How do you make a modern superhero film about a Golden Age comic book hero who is emblematic of America's fighting spirit during WWII, embodies military jingoism decades out of date, and sports a gaudy costume that is literally the American flag rendered in spandex? Well you make a period action film and get Joe Johnston, the director of "The Rocketeer," to helm it. More importantly, you play the material straight as an arrow, and never, ever give into cynicism for a moment.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" works as well as it does because it resists the urge to make its hero into something he isn't – modern, edgy, and complicated. Instead, the story is as old-fashioned as it gets. A ninety-pound asthmatic weakling, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), has tried multiple times to enlist in the U.S. Army, solely out of love for his country and a desire to help in the war effort against the Nazi threat. He catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German defector, now working with the U.S. government's Strategic Scientific Reserve. Erskine has developed a serum, which in due course changes the skin-and-bones Rogers into the strapping Captain America. It's in these early scenes where the film is at its best, following Steve's attempts to prove himself a worthy candidate for America's first super-soldier, and to win over the doubtful Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and the lovely, but all-business Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
Less interesting is what happens after the transformation, when Rogers has to put his newfound strength to good use, fighting the forces of the secret Nazi research organization HYDRA, led by megalomaniacal Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka Red Skull, and his nervous cohort, Dr. Zola (Toby Jones). The film becomes a series of fairly predictable action set-pieces. These are all well-paced and entertaining, but so many of the events that unfold always come with a sense that they need to happen in order to set up a bigger story later. This bigger story, of course, is next year's "The Avengers" film, and like all the other Marvel superhero features, "Captain America" is full of references and asides. The biggest one here is that a young Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony Stark, works as part of the Strategic Scientific Reserve team, and gets in on the action occasionally.
Yet the action-heavy parts of the film and all the increasingly ludicrous comic-book elements work because of all the care that Johnston and his crew take in establishing Steve Rogers as a hero. They make that character so relatable, so charismatic, and so earnest in his struggle, you can't help but want to believe in him and cheer him on. The canniest choice that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did was to have the name and costume of Captain America originate as tools of propaganda, dreamed up by an opportunistic senator as a way to sell more war bonds. Stephens is forced to fight the perception that he's a cartoonish caricature much in the same way that the film has to undo seventy years of the audience's experience with Captain America as a walking American flag. And they get in a lot great bits of humor that are just a little bit subversive, but not too much.
It helps that the style of the film isn't trying to be historically accurate, but is very much a comic-book alternate reality of the 1940s, larger than life to accommodate its larger-than-life heroes and villains. It's the world depicted in the old army recruitment posters, where you could believe someone would actually go into battle with a ridiculously visible star-spangled shield strapped to his back. And while the frenzied salutes of the HYDRA goons never stop looking silly, with a thousand of them chanting at once it can also look pretty impressive too. The villains really come off the worst in "Captain America," a bunch of two-dimensional stormtroopers, most of them literally in black hats. I felt for Hugo Weaving, stuck with a lot of raving speeches, many of them delivered while wearing iffy-looking prosthetics. Red Skull does not translate well to film at all.
However, for the most part every other character did. Chris Evans makes a great Steve Rogers, both in his computer-enhanced pipsqueak form and as the pumped-up version. When he talks about his responsibility to fight, I believed every word. I also thought Hayley Atwell was a wonderful find for Peggy, who banters with Steve the way romantic interests bantered back in the films of the 40s. And she has a great scene toward the end that was giving me flashbacks to Powell and Pressburger's "A Matter of Life and Death." And I can't say enough about the supporting cast, full of solid character actors who give the world of "Captain America" a lot of texture. Johnston did a fantastic job of including little exposition scenes that give Stanley Tucci a chance to act with Tommy Lee Jones, or put Tommy Lee Jones together briefly with Toby Jones.
Okay Marvel, of your superhero films since 2008, you're now three-and-a-half for five ("Thor" gets the half, and we won't talk about "Iron Man 2"). I still think you guys are nuts, but I am now anticipating "The Avengers." If you can make a "Captain America" movie this good, as far as I'm concerned, you can do anything.