Superhero origin stories have been all the rage at the multiplex this summer with Marvel Comics alone accounting for two such films Thor and X-Men: First Class both of which happily surpassed critics’ expectations. Its latest Captain America: The First Avenger – so named as to provide us a helpful link to the Avengers movie coming next year – arguably faces the trickiest task of all three seeing as how Americans have not been in the most patriotic of moods in recent years. Could a flag-waving superhero really find purchase with a moviegoing audience that increasingly looks askance at such notions?
Surprisingly yes. That Captain America succeeds – and resoundingly so – is partly due to the producers’ decision to set the film during World War II a time where patriotism is a much easier sell. (And no viewer is too jaded to not enjoy seeing Nazis eviscerated en masse.) But proper credit must be given to director Joe Johnston who has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities and invites us to embrace them as well.
Chris Evans (The Losers Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers an earnest oft-bullied ectomorph whose lone wish is to ship off to Europe and fight on the front lines. But a plethora of physical ailments have combined to render him hopelessly unfit to serve however stiff his resolve. (To pull off the withered look of “Skinny Steve ” the filmmakers pulled off a nifty trick grafting Evans’ head onto the body of another actor Leander Neely.)
Rogers’ chance arrives in the guise of a government scientist the German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci as avuncular as a German-accented man can hope to be) who witnesses the young man’s idealistic ardor and recruits him to take part in secret military experiment. After proving his mettle in training Rogers is delivered a dose of Super Serum a PED that instantly makes him bigger stronger and faster than just about any other human alive.
Which is a good thing because on the other side of the Atlantic a renegade Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving doing a tremendous Christoph Waltz impression) has happened upon his own supernatural power source and he’s used it to quietly amass a private army dubbed HYDRA that is bent on supplanting Hitler’s world-domination scheme with its own. Soon all that stands between defeat at the hands HYDRA and its arsenal of advanced weaponry is the juiced-up visage of the newly-christened Captain America.
Portraying a stalwart straight-arrow bereft of angst or ambiguity isn’t the easiest of tasks for any actor but Evans does a commendable job of bringing depth and humanity to a character that all too easily could have come across as bland and one-dimensional. Johnston seems to recognize this potentiality as he looks primarily to his supporting cast to supply the personality: Tucci and Weaving stand out as do Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones playing an irascible army commander and a timid HYDRA toady respectively. The film’s romantic spark comes courtesy of the principal cast’s lone female representative the excellent Haley Atwell playing Rogers’ military liaison Agent Peggy Carter.
More than anything Captain America is a triumph of tone. A former ILM technician Johnston did visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster was a conscious touchstone for his film’s throwback feel and aesthetic. (Another less deliberate influence would be a previous Johnston film The Rocketeer.) Captain America embodies the spirit of the old serials melded with a tongue-in-cheek comic sense and punctuated by action sequences that deploy the requisite CGI fireworks with a welcome measure of restraint. The film is decidedly of its era but never feels gratuitously nostalgic. And its production design is gorgeous: Red Skull’s lair in particular is a treasure trove of retro-futurist designs all of which seem directly lifted from 1940s World’s Fair exhibits.
Everything appears to be status quo between humans and mutants. There’s a president who is sympathetic towards mutants Prof. Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school is thriving and Magneto (Ian McKellen) is quiet--for the moment. But when a “cure” for mutancy is discovered which would give those with the mutant gene the choice to give up their powers and become human Magneto sees red. Cure mutants? Dem’s fightin’ words. With a few more allies on his side--including the resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who now calls herself the Phoenix and has unlimited powers--Magneto prepares to trigger the war to end all wars while the X-Men--lead by the stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and milquetoasty Storm (Halle Berry)--try to stop him. I seriously doubt this is really their Last Stand. All the usual suspects are back. Stewart is once again sufficiently wise as Xavier while McKellen’s Magneto continues to be one of the cooler comic-book villains. It’s amusing to watch him calmly mangle cars or dislodge the Golden Gate bridge with a gleam in his eye. Janssen also seems to relish playing dual roles--the tormented Grey and her evil alter ego Phoenix who is one scary broad. Unfortunately Jackman doesn’t have as much to chew on in Last Stand as he did in X2 and Berry is once again only good for drumming up fog. But the new mutants are kind of fun: Ellen Page (so deadly in Hard Candy) plays sweet this time as Kitty Pryde who can “phase” through solid material; Vinnie Jones (Snatch) is boisterous as the aptly named Juggernaut; Kelsey Grammer is diplomatic as the highly intelligent--and very blue--Dr. Hank McCoy aka Beast; and Dania Ramirez (Fat Albert) as the blink-of-an-eye quick Callisto gets to kick Storm’s ass. Cool cat fight. How dare director Bryan Singer leave his X-Men to go direct another superhero movie even if it is Superman Returns. If Wolverine had anything to say about he might have ripped Singer a new one. You really do feel Singer’s absence in The Last Stand. All of the director’s tormented pathos towards his mutant comrades and their struggles to live in the human world are not as prevalent in this third installment. Instead we’ve got happy-go-lucky director Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame who turns The Last Stand into one giant id--big explosive and campy. Of course to his credit Ratner is pretty good at delivering a rousing albeit superficial action movie. It’s just not as gripping as X2. But listen the spirit of the comic is already built in from the previous installments so in essence we already know these characters pretty well. Do we really need more angst?