Review: “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Literally and figuratively, Captain America is not a hero for our time. He made his debut in March 1941, when the good guys and bad guys had a clear divide. Now we live in a more complex era, where The Dark Knight and Watchmen are unafraid of complicating the proverbial line. Joe Johnston, director of Captain America: The First Avenger, handles this challenge in a playful, shrewd way. His WW2 comic book adaptation is the perfect cocktail of wartime camaraderie, rugged American bravery, and old-school action.

When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), he’s a weakling whose courage does not match his size. Each time Rogers tries to enlist, army doctors say he’s too unfit to serve. But Dr. Erskine sees something within him, and soon Rogers finds himself training in a special unit led by the gruff Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Despite his reservations, Phillips selects Rogers for a special experiment, where he’s given injections that put him in peak physical condition. With the help of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Tony Stark’s father Howard (Dominic Cooper), Rogers realizes his potential on a European battlefield. Trusty shield in tow, he becomes Captain America, leader of our war effort. Still, his feats do not impress Dr. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a megalomaniacal Nazi who has taken the same serum as Rogers.

The best part of Captain America is how it sneaks up on you. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely realize a strict adaptation would be too cornball. Not only do they modernize the characters, they subvert what made Captain America an icon seventy years ago. The script takes its time to set up its sense of patriotism, and plot developments are a clever balancing act between old-fashioned duty and nationalistic excess. I don’t want to give one jokes away – the punch line is too perfect – so let’s just say there’s a funny, involving middle section that expertly crystallizes the motivations of Rogers and his friends.

Johnston takes his time setting up the action, so it’s somewhat suspenseful when it arrives. Motorcycle chases and hallway shoot-outs are more like montages than discreet depictions of Rogers’ feats; at times, they feel like excuses for propagandistic imagery (Rogers leaps away from gargantuan explosions more than once). Still, an assault on a train is an excellent example of why a superhero with limitations is more engaging than one with unlimited power. Whereas Thor could vaporize enemies with a single blow, Captain America fights like well-trained soldier. Even his climatic battle against Schmidt has more blood-and-guts action than superhero spectacle.

Fantastic Four notwithstanding, Evans is already an easily likable leading man, and his non-verbal acting is what sell Rogers pre and post-experiment. His doggedly determined eyes anchor the movie; even at his most broad-shouldered, Evans easily sells Rogers’ unwavering sense of right and wrong. But for the amount of screen time he’s given, Hugo Weaving is not Evans’ equal. His character is properly evil, all right, yet the character is written without nuance or wit. I know the comic harkens back to a simpler time, so I’m just surprised Markus and McFeely devote so much time to Dr. Schmidt. The supporting actors, Jones in particular, are chosen because they can add gravitas with little dialog, and they all have memorable moments with Evans. Jones gets the biggest laugh at the time when the screenplay requires it, and as always, the actor realizes understatement is the key to levity.

Checking Joe Johnston’s IMDb page, I see he previously directed The Rocketeer, a movie I loved as a kid. Both it and Johnston’s latest are set near the same time period, and have heroes who share the same essential decency. Whereas The Rocketeer has innocent intentions, Captain America: The First Avenger also has a gentle sense of irony. Savvier audiences, even history buffs, will appreciate how it riffs on the values of the Great Generation.  Early reviews whined how Captain America is merely a set-up for The Avengers, which comes out next fall. Johnston does place Rogers deliberately within the Marvel universe, this is true, but it still succeeds on its own merit. This is the best Marvel Studios picture since Iron Man.