A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair, beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. That early going is particularly strong in this case, as Johnston spends considerable time evocatively humanizing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny 1942 Brooklyn kid desperate to enlist in the fight against the Nazis. Utilizing Benjamin Button-style effects, the film digitally trims Evans down to appear gaunt and puny, a bit of CG trickery that’s mostly seamless and, when matched by Evans’s earnest expression of patriotic duty and ideals, lends considerable heart to Rogers’s efforts to be all he can be, a goal realized when scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), recognizing the boy’s courageous spirit, selects him to be part of a top-secret experiment.
Erskine’s trial involves turning the wee Rogers into a hulk of sorts, a transformation that—considering its creator’s German nationality, and that the technique was initially sought by Hitler—proves an American appropriation of Nazi he-men ambitions. Consequently, and in keeping with Marvel’s original conception of the character, Rogers becomes a symbol of internal and external American supremacy, with the magical serum exposing Rogers’s basic goodness and decency. Similarly, in the case of Erskine’s megalomaniacal former partner and commander of Hitler’s occult HYDRA division, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), it brings out his evil via a mutation into the aptly dubbed Red Skull. Captain America’s reconfiguration of eugenics as a science designed not to exclude the weak and feeble, but to empower them by revealing and enhancing their true character, might be more fascinating, however, if it wasn’t submerged beneath more basic, generic ideas. “A weak man knows the value of strength…and compassion,” Erskine opines, and it’s a notion the film celebrates with soft-focus sincerity before then indulging in the ensuing fantasy of that inner nobility being rewarded with bulging muscles, amazing speed, and stupendous skill with an indestructible, ricocheting stars-and-stripes shield.
Tommy Lee Jones provides wisecracking levity as Rogers’s commanding officer, Hayley Atwell supplies the aforementioned buxom chest and accompanying tough-girl grit as Rogers’s British love interest, and Johnson directs with flair, his set pieces defined by both muscularity and clarity. Though his use of 3D CG-aided rear-projection shots creates a pop-up book look that sometimes too closely resembles the aesthetics of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, his film’s visuals smoothly blend anachronistic ’40s details and modern special effects mayhem, which ranges from motorcycle skirmishes and airborne dogfights to foot chases involving leaps from moving car roofs.
Toning down his Fantastic Four/Johnny Storm smart-ass shtick for more heartfelt valor, Evans naturally vacillates between stout fearlessness and self-conscious embarrassment, the latter spied during Rogers’s initial costumed performances as Captain America in propagandistic war bonds-hawking stage shows. Predictably, those lighthearted sequences—which establish the Captain America persona as iconic, and his name as a not-totally-goofy moniker once he becomes an actual super-soldier—soon give way to standard-issue save-the-world shenanigans that, though ably orchestrated and enlivened by Weaving’s Werner Herzog-ian German accent, are more obligatory than astounding. Fulfilling requirements, however, is what such comic-book movies are ultimately about, right down to a finale that thrillingly flirts with actual tragedy, only to quickly jettison any suggestions of emotional gravity for a coda that dutifully sets up next summer’s Marvel team-up blockbuster The Avengers.