By Richard von Busack
It starts where Frankenstein ends, in the realm of ice. Captain America: The First Avenger is an optimistic spin on the story of a man-made creature. It is indeed American; it fits in our national habit of taking a tragedy and reversing it with New World hopes of redemption and wisely-used power. “The American bugbear of Possibility,” as novelist Robert Stone put it.
The adventure is played out with simple but never simplistic heroics. Chris Evans, who twice played Marvel Comics’ Human Torch as a breezy, cocky jerk has improved remarkably as an actor. Evans found something in the paper-thin character of Cap, some traces of soulfulness and suffering. The point of this story is that Steve Rogers earned the gift of terrific strength.
Like the James Cagney musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain America has the idea that patriotism is at least half showmanship. This movie can’t be accused of Michael Bay style idiotic flagwaving. There’s modesty in it. It’s not the work of someone who can’t tell the difference between TV commercials and real life.
The production designer is long-time Tim Burton associate Rick Heinrichs. He takes WW2 artifacts and makes them huger than huge; the machinery is like Bruce McCall satires of elephantine vehicles, except they move. In our first sight of the Nazis, storming a remote Norse castle during World War 2, they bulldoze through the wall of a castle in Norway. We can rest assured we’re admiring the largest tank ever seen in a movie. Arriving behind this vanguard is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Uniformed to the teeth in Nazi regalia, Schmidt drives up in his personal ride, a block-long sports car. Its menacing radiator medallion pops out of the screen at us in 3D: a death’s head over a knot of Lovecraftian tentacles.
Head of the Hydra department of the Third Reich, this officer seeks the link between the supernatural and the scientific. This search hasn’t left him a well man; his skin is pale and we can see seams up his neck. And he clearly doesn’t relish the nickname Der Fuhrer has conferred on him, “The Red Skull”.
What follows is a confidently-told back and forth between the origin story of Captain America and Schmidt’s own efforts. Steve Rogers (Evans) is an orphaned Brooklyn asthmatic. (Both parents also got it in the lungs, one from mustard gas in the Great War, the other from TB.) Puny as he is, Rogers longs to join the fight in World War 2. (“I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.”)
Director Joe Johnston and his artists create wizardly set pieces, such as an imaginary 1943 World’s Fair. The show serves to introduce Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of the iron-clad Tony and a saner version of Howard Hughes. Stark is at work on a top-secret experiment with an exiled German scientist named Erskine (Stanley Tucci, conveying all due enjoyment in every actor’s favorite dialect). There, Rogers is selected as the guinea pig for a combination of injections and electro-magnetic “Vita-Rays”; the result is a military swashbuckler, armored and shield-wielding. Dr. Erskine is satisfied that when it came time to create a hero, he chose a mensch.
This Captain America becomes a paper celebrity before he’s a real one; declaiming pitches for war bonds, cribbing from notes hidden inside his shield, during one beautifully choreographed vaudeville war bond show after another. He’s a hit; he plays Radio City Music Hall.
And then he arrives at the Italian front with a USO show, to be hissed by rain-soaked, bloodied soldiers. Captain America is further grounded by Tommy Lee Jones, at his most mercilessly laconic as a no-bullshit officer; sizing up Rogers where he is at the real war, he calls this costumed hero “a chorus girl.” Slouching over documents in khakis, or helping himself to a meal a POW has refused, Jones is a real-world warrior next to this blue-suited superman.
As always, Johnston speeds deftly through the action sequences, such as the first display of Rogers’ new powers: a mile-long chase through a stunning 3D simulation of Brooklyn in the early 1940s. This kind of lovingly detailed historical recreation sequence—there was a smaller taste of late 1600s London in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie—is the most convincing kind of argument for the persistence of 3D.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, Schmidt is putting his thumb in the wooden eye of a figure on a carved panel, to divine the hiding place of the legendary Cosmic Cube, a blue-glowing square of infinite power.
Weaving makes the smart choice of appropriating the solemn cool tones of Werner Herzog for his megalomania. We’re expertly teased before the ultimate revelation of his hideousness. Schmidt stands unseen in the shadows discussing an important matter with his personal Igor, Dr. Zola (Toby Jones). Noticed but ignored by both, is an unnerved painter toiling on a portrait of Schmidt, on a canvas we can see only in reverse. We can presume that the painting, like so much in this movie, is larger than life.
Among Captain America’s exploits is the liberation of the Howling Commandos from a Hydra slave labor camp. My childhood comic-book reading was disturbed by the sight of “Dum Dum” Dugan, cartoonist Jack Kirby’s weird Irish bruiser with handlebar mustache and a derby. The more whimsical “King” Kirby got, the scarier his characters looked. The ice-eyed and dangerously grinning Neal McDonough doesn’t have any quotable lines except a minor beer-soaked Irish joke. But his scenes prove how the Marvel franchise has been making fantastical imagery real through shrewd casting. Hayley Atwell’s British agent Peggy Carter balances officiousness and tenderness. Rogers is at one point molested by a real minx called Private Lorraine (Natalie Dormer, who played Anne Boleyn on The Tudors).
Captain America: The First Avenger is satisfyingly escapist but it has some melancholy tones. Seeing Evans in his more inane days, who thought you’d eventually see him able to act the kind of war-time sorrow that shadowed Alan Ladd? The first-classstuntwork reflects the classical movie of fight scenes, but there’s also some of the gravity-defying CG style during an assault on one of the Red Skull’s fortress. The film tries to please all ages without being a spineless mess.
Johnston, who leaves this tale on a surprisingly open ending, doesn’t presume you’re the kind of out of it viewer who needs a title reading “Berlin, Germany” whenever you see a Nazi headquarters. While it has its anachronisms, it’s a wised up movie. It’s like the 1940s American cinema itself, in the way it presumes the audience knows the drill.
Take the way it mentions the Go For Broke units during the Italian invasion. Johnston tells the history in one line; Spielberg would have dawdled over a paragraph of history. Dum Dum looks suspiciously at a Nisei Japanese fellow prisoner (Kenneth Choi) captured on the Italian front. Before he can say anything racist, the prisoner cuts him off: “I’m from Fresno, Ace.”