With Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving; Running Time: 125 minutes; Rated PG-13 [for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action]; Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely; Directed by Joe Johnston
Fans of the long-running Marvel Comics series “Captain America” had many of the same fears when it was announced that the beloved character would be coming to screens in 2011. The biggest of those fears stemmed from the seemingly cursed history of the franchise, from the silly cartoon that aired in 1966 to the pair of laughable TV movies from 1979 to the notorious B-movie flinger Albert Pyun’s 1990 version starring (famous literary relation) Matt Salinger. Add to those jitters a wishy-washy “Thor,” released this spring, behind-the-scenes trouble on “Iron Man 3” plus the casting of a third “Hulk” actor in less than a decade, and it’s no wonder that fans are worried that this “Captain America” might be a silly, jingoistic, tights-wearing embarrassment. Worry no more, fanboys and fangirls, as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is a home run.
It is 1942, and scrawny, chronically ill American boy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is on a perpetual quest to enlist in any branch of the Armed Forces that will take him. His persistence pays off when he is drafted by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) into a top secret program that in theory turns little runts into giant grunts. But naturally, he is the only superhuman soldier (naturally) to come out of the program, so rather than risk the key to eventually producing more like him, the government keeps wraps on the project by turning Rogers into a one-man USO tour, selling war bonds (and viewers will revel in the glorious musical number “Star Spangled Man” by Disney go-to’s David Zippel and Alan Menken). But far be it from Rogers to sit idly by while his childhood friend, James ‘Bucky’ Barnes (Sebastian Stan) rots in a German prison camp lorded over by the megalomaniacal Nazi Gen. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), whose secret villain identity is the grotesque Red Skull, whose plan to take over the world with his offshoot deranged boys club HYDRA involves an otherworldly power source.
If any director was going to be able to pull this off with style and substance, it was Joe Johnston. Originally a special effects tech on the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Johnston went on to movies like “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (to which Schmidt flippantly alludes as “Hitler chasing trinkets in the desert”) and eventually, helming his own hit films, like “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids,” “The Rocketeer” and “Jumanji.” He has considerable command of all the film’s elements, from the smart script by “Narnia” duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to, naturally, the art direction and visual elements, the most dazzling of which is “Skinny Steve,” in which the impressively buff Evans is made to look seamlessly very slight indeed during the first 20 minutes of the film.
Making an audience sympathize with a character is always a challenge, and Johnston and company meet it nicely. As Col. Chester Phillips (a hilariously curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones) and British agent Peggy Carter (the fine Rachel Weisz proxy Hayley Atwell) put Rogers through his paces to make sure he is right to be their beta test subject, he earns our sympathy, too. Evans, who played superhero Johnny Flame/The Human Torch in the pair of throwaway “Fantastic Four” movies, gets to make this his show. In that Evans gets to play both versions of himself, before and after he becomes super, we have that uninterrupted arc that better allows that suspension of disbelief. The movie has no slow spots, and its two hours goes by in a blink (with the possible exception of the marathon of technical credits at the end, after which no bonus scene rewards the patient).
The success of this particular Marvel movie (the first to feature now-owner Disney’s brand) is key in not only giving 2012’s Joss Whedon-directed omnibus “The Avengers” a firm commercial footing, but also familiarizing audiences with the shared universe mythos in which Captain America, Thor, The Hulk and Iron Man are more than just peripherally connected. Sure, it’s a universe in which the characters dress like trick-or-treaters, cause millions of dollars in property damage in the course of their work and deal with problems that regular people would give anything to have, but if Marvel can continue to line up thoroughly engaging entertainments like “Captain America,” more (super)power to them.•••