Captain America: The First Avenger has sumptuous production values, superb art direction (here is a movie set in the 1940s that actually feels like it was made in the 1940s) and a curious, soul-sucking lack of urgency. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the 90-pound asthmatic weakling turned by scientists into a muscle-bound super-soldier to help the Allies fight Hitler’s forces, was never among the most dynamic of characters in the Marvel Comics universe. Rogers was, at least in the 1980s, something of a do-goody bore, and one of the biggest surprises in this lavish, somewhat dull movie is that Evans – always a reliably dynamic and vivacious screen presence – can’t do much to bring the character to life. As far as superheroes go, Cap remains a bit of a stiff.
The movie isn’t helped by the presence of director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, The Wolfman, Jurassic Park III), a filmmaker with great technical savvy but little imagination or knack for propulsive storytelling. Captain America features one of Marvel’s most heinous villains – the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a disfigured, power-hungry Nazi who breaks off from Hitler’s forces and forms his own military faction, HYDRA, with the intent of – what else? – ruling the world. But the movie is so inept as a piece of rousing pulp that even the Red Skull comes off as a generic bad guy, difficult to distinguish from your average James Bond antagonist except for his skinless face.
The main problem with Captain America: The First Avenger is that the film is entirely an origin story, and this is one character whose creation is far less interesting than Batman’s or Spider-Man’s. The script, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is more of a war tale than the tale of an extraordinary man. By film’s end, you’d be hard pressed to describe Rogers’ personality other than an all-around nice guy with bowling-ball biceps.
Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t even contain a single “Wow!” sequence that makes you wish you could hit the rewind button (for all its faults, at least Transformers: Dark of the Moon gave you more than an hour’s worth of jaw-dropping moments). The picture is heavy on talk and light on action, but the characters are pure cookie-cutter, from the requisite love interest (the lovely Hayley Atwell) to Rogers’ old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who played a more substantial part in the comics than he does in the film.
The character of Captain America was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and the movie pays homage to his roots with a sequence in which the government parades him around the country in order to help raise money for war bonds. But sequences in which American soldiers use rifles against the Red Skull’s laser-armed soldiers look silly, and with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones as a humorously cantankerous U.S. army commander, there isn’t a single actor in the cast who can break through the gauze of sleepy nostalgia that permeates the film.
The only reason to see Captain America: The First Avenger, which does end with a terrific closing line, is to find out how the character is alive and well in the present-day, when he’ll soon be joining the roster of The Avengers, which is being filmed as you read this. I suspect the hero will fare much better there, when Evans won’t be required to play things so straight-laced and buttoned-down. I suppose Captain America: The First Avenger had to be made in order to properly set up the character. But did the movie have to be this square?
Cast: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci.
Director: Joe Johnston.
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely.
Producer: Kevin Feige.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 125 minutes. Violence, adult themes. Opens Friday July 22 at area theaters.