Many of the advanced reviews of Captain America: The First Avenger have criticized the film for being bland. I understand where those people are coming from, but feel they are missing the point. Most of the current roster of Marvel superheroes being groomed for The Avengers have been cynical characters slotted into movies with a self-conscious sense of humor (even Thor gently mocked the character’s mythological backstory as much as it paid reverence to it).
Captain America is devoid of such cynicism, but that’s kind of the point. Set in the 1940s, this is a throwback “boy’s own” style adventure. It’s deliberately old fashioned and that tone not only feels right for this particular character, but makes the movie stand out amongst the onslaught of Marvel Studio releases. You can call it bland if you need cynical sense of humor in your comic book movies. However, if you have any interest in seeing a traditional larger than life hero in an exciting and action packed tale of daring-do (how’s that for old timey talk?), you’ll get a big kick out of Captain America.
The film’a screenwriters combine the classic Marvel Captain America mythology with the character’s slightly altered Ultimate Marvel Universe backstory, which works quite well. Early on we meet Steve Rogers, a short and scrawny young man (Chris Evans via some Benjamin Button CGI magic) who desperately wants to join the army to fight Nazis. Unfortunately, his frail body fails several army physicals, but his plight is overheard by a German scientist who likes Steve’s drive (Stanley Tucci). It turns out this scientist is planning a super solider program that could turn the pure and brave Rogers into a genetically perfect fighting machine. So that happens and a Nazi spy quickly destroys the lab once it’s a success, but Rogers shows off his new skills by chasing the guy down. He instantly becomes a celebrity and in the film’s cleverest conceit, he’s employed as a traveling symbol of the US army to sell war bonds (which rather brilliantly allows the filmmakers to mock the most difficult aspects of the character for contemporary audiences: his propagandistic nature and rather ridiculous costume). Of course, that doesn’t last long. Rogers proves himself in battle and is assigned a task force to lead as Captain America, geared to take down the diabolical Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving, also infused with the super solider juice. But, you know, evil) world domination plot. Plus there’s a girl (Hayley Atwell). There’s always a girl in this kind of adventure.
From the get-go it’s clear that this comic book movie strives for a different feel than most. The muted colors and classical compositions of the cinematography suggest an old fashion comic strip or movie serial brought to life. It’s clear on a purely visually basis that this movie is in a different style than the other Marvel outings (making the tacked on post-production 3D even more useless. It’s shot in a deliberately flat nostalgic style). This vision has to be attributed to director Joe Johnston. I was always skeptical about the choice of Johnston to helm the film. His special effects background at ILM and workman-like direction on movies like Honey I Shrunk The Kids and Jumanji made him seem like the least interesting director who was handed the keys to a Marvel franchise. However, it’s easy to forget that he also made The Rocketeer, another deliberately nostalgic comic strip film that was always deeply underrated because of that approach. He brings that style to Captain America and it works perfectly. Johnston’s background in effects ensures that the action is incredible and the movie is always entertaining, while his appreciation for an older form of superhero storytelling gives it a unique flavor. In future outings, the Cap’n will fight in modern times after being frozen for decades. There will be plenty of time for fish out of water Thor-style humor to contemporize the character later. For now, we get this loving tribute to the antiquated hero that Captain America always was. If you’re willing to accept the slightly different approach to comic book storytelling (and given all the amazing machine gun and flame-thower based action sequences, it’s not exactly hard work), the films is a blast and just different enough from the other Marvel movies to feel unique.
As has become expected from a Marvel Studios production, the cast is fantastic. Chris Evans fills his larger than life hero with just enough humor and self-doubt to be empathetic as well as heroic. Hugo Weaving is a fantastic villain, creating an enjoyably evil presence via an amusingly Werner Herzog flavored German accent and an amazing prosthetic face that’s eerily close to the comic book. Hayley Atwell takes on the role of a fast talking 40s dame (with a British accent no less) with skill and good humor. Tommy Lee Jones chews up the scenery as a hard assed army officer as only he could, and Stanley Tucci offers a gently eccentric and kind German scientist to kick off the film. The cast is wonderful, all of them in tune with Johnston’s 40s comic book tone. It’s a different style of acting. There’s no winking at the camera acknowledging the silliness of the WW2-set shinanegins. It’s all sincere, but presented in a stylized way that prevents the movie from ever being confused with reality. I suppose acquisitions of propaganda could be thrown at the film, but since the writers address that in the sarcastic war bonds sequence and everything about the movie is so over-the-top, I don’t know how anyone could be offended.
I’d imagine Captain America: The First Avenger won’t be quite as popular at the box office as even Thor. That’s a result of both general audience superhero fatigue and the fact that the tone of this film is slightly different from past Marvel outings. I hope most people will recognize the charmingly nostalgic qualities of this movie, but I also recognize that it requires a certain level of comic book geekiness to get and superheroes are supposed to be a part of mainstream culture now. For better or worse, this feels like a Marvel movie made for the fans and hopefully general audiences will come along for the ride. Captain America was always going to be a hard sell these days, but the filmmakers got it right. Whether or not audiences will embrace their vision remains to be seen. At least this is better than the cheap and trashy 1990 Captain America movie. There’s a chance like-minded audiences will at least appreciate the character this time, so that alone is a massive improvement.