Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
“What happened to you?” an injured soldier asks his long lost friend, a sickly-beanpole-turned-musclebound-superman now rescuing his buddy from behind enemy lines. “I joined the Army!” the friend replies, shuffling for an exit while triumphant music blares right along with the requisite explosions. The fearless friend is, of course, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and, true to its hero's roots as the Uncle Sam of comic book headliners, “Captain America: The First Avenger” oozes can-do patriotism – a pulpy, endearingly ironic, and nevertheless sincere love of country, the sort that unapologetically idealizes the military as a wellspring of pure chivalry. It's a nice contrast to modern patriotism, which often seems to have been reduced to a mere tentacle of redneck ignorance; a weapon in the warped holster of an Alaskan politician; or an ugly impulse that causes millions of Facebook users to glorify the death of Osama bin Laden, their sick reverie counteracting cultural progress.
The star-spangled pride on display here is that of a very cinematic 1940s, a Nazi-fearing, near-sepia haven where women rock Veronica Lake hairdos and even the memories among Brooklyn pals are plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting: “Remember when I made you ride the Cyclone at Coney Island?” It's not particularly conservative, nor is it particularly liberal (unless you want to apply party-clash metaphors to the film's battle between the blue-wearing do-gooder and the villainous Red Skull, which you certainly could). Let's say it's feel-good flag-waving, without a whole lot of burdensome implications.
Which, naturally, makes it perfect fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster, whose other swallowable traits include factory-direct punchlines, boilerplate relationships, and a beauty (Hayley Atwell) so generic it's no wonder you feel like you've seen her in 100 places. Patriotism leads to some clever meta moves by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the “Narnia” series), who squeeze in sequences where Steve, a post-op, experimental super-soldier still yearning for the honor he craved as a tortured pipsqueak, helps sell war bonds by donning vintage Cappy gear and appearing on the covers of, well, comic books (“I finally got everything I wanted and I'm wearing tights,” he laments with a wink). But we also have The American Way to thank for what amounts to a largely indistinguishable film, for if there's anything we learned at the movies this summer in the good old US of A, it's that superhero films can be shuffled along the assembly line like nobody's business.
They can also, apparently, borrow from each other with the greatest of ease, and even make like their predecessors don't exist, all while inhabiting a “cinematic universe” that packs them with Easter eggs from similar specimens. What am I blabbing about? To begin with, “Captain America” may only surprise you in how very much it doesn't, treading upon heavily-treaded ground at every turn. Forget Steve's familiarity as a maverick willing to do what others won't – the common threads are much finer than that. Given the same cosmic protein shake as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, doing his best Werner Herzog), Steve is told by his gingery nemesis that both men have “left humanity behind [and] need to embrace that,” making them knockoffs of Professor X and Magneto. And speaking of X-Men, isn't Wolverine's adamantium the world's most powerful metal, and not vibranium, the stuff of Cappy's shield? And what are the Fantastic Four – err, Three – going to do now that Chris Evans has ditched his Human Torch gig to join The Avengers? Sit on their butts, I guess.
Which, if you'll forgive the pun, is precisely where Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige wants everyone on the planet to be come May 2012, when he releases the “Avengers” movie, a four-hero collabo that's now been teased-at through five lead-up films. Pay attention in “Captain America,” and you'll note that the cube that gives power to hero and villain comes from Odin, father of Thor; that budding inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is in fact Iron Man's dad; and that the eye-patched black man in the final scene is, yet again, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who's become the Clint Howard of superhero cinema. To this mix of overlapping mythology, which already stars two cocksure jerks (Thor, Iron Man) and a rage case (The Incredible Hulk), Captain America brings an unassuming boyishness, and that's just what square-jawed, puppy-eyed Evans brings to the role. His performance is about as unremarkable as Joe Johnston's direction, but it's exactly what the movie asks for.
“I don't like bullies, no matter where they come from,” says a still-scrawny Steve, a seamless blend of body-double photography and “digital plastic surgery.” The ability of a weak man to appreciate the value of strength is the movie's driving moral, and it yields some definite charm. As a character, Steve is irrepressible, and his saintly, borderline-inept response to gaining power is all sorts of aw-shucks. Add to that the stylish, retro surroundings, and the first 40-odd minutes might remind you of “The Rocketeer” – Disney live-action in top form. By the time Steve returns from his first big moxie-proving mission (at which point the movie blows its wad way too early), you might even want to cheer “Captain America!” along with the crowd of soldiers he saves. But with so much recycled material on the screen, and so much inane fodder for mass consumption, resist the urge. Don't call him Captain America; call him Captain Obvious.