The best comic book movies find the balance between pleasing fans and entertaining people who don’t know their adamantium from their vibranium. As sturdy and sincere as its title hero, Captain America: The First Avenger pulls it off. It’s an accessible origin story with big, old-fashioned heart, and the geek in me was thrilled to see that famous shield slice the air.
While I didn’t love Captain America as fiercely as the first Iron Man movie or X-Men: First Class, it entertains from start to finish. That’s due in no small part to star Chris Evans, who has left that unfortunate Fantastic Four movie far behind him. As Steve Rogers, he’s confident but not cocky, unfailingly earnest, and charming.
No matter how many times you’ve seen the trailers, the CGI that turns Evans into the puny, pre-enhanced Rogers is stunning. Despite his disturbing frailty and serial rejection, his determination to enlist during World War II eventually pays off. He’s a veteran of many alleyway beatings, so no one can accuse him of being untested. Rogers is also remarkably resourceful and fearless, qualities that impress the hell out of the gruff Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). During basic training, Rogers scores a capture-the-flag victory that puts the other recruits to shame.
Even so, Rogers wonders why he, out of far more able-bodied candidates, was chosen for the experiment that will turn him into the ultimate soldier. Scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine, Rogers’ Yoda, so to speak, breaks it down thusly: “A weak man knows the value of strength.” But there are some bumps along the way as Rogers decides what he wants to be: a costumed symbol of strength, or a man of action on the front lines.
The second half is all about defeating Nazis — specifically, the Hydra faction led by the odious Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). I don’t how Weaving does it, but he’s a master of the cold, soulless glare that says, “I will kill you without blinking.” And when he reveals his leathery, crimson face beneath the mask? Brrrrrr.
We are introduced to a host of familiar characters, including Peggy Carter, a tough agent played by Hayley Atwell. This being the 1940s, she’s used to being disrespected by men who quickly regret doing so. And then there is the storied Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Rogers’ best friend and courageous fellow soldier. Iron Man’s pops Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) has some funny scenes, and you can never go wrong with Jones, who was born to play grizzled war veterans. Captain America’s sleek shield is practically a supporting character, and it’s really the only reason to see this movie in 3-D. I won’t lie. I flinched a bit when that thing looked like it was flying out of the screen.
Maybe some while find it corny, but I think Captain America works precisely because it’s so straightforward. There’s no winking and no attempt to make the title character a gritty, angst-ridden hero who’s sagging under the weight of his duty. Strength and sincerity look good on Evans, and he alleviates any concerns about his ability to play the iconic character. His Captain America is the polar opposite of Johnny Storm, but that’s called good acting.
Though the movie ends abruptly, it does so on a poignant note and sets up perfectly for The Avengers movie. You’ll want to stay for the trailer, even if you’ve seen it on YouTube. Trust me.