Film Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Stirring World War II story of old-fashioned rightness and integrity, saved from corniness by star Chris Evans' sincere performance and director Joe Johnston's imaginative action sequences.

A hero is born in Captain America: The First Avenger, and not just the one in the title: Chris Evans, with an emotionally authentic performance as World War II 4F Steve Rogers, who becomes Marvel Comics' super-solider Captain America, vaults to the top ranks of leading-man actors who can act. After having inhabited a completely different superhero in the role of party-boy Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, Evans wheels around to convincingly play a character who's a zealous straight-arrow even by Greatest Generation standards. Even in scenes in which his seamlessly computer-composited head appears on a puny body, Evans makes the man believable, sincere and self-aware.

Two early sequences say much: A recruiting-station doctor tells the scrawny and infirm Rogers that by rejecting the young man, he's saving Rogers’ life. And in a movie theatre, he's virtually the only draft-age male in a sea of women and old men. Combined with Rogers' willingness to fight some bully who could hospitalize him, and his essential invisibility to a girl a friend introduces him to, Evans, without overstatement or cheap bathos, convincingly embodies a man bitter about the physical cards dealt him, who doesn't care about having his life saved, who indeed seems ready to commit suicide by war and thereby eke out some self-worth. At one point, when an errant grenade lands amid some soliders, Rogers could have just it scooped it up and tried to throw it, as recent Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Leroy Arthur Petry did in real life; instead, he chooses the equally valiant but unnecessary option of jumping on it, fully ready to die.

Clearly, this is not your typical superhero story. Rogers is a young man, possibly still a teen, but older both chronologically and emotionally than those in an X-Men film. Even put-upon high-schooler Peter Parker/Spider-Man had the love and support of his family, plus a genius for science that guaranteed him a place in his post-Sputnik world. Rogers can draw a little, but he has no job we're made aware of, there in the tail-end of the Great Depression. All he seems to have, in fact, are a dedicated childhood friend in Sgt. James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and a love of country as strong for him as religion or sports are for other people. (Geek alert: When Rogers and Barnes attend the “Modern Marvels of Tomorrow” exhibition, we see not only the Golden Age Human Torch costume in a tube, but a prototype of the future SHIELD flying car.)

With Rogers’ emotional inner life thoroughly established by the filmmakers and the nuanced and earnest Evans, the super-scientific remainder of this origin story—based on Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's creation in Marvel (then Timely) Comics' Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941)—meshes naturally with the super-scientific realities of World War II: Between the top-secret splitting of the atom to create an unimaginable super-bomb, a nascent technology called radar, rocket-powered missiles, and some of the earliest TV cameras, a super-solider experiment doesn't seem that farfetched.

Expatriate Bavarian scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (a delightful Stanley Tucci) and Strategic Scientific Reserve officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) recruit Brooklyn boy Rogers over the protest of hard-line Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, born for the part) for that experiment involving micro-injections of serum and exposure to what Erskine and Howard Hughes-like engineering mogul Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) have apparently trademarked as Vita-Ray. When a fifth-column spy (Richard Armitage) posing as a State Department employee kills Erskine, he's captured by the newly enhanced Rogers in the film's first big set-piece, a thrillingly well-choreographed chase by car, on foot and in a one-man submarine, with defining moments not just for the fledgling Captain but for Carter and even a hostage kid, in a clever twist on convention.

Thrust into a patriotic costume and sent on a chorus-girl road show to help sell defense bonds, Rogers eventually pushes himself past the front lines into enemy territory to free some Allied prisoners, including Barnes. He's later sent to stop a German super-soldier, Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who's splintered from the Nazis to form the terrorist organization HYDRA.

But first Rogers assembles a group of inglourious basterds that are essentially Marvel's Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, though never called that in the film. In one of the movie's few disappointments, only one of them, the mustachioed Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan (Neal McDonough), is clearly named. The others—African-American Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), Japanese-American Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), Brit James Montgomery Falsworth (JJ Feild) and Frenchman Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci)—are named only in the credits, given very little personality and are more less just montage fodder. And with a defense bond montage already, that's one montage too many. Indeed, one ingenious scene involves the Captain, Barnes and Jones ziplining onto a speeding train—yet while we follow the former two, Jones essentially disappears. Also, a subplot involving a competitor for the super-soldier experiment, Gilmore Hodge (played by an actor with the comic-booky name Lex Shrapnel), goes nowhere. As for the 3D effects, added in post-production, they’re barely noticeable and not worth the extra ticket cost.

These issues aside, the bravura action sequences, exceptional performances and core emotional truth make Captain America: The First Avenger a heroic achievement.