Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
When I first saw Chris Evans, he struck me as a poor man's Ryan Reynolds. They both have a polished fratboy look and a faux-irreverent, sarcastic sound. They've even both dabbled in multiple superhero properties, obviously fishing for a breakout role. But since his dopey if amusing turn as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, Evans has shown himself a funnier, more self-effacing comic presence than Reynolds, whose sarcasm can seem downright curdled without getting many laughs.
Both boys are back on the superhero beat this summer, and it's strange that both of them have been encouraged to mute their comic timing: Reynolds to play a bland version of the Green Lantern, and now Evans, embodying the even squarer Captain America. Also semi-surprising, though perhaps not to anyone who saw Evans given an excellent performance in Sunshine: the funnier of the two is also better at playing straight.
It's a good thing, too, because—despite the nagging expectation that Captain America would be remodeled with a few more quips—watching Captain America: The First Avenger, it's difficult to imagine the role played with a wink, at least in a movie that wants to be taken seriously, as this one at least kind of does. Yet another origin story, not just of Cap but of much Marvel Universe backstory, it follows weakling Steve Rogers (Evans), who wants only to enlist in the army alongside his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), only to be rejected five times for his physical weakness. But he lucks into an experimental program supervised by Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and emerges as a serum-enhanced super-soldier.
The post-origin story—the remaining two-thirds of the movie—is a well-paced and enjoyable blur, as the enhanced version of Rogers moves from propaganda spokesman (a nice meta touch: his bond-hawking stage show inspires, yes, Captain America comic books) to can-do actual costumed war hero capable of recruiting a pan-racial team of like-minded (if less super-sized) soldiers. He also receives counsel from tough (but beautiful, natch) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and Iron Man's dad, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who engineers his all-powerful star-spangled shield—not to be confused with SHIELD, the organization that keeps getting shoehorned into Marvel Studios subplots in anticipation of the forthcoming Avengers movie. The Marvel brand integration isn't quite so intrusive as it was upon Thor or Iron Man 2, even if the movie's blueprint feels a touch limited by the Avengers battle plan. Steve Rogers and his buddies have to settle for a few montages and set pieces on their way to more notable superhero teamings in the present day.
The movie's true superhero team-up, though, is the pairing of director Joe Johnston with the most retro of the major Marvel heroes. Johnston began his career as a Star Wars effects guru, and his occasional forays into directing have revealed an obvious affinity for the retro and the Spielbergian, from his earnest rocket-building drama October Sky to his actual Spielberg pinch-hitting for Jurassic Park III, all the way back to his previous 1940s superhero picture, The Rocketeer. He's like Robert Zemeckis with less slapstick, or Joe Dante without the gleeful irony, which is just about perfect for Captain America. Johnston's squareness gives his images a gee-whiz conviction—a good thing, because the movie rarely passes up an opportunity for iconic-looking shot, though even the flag-waving WWII patriotism of Captain America isn't as desperately jingoistic as any fifteen minutes of any Michael Bay movie.
Johnson's light but earnest touch keeps the movie in the realm of crisply shot retro adventure; it never collapses into Greatest Generation pandering, though, ok, it does get a little muddled in characterizing the military-loving Cap as favoring peace and non-lethal methods when possible ("I just don't like bullies") while also sidestepping Hitler and the Nazis in favor of cartoonier uber-Nazi spinoffs, the evil HYDRA, led by the mega-evil Red Skull. We're supposed to be learning Marvel history, after all, not engaging with the outside world. Given this directive, the nimble First Avenger fits into the middle class of Mavel movies established by their own studio; nothing as inspired as the best X-Men or Spider-Man pictures has come from this in-house company, but nor has anything as lousy as Elektra or those Fantastic Four movies. Marvel Studios' Captain America: good enough for government work.
Opens July 22