Countless action movies feature villains more interesting and compelling than their heroes, and frankly, that’s what I expected from Captain America: The First Avenger. I assumed Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, would be a humorless, goody-goody straight-arrow fighting a nefarious but amusingly snarky bad guy of some sort. I was wrong. Yes, Steve is an upstanding square, but he’s got more charm than I expected, and even if he’s not the jokey type, he seems to appreciate jokes, which keeps him from becoming annoyingly starchy and prim. In this movie, the annoying starchiness is left to the villain: Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull, who is almost completely lacking in character motivation besides the basic fact that he is Evil with a capital E.
The truly vibrant color, though, belongs not to Steve or Red Skull but to the supporting players: the affable, insightful mad-scientist-to-the-good-guys Dr. Erskine; the gruff, blunt military man Col. Phillips; and the brilliant, smooth-talking industrialist Howard Stark. Those are the fun characters and—together with the not-as-dull-as-he-could-have-been Steve and Joe Johnston’s surprisingly brisk, forward-pushing direction—they make Captain America a passably entertaining summer blockbuster.
Yet another origin tale (can comic book movies no longer begin in medias res?), Captain America opens in the World War II era with poor, puny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) trying to enlist in the army, only to be rejected yet again for being an asthmatic weakling with a long list of chronic ailments and allergies. His determination and selflessness catch the eye of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), however. Erskine has developed a super-soldier serum for the military, and he wants to test it on Steve because, as the good doctor puts it, “a weak man knows the value of strength.” Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) isn’t completely sold on this reasoning, but Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who developed the cutting-edge machinery associated with the transformation, is game for anything, and British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) sees something in Steve too. Steve is on his way to becoming Captain America—and not a moment too soon, either, because rogue Nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), one of Erskine’s subjects before he escaped Hitler’s Germany, is busy doing Evil things and making Evil plans, and only Captain America can stop him!
Let me get this out of the way first: Everything associated with Red Skull bored me. The villain’s literally red skull looks stupid, and Weaving never manages much more than a generic yet strangely unmenancing sense of menace—though his generically Evil accent (way too off-kilter and broad to qualify as German) cracks me up. The screenwriters squandered the opportunity for banter between Schmidt and his own mad scientist, Dr. Zola (Toby Jones), who has little to do but cringe. Moreover, the bloodless disintegrator weapons wielded by Red Skull’s minions evoke nothing so much as a hokey kids’ video game and result in action scenes that often feel anemic, lacking urgency or risk.
Some of the other action scenes and special effects fare a bit better. Captain America’s shield might be slightly anachronistic and bulky, but the filmmakers have put some thought into how to use it in a variety of ways, resulting in interesting battle choreography, which is fun. The CG grafting of Evans’s face onto the body of a much smaller man in the first third of the movie is remarkably seamless—maybe not quite convincing, but I blame that on the incongruity of the voice more than anything else. In any case, the transformation of Steve Rogers is appropriately dramatic, and the resulting fetishization of a male body rather than a female one makes for a droll reversal of cliché.
Honestly, Evans isn’t bad here. For a bland pretty-boy, he has some spark (perhaps I should stop referring to him as a bland pretty-boy), and neither he nor Atwell can be blamed for the fact that Steve and Peggy’s interminable quasi-romance is hopelessly dull—not when the screenwriters are providing them with eye-rollingly bad dialogue and a climactic kiss so ludicrously timed that eye rolls alone could not convey my contempt. Still, nothing can keep Evans from fading into the background when he’s playing next to Tucci, who might overdo the twinkly eccentric vibe a bit but who is just so damn charismatic that it doesn’t matter, and Jones, who can play gruff and blunt in his sleep yet invests the role with enough personality (not to mention impeccable comic timing) to keep the part crackling. As for Cooper, even with an awfully twee moustache, he exudes ten times more sex appeal than poor Evans, in either of his physical incarnations. The nonchalant intelligence and rakish allure Cooper gives Howard Stark make the man immediately recognizable as the father of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, which is no mean feat considering that Downey is easily the best thing about those movies.
And it’s not just the supporting players that make Captain America a better-than-average summer movie. Over the past few months, Captain America and X-Men: First Class have ably demonstrated (to me at least) that setting superhero movies in the past is a great shortcut to a strikingly good-looking flick. Somehow the unlikely melding of superhero kitsch and period kitsch cancels out much of the kitsch altogether. Retro fashions allow for bold, poppy costumes that would look too awkward in our present-day world, and the comic-book subject matter knocks much of the dust off the old settings. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s 1602 series for Marvel—which reimagines the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and other Marvel mainstays as figures of the Elizabethan era—but I now wonder if that wouldn’t make a great movie (or maybe a TV series). After all, if dressing superheroes like Errol Flynn and Diana Rigg is fun, dressing them like Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I must be awesome.