When I was young, I didn't read many comics, but among the few I did were a batch of "Spider-Man Classics" I got at a garage sale, which were reprints of the original Spider-Man issues from decades earlier. Thanks to those comics, superheroes have always made me think of good old-fashioned values. Good guys were noble and honest and courteous, and the bad guys were egotistical and tyrannical and obsessive, one pitted against the other in big bold colors with an emphasis on fun and adventurousness. These days, comics strive to be "legitimate," and varying degrees of moral complexity and pathos are usually employed in the quest to achieve this. That's fine -- nothing wrong with layers -- but there's always a part of me that wishes that more adaptations would reflect that gung-ho, do-gooder attitude that I remembered from those comic books. Captain America is like that.
Above all else, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a man who strives to do what's symbolically and morally right. For a man in the 1940s, this meant joining the Army, both to fight to protect the lives and values of the American public, and more personally to Steve, to follow in the footsteps of both of his parents. The only problem is that Steve is a 97-pound weakling plagued with various physical deficiencies that get him denied at every recruiting office Steve can report to. Even his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is sure Steve will be killed the moment he sets foot on a battlefield. Finally, during yet another attempt to register, someone takes notice: not a soldier, but a scientist named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who has devised a serum that will turn men into super soldiers. Against the mild objections of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Erskine selects Steve as the first candidate.
Captain America takes its time to get going, but it spends that build-up effectively establishing the qualities that make Steve the right guy for the job. Although other elements struggle to take hold (namely the romance between Hayley Atwell as another superior officer in Phillips' team, which is sweet but lacking in spark), Evans is believable and likable in his quest to do what he feels is the right thing. It would be easy for a character like Steve to be square, boring, or even annoying, but the character's nobility is always defined in moments of "leap-then-look" decision-making, which is more entertaining and ultimately feels more honest than any exposition the writers might've just dropped into his mouth. At the same time, Stan imbues Bucky with a nice degree of faint personal conflict. Bucky may be wiser and more discerning than Steve, and he worries about his friend, but at the same time seems to respect and even wish to have the kind of principles that Steve holds to.
Meanwhile, menace looms in the form of Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka Red Skull, a Nazi general turned self-appointed dictator. Using a long-buried source of supernatural energy, Red Skull builds armies and weapons that blast people to smithereens, with plans to conquer no less than the entire planet. Weaving relishes every inflection of his silly German accent, and wears his makeup well, which is instantly recognizable as the comic character without inhibiting any of his expression. Similarly, the CG-demuscling of Evans pre-procedure is good enough that it's almost weirder to see him turn into actual Chris Evans, even if there's one or two lingering shots where it still looks like a face pasted on a body. Post-conversion 3D is alright (way better than Potter, anyway), and Joe Johnston delivers a fair amount of action, although some of the editing is weirdly incoherent (in one scene, Cap dives for a rope to swing on and flies through the air in slow-motion, then is suddenly back on the ground in the very next shot). Some of the movie is also surprisingly violent, but Johnston maintains an adventurous tone throughout that evokes the same serials that Star Wars and Indiana Jones were based on.
In the end, though, what works best in Captain America are the characters. Aside from Evans and Stan, Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as Phillips, nailing the tone and style of the movie with perfect, straight-faced wit; a scene between Phillips and villainous scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) is a real highlight. Zola himself is also interesting, as his desire to see his inventions work is pitted against his awareness that Red Skull might just destroy the world. All of the characters in Captain America are larger-than-life, transcending the kind of cynicism and self-awareness that exists so often in modern stories, serving as a reminder of a time when the world could be looked at in simple terms. With more and more superheroes trying to lay down complicated backstory and excessive plotting for future installments, lots of filmmakers put the emphasis on super -- super action, super gadgets, super skills. Captain America is a refreshingly traditional, yet still modern adventure that's all about heroes, driven by noble characters' reflexive understanding of what it means to do the right thing.
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