By Jeff Pfeiffer
Maybe it takes a certain national climate to do a Captain America film right. Since his comic-book origins in 1941, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, the Marvel Comics hero has been the subject of a few filmmaking attempts that have not been very successful. He was in some 1940s cliffhanger serials, some dreadful 1970s made-for-TV efforts and a 1990 theatrical film that started with a good idea but came crashing down quickly, mainly thanks to its very low budget.
But Captain America: The First Avenger finally gives Cap (played by Chris Evans) his due on the big screen. Perhaps our current national concerns and anxieties, about physical and economic threats both foreign and domestic, have put audiences once again in a mood to see a star-spangled patriotic hero in action, much as World War II-era comic-book readers were.
It certainly helps that in addition to his enemies, this time Cap doesn’t also have to fight against a low filmmaking budget. The creative team, especially director Joe Johnston (who also lovingly re-created this era 20 years earlier with The Rocketeer) put good time and effort into the film, not only to present Cap’s 1940s adventures, but also because this film is the last of the prequels setting up next summer’s The Avengers. As such, there are Avengers ties throughout the film, which opens with the modern-day discovery of Captain America frozen in suspended animation, and closes with him meeting Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the agent who has assembled other heroes into what will become The Avengers.
In between these scenes, in the bulk of the film, we have a rip-roaring, old-school adventure as Cap starts out as weakling Steve Rogers, a kid in 1942 Brooklyn who dreams of helping the war effort against the Axis, but whose size and health issues have him perpetually labeled 4-F. (The visual effects for these early scenes that make Evans — who bulked up with muscle for this role — look much skinnier and shorter than he actually is, are quite impressive.) After becoming a test subject for a new super-soldier serum developed by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Rogers develops incredible strength, and the patriotism he had already displayed seems to be enhanced as well. Unfortunately, Erskine is immediately killed by enemy agents, so Rogers becomes the last of his kind. Well, almost the last, because back in Germany, Erskine had been forced to give his serum to a madman named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), whose evil qualities and strength were enhanced, turning him into a hideous arch villain known as the Red Skull. Schmidt runs the HYDRA organization, a deep science division of the Third Reich. But even the Nazis find Schmidt’s activities questionable, so before they can shut him down, Schmidt decides to go solo and include Germany in his plans for world conquest by HYDRA.
Some of the more fun moments come as Army brass, not knowing quite what to do with the newly created Captain America, try putting him to use as a propaganda tool, sending him out on USO tours to sell war bonds and star in adventure films (it is during this montage that there is a clever reference to the famous cover of Captain America’s first issue, which showed him punching out Hitler). Before long, however, Rogers finds himself in the thick of the wartime action, eventually battling the Red Skull, who has obtained a powerful tool that can alter reality, the Cosmic Cube (an object readers of The Avengers and other Marvel Comics will also be familiar with). Working with British agent, and growing love interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and technology genius Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) — the father of Iron Man himself, Tony Stark — Rogers fights to stop the Skull from launching an attack on the United States.
While it remains to be seen how Captain America as a “man out of time” will work in The Avengers, in this film his adventures are a lot of fun. If anything, it all moves a bit too quickly, and perhaps this was purposeful. Months and years of the war fly by in the movie’s timeline, so perhaps, hopefully, producers have saved some of Cap’s other wartime activities for a sequel film. But if this is indeed the last time moviegoers will see Captain America in action during the 1940s, at least it is done in a way that should satisfy longtime fans and newcomers alike.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” is available starting Oct. 25 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© 2011 MVL Film Finance LLC. Marvel, Captain America, all character names and their distinctive likenesses ™ & © 2011 Marvel