I’m just a kid from Brooklyn
I’ve never been a huge fan of Captain America; he’s always seemed too simplistic for my tastes. It’s this simplicity that runs through Captain America – The First Avenger’s veins, making it enjoyable on a visceral action level but fairly conventional in its narrative and utterly straightforward when it comes to its characters.
America has entered World War II and men are enlisting to fight. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to join but due to various health issues is rejected. He attracts the attention of German defector Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci’s endearing scientist) who drafts him into a super soldier program that will transform the plucky Brooklyn native into World War II hero Captain America. During the conflict he comes up against another man who’s suffered adverse effects of Erskine’s super soldier serum, Johann Schmidt, a.k.a the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving); a Nazi scientist bent on world domination through a powerful energy source called the Cosmic Cube.
What Captain America – The First Avenger really wants to be is a comic book version of Raiders of the Lost Ark and while it achieves the tone and delivers in the action beats, it’s amiss in other areas. Chris Evans is excellent in the central role, radiating a genuine authenticity and nobleness that’s the hallmark of the character but others like Sebastian ‘Bucky’ Barnes barely register. Romances simmer when they should have more of an impact. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull feels lightweight and one-dimensional, a villain that exists because the story needs one and a foe that lacks a real threat since we know there’s no chance of him succeeding.
Its problems stem from the film’s simplistic approach to the material and the need to tie it into the larger Marvel universe. There’s little in the way of emotional attachment for the characters (Roger’s aside), with a few of them coming across as caricatures however enjoyable they may be (perhaps only Clint Eastwood does likable gruff as well as Tommy Lee Jones). When someone dies it’s inconsequential and part of that is down to the looming presence of The Avengers.
It lacks the necessary dramatic tension and suspense because most, if not all audience members will go in knowing how this story ends (if the ending wasn’t already telegraphed by the film’s modern day bookends). We know Hydra will not succeed in its plans (not even a little), that Rogers won’t get the girl and that he’ll line up alongside Iron Man and Thor next summer. It denies this story a proper ending or conclusion for its characters. In its place is a bridge to film I’m not entirely convinced by or sure that I care about yet.
The action is easily superior to Thor, X-Men: First Class or Green Lantern because of its physicality. It’s easier to accept a fist fight than a green CG punch to the face. Johnston’s finest work is in these moments with quick editing and fast choreography cementing Evans’ Rogers as a durable action hero. As I’m fond of saying, when he hits someone they stay hit. Kudos should also go to Alan Menken for his Star Spangled Man song which is pretty terrific.
There are other problems but Captain America – The First Avenger is decent adaptation of a beloved character, although it could have done without racing through World War II and spending a little more time with its characters. If judged on its action then it’s an enjoyable addition to a summer that’s had some great action. Breezy and enjoyable, even if it sacrifices its own ambition by falling in line with the rest of Marvel’s output.