One of the most enjoyable (albeit more light-hearted) WWII action movies this side of Where Eagles Dare, Captain America: The First Avenger is superhero spectacle by way of Band of Brothers with a dash of The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Clever, brisk, and patriotic (but not jingoistic), it’s one of the better comic book movies to hit the screen in the past few years.
The flick stays true to Cap’s roots, introducing him first as alter ego Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a 90-pound asthmatic from Brooklyn circa 1942 determined to enlist and fight in the war. He’s rejected five times before scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recruits him for a super-secret super soldier program that turns Rogers into a muscle-bound specimen of physical perfection.
Dr. Erskine is soon murdered by an agent of HYDRA, a paramilitary group/quasi-cult concerned with fringe science and the occult, led by rogue nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, who hasn’t been this enjoyably evil since The Matrix), who’s using an acient relic to construct and power deadly advanced weaponry. Erskine’s knowledge dies with him, and Rogers is put to work helping the war effort as a USO attraction in war-bond drives. Dead-set on being on the frontlines, Rogers stages an impromptu rescue that proves him as a soldier and puts him on a collision course with HYDRA.
Evans is well cast as Rogers/Captain America, a character meant to embody the can-do American spirit, with heart and compassion enough not to abuse the power given to him. Rogers is from a more modest background than Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, and Evans is savvy enough to play up Cap’s modest everyman core, and keeps him relatable and admirable at all times without laying it on too thick.
He’s backed by a choice cast of character actors that includes Hayley Atwell as Cap’s love interest, Sebastian Stans as his best friend, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s scienctist lackey, and Neal McDonough as the leader of the Army’s elite Howling Commandos (who don’t get nearly enough screen time). The spotlight is often stolen by Tucci as well as by Tommy Lee Jones as a prickly Army colonel and Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, father of Iron Man‘s Tony Stark and a genius engineer in the Howard Hughes mold.
Director Joe Johnston helmed a similar film (The Rocketeer) almost 20 years ago and he taps that same Saturday matinee retro vibe here, with impressive period detail mixed with generous use of mini-subs, flying wings, and assorted death rays. Visually it offers a rich palette, with the more upbeat scenes shot with a nostalgiac warm glow that nicely contrasts the blue-gray sepia tones used in the action sequences and scenes on frontlines.