Marvel Comics’ red-white-and-blue costumed World War II super-soldier hasn’t fared all that well on screen up till now. A mediocre Republic serial of 1944, which jettisoned all the military background and transformed the hero into a crime-fighting DA turned Batman-like vigilante (played by a fairly old, overweight B-movie actor), was notable for its extended fight scenes but nothing more. Two 1979 TV movies with burly Reb Brown as the modern-day son of the captain who donned his old man’s costume to fight terrorism were weak pilots that happily never made it to series. But the nadir came with the barely-released 1990 feature directed by schlockmeister Albert Pyun, in which Matt Salinger gamely tried to give some dignity to a tedious tale of a modern-day confrontation between Cap and the Red Skull (transformed, as I recall, from a Hitler creation to a Mussolini one).
Fortunately, that sad history doesn’t affect Joe Johnston’s big-budget reboot “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which—apart from the major alteration of Cap’s kid sidekick Bucky Barnes into a full-grown hunk played by Sebastian Stan—is surprisingly faithful to the general contours of the original mythology concocted by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in 1941, as amended in the print reboot by Kirby and Stan Lee in the 1960s. Ninety-eight pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) repeatedly tries to enlist in the wartime army, only to be forever rejected until brilliant scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, savoring his accent and doing some crafty eye-rolling) chooses him as the guinea pig for his experiment to create an advanced physical specimen to serve as the vanguard of a new army. Erskine’s death at the hands of a Nazi spy leaves Rogers the sole example of his work, but that proves enough to take down the Third Reich’s most gruesome and dangerous figure, Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, again doing the snarling villain routine that has become his thespian calling card).
Actually the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has tinkered a bit with the Skull, who’s no longer, apart from his demonic face, just your average, garden-variety Nazi nasty but a megalomaniac who plans, using a secret organization called Hydra, to shunt the Fuhrer himself aside and take over the world via some incredibly destructive laser-like weaponry he’s developed using magic derived from Teutonic myth (a revision of the old Cosmic Cube). After a successful but humiliating stint as a war bonds salesman in tights—another screenplay innovation—Rogers jumps into action unauthorized to save his pal Bucky, initiating a career in which he and a rag-tag group of soldiers, in “Dirty Dozen” or “Inglourious Basterds” style, target all the Skull’s weapon-producing factories until a final confrontation between Cap and Skull aboard a modernistic bomber headed for New York puts our hero into the suspended animation that thrusts him into the present for ensemble role in next year’s “The Avengers” (a teaser for which closes this movie).
Because of its period setting and general approach, “Captain America” is actually a very old-fashioned action movie, though done up with all the CGI wizardry available today. Most of the effects are of good quality, although the digital manipulation of Evans into the shrimp of the first reel is kind of creepy, especially since the voice dubbing is slightly off. But when the actor emerges buff and brawny from Erskine’s isolation booth, he puts to rest any doubts one might have had about his physical suitability for the role, and he also manages to capture Rogers’ combination of strength and insecurity, the latter most prominently displayed in his infatuation with beautiful British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, doing a fine stiff-upper-lip routine). And he and she both carry off one of the screenplay’s major strengths—lots of easygoing jocular dialogue that keeps the mood light in a 1940s fashion.
In that regard, however, the picture’s great strength is Tommy Lee Jones, who may have bombed as Two-Face in “Batman Forever” but here is perfect as gruff, wisecracking Col. Phillips. His sly asides and expressions save many of the expository scenes, and it’s nirvana when he finally shares a sequence with another scene-stealer, Toby Jones, who plays the Skull’s chief aide Dr. Zola as a sniveling toady. Less successful is Dominic Cooper as industrialist Howard Stark, Tony’s father, who tries to channel Robert Downey, Jr. without much success but serves his purpose as a link to the upcoming picture in which Cap and Iron Man will join forces.
Johnston has not only worked well with the actors and (a few missteps apart) the effects crew, and he keeps things moving smoothly, even during the many fights-and-explosions sequences. But that’s where “Captain America” ultimately disappoints. In the final analysis it’s just a wartime action flick, and over time the chain of fisticuffs and artillery battles gets a little tiresome; even Cap’s use of his super-frisbee style shield and the blue glare of the Skull’s laser guns can’t disguise the fact that they’re slightly old hat, however nifty in execution.
Still, that’s basically a factor of the fidelity of the movie to its comic source, a failing that necessarily follows from a virtue, and so one can’t be too critical of it. On its own old-fashioned terms, “Captain America” is a cheerfully satisfying throwback that embraces the innocence of the comics while adding the spectacle of modern SFX technique. It doesn’t have the goofy grandiosity of “Thor,” but its bantering humor puts it miles ahead of the frat-boy smirking of “Green Lantern.” Given the awfulness of previous screen incarnations of the character, it’s a pleasant surprise.