The classic Marvel character gets added to the assembly line pantheon of cinematic superheroes with this well done origin story. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a weakling, is hand-selected to be the subject of a military test to create a new "super solider". This turns him into Captain America. He then takes on Red Skull, a rogue Nazi. Red Skull has harnessed the power of a mystical tesseract which provides the power for the naughty Nazi to destroy the world. Relatively predictable superhero antics result.
It's Decent. Not Amazing
A friend of mine wrote on his Facebook page "Captain America is pretty good. Not amazing, but decent. So far the first Iron Man movie is the only VERY good one out of all the pre-assembly Avengers flicks." This is as pithy a review as I have read or could write.
Having been forced to sit through these superhero flicks, seeing another such film is not something I welcome with a smile. Despite the glut of superhero movies over the past few years, this production is surprisingly lively and enjoyable. If this film wasn't hindered by the crowded field in its genre, I would expect the film would have received higher praise.
Script Responsible for Success
The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have written the Chronicles of Narnia films, is the main reason for the film's success. In order for the story to work, the audience needs to have empathy for Steve Rogers while he is in his weakling form. The trick with this script is that the audience needs to feel empathy not pity. If we feel pity for Rogers, he would be harder to identify with. We can see ourselves in weaker characters, but not pathetic ones.
Markus and McFeely handle this balancing act smartly. While showing the man to be physically underdeveloped, their dialog does an effective job of showing his iron will and approachable personality. These positive traits give Rogers the spark that allows the audience to connect to him. We see him as a hero who is limited by his mortality, similar to the limitations we find in ourselves. Markus and McFeely don't rush to get past this part of Rogers' story. Rather, they decide to slowly develop his character and his longing for something more. When he transforms into Captain America, they are able to use our earlier empathy as a vehicle for humor and as a means to move hurriedly through the later conflicts without making the audience feel they were cheated.
The careful unpacking of Rogers' character also allows Markus and McFeely to pay more attention to Rogers and his love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) than to the conflict with antagonist Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). This is normally a recipe for disaster. After all, we're all paying to see Captain America beat down some Naziesque bad guys, not stutter uncomfortably in front of his lady. In this case, it somehow works. The budding relationship between Rogers and Carter is well handled and endearing.
The plot points concerning Red Skull and his army call Hydra are almost relegated as a subplot. This imbalanced narrative is best seen when Red Skull's military installations are identified on a map. Suddenly, all but one is destroyed by Captain America and his men in a quick moving montage sequence. This destruction montage takes about as much screen time as a slower scene involving Captain America getting in trouble with Peggy for kissing another woman.
Give the Man Credit!
I should note that it isn't just the script which makes the film work, but also the performances. Chris Evans is an easy actor to dismiss. He has a jovial jock persona and tends to be cast in rather light movies such as this. While he isn't managing a Shakespearean role he does deserve credit for delivering a solid central performance. Unlike other superhero characters, Rogers is rooted in what many today would consider being corny idealism. Evans sells Captain America's ideals while also maintaining a consistent character that goes through a massive and immediate transformation. Again, this isn't Oscar-worthy material but the man deserves credit for his work.
There were a couple of things about the film that did bother me. Both of my largest issues aren't the fault of the filmmakers, but are part and parcel to the character. Think about the costume. Even though it is updated, we can all identify this as Captain America's uniform. In comic books this doesn't look too strange. On screen however, it is ridiculous.
There is a scene where he is sneaking into an enemy installation with a huge shield with a huge Stars and Stripes design on it. Why not just paint a target on his back? When he gets into his full Captain America gear and runs out on an active battleground - he may as well be dressed up like Ronald McDonald while waving sparklers over his head. Sure, he's patriotic and bearing the flag, but remember that during the American Civil War it was common for the flag bearers to be gunned down first.
C'mon, this is a superhero movie - get a grip.
Which Side Are They On?
Fine, let's move on to the second and more awkward point about this comic.
The villain Red Skull gets his horrifying look because he made himself the subject of a Nazi experiment to create a race of super men. He took the test too early and was left marred for life. Later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Military, who is fighting against the Nazis and their racist ideology of white supremacy, choose to employ the same tactic of creating a race of super men. Who do they pick to become their super man? A man who becomes what the Nazis would consider being an Aryan ideal.
Let that sink in. Which side are these guys on?
To be fair, both of these inherent flaws are easy to overlook and probably aren't obvious to anyone but curmudgeonly jerks such as myself.
If you have children, this is a good pick. The language is tame, the violence is limited. The most frightening aspect of the film is Red Skull's head. I can recommend this for most audiences and I can do so gladly since this is also one of the rare films which cast America in a positive light.