Stylish and fun, 'Captain America' is a loving tribute to a 1940s superhero
“I finally got everything I wanted,” announces former ectomorph-turned-extreme-hunk Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). “And I’m wearing tights.”
That’s the downside to being “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but it seems like a small price to pay for having the ability to batter those nefarious Nazis into a red, white, black and blue pulp.
Captain America has been around since the early 1940s, and director Joe Johnston’s film is, appropriately enough, set in 1942, as millions of American men are enlisting in the fight against the Third Reich. At the same time, Hitler’s scary “deep-science division,” known as Hydra, is hunting for the Tesseract, a jewel that possesses devastating power. For Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) — a.k.a. Red Skull — that’s an artifact he is determined to unearth and utilize for his own sinister schemes.
While Schmidt and Rogers may be on opposite sides, they are not entirely dissimilar: Both men have reaped the benefits of an experimental serum that German scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) developed before fleeing to the States. Rogers got a dose of the perfected serum and was transformed into Captain America; Schmidt injected himself with an untested sample and now wears a latex mask to cover his bony, scarlet cranium.
More than other Marvel Comics films, “Captain” has the feeling of a vintage serial, dressed up with snazzy special effects and dashes of playful humor. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but only in the mildest sense; Johnston never allows the tone to become flamboyantly campy or gratingly silly. Even when the action defies logic (why would a villain with a disintegrator ray run away from soldiers armed only with machine guns?) it’s easy to look the other way.
That makes “Captain” a perfect companion piece to “The Rocketeer,” Johnston’s 1991 adaptation of the Dave Stevens comic set in the late 1930s: Johnston’s deep appreciation for the styles of the era is evident in practically every scene, and he knows how to have some fun with the period without mocking it.
His cast is equally savvy. Evans projects a wholesome determination that’s not tinged with irony, and Weaving effectively portrays Schmidt as a truly crazed, diabolical mastermind who eventually envisions himself to be bigger than even Hitler. After a while, he even coerces his cohorts into shouting “Heil Hydra!” instead of “Heil Hitler!”
Hayley Atwell is delightfully appealing as Peggy Carter, the British agent working alongside (and, of course, secretly infatuated with) Rogers, while Tommy Lee Jones puts a bit of extra bite into his punchlines as the grumpy but gung-ho Col. Phillips. Although his German accent is goofy, Tucci’s characterization of Rogers’ mentor has real charm, and Toby Jones imports hints of Peter Lorre into his portrait of Schmidt’s unstable assistant.
The movie has enough explosions and pyrotechnics to satisfy the action crowd, but its most notable visual trick is the one that reduces Evans’ buff body into what Phillips describes as “a 90-pound asthmatic” in the early scenes. It’s as convincing as the trickery that turned Brad Pitt into a wrinkled dwarf in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Johnston even takes a brief time-out for a musical number, courtesy of composers Alan Menken and David Zippel: Their “Star-Spangled Man,” performed by a chorus of bubbly chorus girls during one of Captain America’s war bond drives, is bouncy, funny and sounds exactly like the sort of rally-the-troops anthems that would have been composed in 1942.
“The Rocketeer” received favorable reviews but went down in flames at the box office; only recently has it been rediscovered and received the appreciation it deserved. Hopefully, “Captain America” won’t have to wait 20 years to find a fanbase.