Captain America: The First Avenger is Joe Johnston’s masterpiece.

It’s not a masterpiece. Far from it. But it’s his masterpiece, the culmination of a lot of years in very big shadows telling other people’s stories. In many ways this is delivery on the promise of The Rocketeer, a flawed but special footnote in genre history that showcased a style ahead of its time. Here, Johnston has taken many years of films big and small and extensive amounts of time with special effects and crafted a very palatable and broadly appealing Marvel Comics movie that in many ways is a metaphor for Johnston’s own Hollywood life. Inoffensive. Reliable. A conduit. There is no denying that each Paramount Marvel film that has arrived in the wake of Iron Man is as much a piece of a larger puzzle as they are their own movies. These are carefully constructed pieces of entertainment that serve a larger master and a larger canon. Captain America not only carries the burden of saving the world from The Red Skull; he also has to ensure that The Avengers movie has a heroic center audiences are willing to buy into in 2012. And undoubtedly help contribute to Thor, Iron Man, Avengers sequels as well as his own.

The film tells the story of Steve Rogers (Evans), a frail but well-meaning young man who has always stood up to adversity in his life but without the physical assets to back his inner spirit he’s always come up short. As the United States squares off against the Nazi threat Rogers tries time and time again to be accepted into the military to do his part only to be rejected. Spotted by the doctor (Stanley Tucci) conducting a secret Super Soldier experiment, Rogers is given his chance. Besting his larger and more able competitors for the experience with his cunning and heart he is transformed into an enhanced physical specimen but not before a saboteur’s attack results in the program being scrapped and the newly buff Rogers given little to do for his country.

In a fun tangent Captain America becomes a marketing tool for his military and it showcases why Johnston was the appropriate choice for this gig. He’s not afraid to get bogged down in subtext or try and create material to impress his peers. What you see is what you get but unlike the Rob Cohens and Roland Emmerichs of the world his stuff seems to truly come from a place of love. It makes it easier to embrace the material. There are percentage of people who feel that these movies need to have an edge to them, as if there would be anyone willing to bankroll a Captain America movie that channels the spirit of Inglourious Basterds. These are movies based on kid’s comic books, so when the film embraces the over-the-top patriotic vibe it’s comforting. It works. It also allows the film’s second half to be almost completely free of narrative as the hero begins his heroic deeds on the battlefield without the bottom falling out. It’s somewhat homogenized but it works.

Captain America’s adversary is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the leader of the newly christened New World Order known as Hydra. Hydra is a group of individuals who find Nazism too tame. Driven with madness and rage by the otherworldly artifact the Cosmic Cube (which features prominently in the comic books as well as the film series as evidenced by its appearance here and in Thor’s post-credits stinger) his crazy scientific experiments have turned him into a monstrosity (The Red Skull is not going to win any beauty contests with his Swamp Thing/Deathlock crimson face) but given him the power to create an army of soldiers armed with high tech weaponry and a series of really snazzy vehicles. He is the proto-villain: Blofeld married with Destro married with Hitler by way of Hellboy’s Rasputin. He aims to rule the world and no one will stand in his way.

Until now. Once given his signature shield (which comes across well through its boomerang capabilities are never explained) and costume the Captain immediately takes charge and showcases his enhanced acumen in combat. The results are mixed. While the movie looks good and there are some nice flourishes in the designs of the costumes and vehicles there aren’t any sequences that do more than evoke other films. This is not the summer movie for a fresh experience, though the smaller scale and old school charm is a nice counterweight to this summer’s other offerings.

Sadly, there are a lot of missed opportunities in the film’s second half, primarily the lack of a great climactic battle (a fault in many Marvel flicks) and the inability to properly introduce and unify the great supporting cast of Marvel characters. The Howlin’ Commandos are a staple in the canon but though they appear here and get a few one-liners there’s no emphasis on their importance. Howard Stark plays a prominent role in the film but aside from being debonair and having his fingers in every pot there’s nothing that makes him seem as charismatic as one expects. It’s a shame that John Slattery couldn’t have reprised his Iron Man role for his work in Mad Men sells the tone of that character better than anything we’ve seen yet.

When the film works it’s magnetic. Sadly, most of the action is rushed and doesn’t match the really excellent first half. Most of the big moments from the trailer are actually part of a brief montage in the film, but there is a nice aerial attack sequence which pays homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (additionally there’s an all-too-obvious Wilhelm Scream in the film) and a few nice smaller moments that keep the blood flowing.

In Chris Evans audiences have a worthy Captain America. In addition to physically fitting the bill he has a nice mixture of qualities that allows him to sell the earnest and breathlessly patriotic Steve Rogers without making him boring. That’s a feat, as for many long runs of the comic book’s history the character was completely defined by the sidekick he was carrying or the villains he was fighting. Captain America at his best is a lot like chicken stock, a great base and conductor but hard to enjoy on its own. Evans is a very gifted comedic actor and stripped of many of those tools it was a concern if he’s be able to function in the appropriately bland persona of “The First Avenger”. Thanks to a great first act with Evans playing the scrawny and headstrong version of the character and interacting with the excellent Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones, the film gets a nice injection of personality before Captain America is born and becomes an action lead.

The film has the unenviable task of trying to compete with a lot of otherworldly event films with a much smaller period piece that relies more on punches and gunshots than eye candy. All things being equal this is a film perfectly suited for a March release date where its charms would be amplified as well as its spectacle. That said, if they’d held Thor to this date it’d have been dead in the water. As an event film this is strictly middle of the road. Most of the set pieces are largely unspectacular. There are no moments that will go down in movie history. With that said, The First Avenger does exactly what it needs to do. It entertains for two hours and sets up the Captain as a viable screen presence. Just as important, it remains as faithful to the source material as possible and walks that fine line between camp and legitimacy. This is a movie in which our hero becomes a parody of himself in an ill-fitting costume and hawks war bonds to cheering audiences yet it has to make The Red Skull not only a large enough villain to anchor a big movie but also come off as dangerous and maniacal without looking like a buffoon.

The Red Skull is undoubtedly Captain America: The First Avenger‘s strongest asset. He’s not just a worthy villain, he’s the best villain to have come out of this strain of comic book movies. He joins Ian McKellan’s Magneto and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin as the high water marks for Marvel villains onscreen and so much of that can be attributed to Hugo Weaving’s amazing performance both in and out of makeup. The Red Skull is as arch a character as there is and though there were story arcs in the comic where he showed his human side he is known as a deliciously evil villain. There’s no tragedy to the character, just pure unfiltered nefarious determination. Weaving sells it majestically, whether rambling on about his marriage of science and otherworldly power with his second in command (Toby Jones) or squaring off with the Nazi officers whom he holds in contempt. He’s a great character and Weaving’s German accent is heightened enough to allow for some fun actorly moments but reliable enough so as not to pull the audience out of the film. Better yet, The Red Skull has no problems with cutting bait and retreating and some of the better moments in the film involve the character hopping into one lavish craft or another and screaming off into the night.

It’s a faithful Captain America movie which is why it may end up being a more difficult sell to audiences over the age of 18. It has a lot more in common with the comics of the 60’s and 70’s than any of Marvel’s works thus far and in a world where mustache twirling villains are reserved for Saturday morning cartoons it’s not easy for modern audiences to slip into that mindset. The production design is fantastic, the period setting works, and there’s enough charm to allow the film to feel unique enough to justify its existence. But it is a bit of a familiar ride, so expectations need to be checked.

Now bring on The Falcon and Batroc.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars