by Patrick Bromley
There was a lot riding on Captain America: The First Avenger, as it is the last untested puzzle piece for Marvel Studios going into next summers' The Avengers. Director Joe Johnston has always been more a journeyman filmmaker and lacks the big-name recognition of the guys at the helm of past superhero movies -- guys like Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, Ang Lee and, most recently, Kenneth Branagh. Sure, he made The Rocketeer back in 1991 (I'm pretty sure that's the reason he got the job in the first place; Hollywood executives don't have great imaginations, and if a guy made one superhero movie set in the '40s he should probably be the guy we hire to make another one), but hasn't directed much since then that would inspire our confidence. He really nails the tone here, though, and that goes a long way towards making the movie so enjoyable -- it's entertaining without being too lightweight and just the right side of corny without ever becoming stupid. When people talk about what they want out of summer movies, this is what they're talking about.
That's the basic gist of Captain America, though it leaves out a number of major characters like Cap's best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), his commanding officer Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, doing his best acerbic gruffness and getting a laugh with almost every line) or Peggy Carter, who is British and hot and with whom Captain America has real chemistry; she's played by Hayley Atwell, who is British and hot and with whom Chris Evans has real chemistry.
Yes, Captain America is yet another comic book origin story, and more than half its running time is devoted to explaining how Steve Rogers becomes Captain America (which includes a very amusing detour in which he's made the poster child for the USO). Like a few superhero origin stories before it -- namely, Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man and the first Iron Man -- the movie is at its best when it's focusing on the characters and the back story. Once Evans becomes Cap, things get rushed; much of the action, in fact, is relegated to a single montage in which Captain America and the Howling Commandos (who are never referred to by name) travel from country to country steamrolling Hydra. The last third of the movie still works, mostly because we're invested in all of the characters and Weaving has succeeded in creating such a terrible, credible threat (plus, Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely avoid a lot of common mistakes; for one, Peggy Carter is never placed in jeopardy and in need of rescuing). It's just odd that so many of these superhero movies become less interesting once the actual superheroes show up.
The movie also has a perfect ending, closing on a shot that's beautiful and inspiring and sums up so much of what makes Captain America such a neat character, squareness and all.
What I mean is that the movie almost has a perfect ending, because unfortunately it extends past its logical conclusion point to give us a scene designed to set up next summer's The Avengers. This kind of ground-laying is exactly what has crippled a few other recent Marvel movies (Iron Man 2 more than any), and though Captain America has less of this than any of the other pre-Avengers movies, it says something that what little of it there is still makes for the worst moments.
Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern), this one stands head and shield above the rest. Now all Marvel has to do is bring on The Avengers and stick the landing.