way Johnston blasts fast-paced, but infinitely watchable action sequences across the screen. If there’s any complaint here, it’s that he doesn’t spend more time on them. Some of Cap’s earlier exploits end up being reduced to a highlight reel, in which we watch him blowing up Hydra installations. It’s a testament to just how good that reel is, I suppose, that you’ll want more of it. When the movie settles down to really let an action scene develop though, it truly soars, and does it in fairly simple fashion. After a summer watching superheroes with power rings and mutant mental abilities, there’s something refreshing about watching a guy defend truth and justice with only his fists and big chunk of American metal.
That First Avenger looks glorious is only a bonus. Johnston puts the period specific skills he learned making movies like The Rocketeer to good use here, mixing a dizzying array of World War II era iconic imagery with sci-fi strangeness. Maybe the movie could have used a little more 1942 and a little less magic cube from outer space, but the movie is in a sense beholden to its genre. Johnston’s film works with that and at times thrives in it. The movie’s filled with great little nods connecting to other Marvel movies, part of the studios effort to bring their characters together in one, big team-up movie called The Avengers next year, but none of that ever gets in the way of creating a self-contained film. Those knowing nods will go unnoticed to the uninitiated with no ill-effect while blowing the circuits of anyone who’s seen Thor. Captain America is a movie, not just a Marvel movie. Yet when the movie ends with an after-credits advertisement for The Avengers, it feels less like a trailer than it does the perfect capper on an epic movie watching experience.
In an era where we’re obsessed with dark and brooding superheroes, director Joe Johnston’s Captain America is a breath of fresh air. He reminds us that superheroes don’t have to be dark and disturbed to be interesting, they don’t need cracks and flaws to earn our affection, they don’t have to be alien gods or magic motorcycle riding demons. Captain America in his own simple way embodies much of what's noble and good about humanity. That’s not boring, it’s awesome.
For an in-depth look at Captain America's 3D read To 3D Or Not To 3D.