I admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for movies based on Marvel Comics action heroes. While my brother was at school I’d sneak his copies of The Amazing Spider-Man, secretly thrill to their adventures, and wish that I was one of the voluptuous babes forever being saved by the nimble and muscled superheroes. My favorite was Captain America, maybe because he wasn’t green, didn’t wear a stocking over his face, and had a pretty cool jaw line. Granted, he still wore tights, but the fascist enemies he fought were, to my mind at least, grounded in a far more gruesome reality than one-eyed monstrosities or aliens from Mars. This was also the era when the back of magazines featured the famous Charles Atlas ads, in which the skinny milquetoast, challenged to do something about the bully who has just kicked sand on his girl and him, turned the tables by becoming buff and strong—which is basically Captain America’s back story.
The new movie Captain America: The First Avenger is, like its cousins The Hulk and Iron Man, an origin story; it’s an elaborately expensive blueprint for what will be next year’s grandiose reunion of many Marvel superheroes, The Avengers. To some extent, it’s unfortunate that there won’t be time in between to film a Captain America II, as the movie, directed by Joe Johnston and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is both a sheer matinee joy and a surprisingly poignant lesson in humanity.
It begins in 1943, and America is delirious with patriotic fervor. Poor Steve Rogers (Chris Evans’ head realistically superimposed on a scrawny body) repeatedly tries to pass the draft board, only to be rejected each time. Nevertheless, he stands up for what’s right, even when it results in yet another beating at the hands of some big goombah. German transplant Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) appreciates Steve’s pure heart, and recognizes in what others see as weakness the chance to build a true superman, someone who uses his strength and gifts for good. Against the gut instinct of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Erskine performs his secret procedure on Rogers with spectacular results, which come into immediate play as a German agent sent by the Nazi maniac Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) attempts to steal the formula. See, Erskine had fled Germany when it became apparent that Hitler was determined to use his procedure to build a superior evil fighting force.
We recognize what’s at stake, we can tell the good guys from the bad guys, and we don’t have to suffer cosmic mumbo-jumbo explanations. Part of the enormous appeal of this movie is that it doesn’t rely solely on its impressive computer and technological wizardry, but lets us revel in Steve’s Yankee ingenuity, can-do spirit, ample common sense and, of course, his enormous heart.
Adding to the wink-wink inside storytelling of the Marvel universe is the appearance of scientist-entrepreneur Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), clearly inspired by Howard Hawks before he lost his mind; astute viewers will know that Howard is the father of Tony “Iron Man” Stark. As Steve’s longtime friend Bucky Barnes, Sebastian Stan is charming and humorous, especially when he wryly notices Rogers’ change in stature. Brit actress Hayley Atwell is a fetching and feisty romantic foil for Captain America, even if it’s completely unbelievable that, secret agent or not, she’d be leading a charge into a Nazi stronghold.
But the movie’s real strength lies in the charismatic performance of Evans, who is good-looking without being all Tom Cruise-celebrity about it. He actually looks like somebody from the 40s. (The movie, infused with dusky lighting, nicely evokes a wartime recognizable from Life magazine and Warner Bros. movies.) He’s sincere, in an age where we don’t often see sincerity in protagonists too busy proving their ability to drop snappy one-liners. And he displays a hitherto unnoticed ability to be poignant without being sappy. Unexpectedly, the movie’s faux ending has the adults in the audience contemplating love and loss, sacrifice and duty. Then it really ends like the other recent Marvel movies end, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury coming to recruit another superhero to SHIELD. It’s a bittersweet development, as we realize with sadness what went on before this denouement, we anticipate with relish what’s to come.