[SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't seen Captain America yet, beware: this review contains plot spoilers.]
When Richard Donner prepared to direct Superman (1978), he took great pains to avoid camp, knowing that would destroy any hope of producing a good film that stayed true to what made the character great. One word guided his approach: verisimilitude.
Captain America director Joe Johnston seems to have taken the same approach with this latest comic book adaptation, a World War II period piece with a modern-day framing story. Like all comic adaptations, the story is necessarily chock-a-block with elements of the fantastic; super-science, implausible action, grotesque villains. But Johnston uses clever art direction and scripting touches to give these elements a thin veneer of plausibility, allowing the audience to believe that yes, perhaps a good-hearted 90 pound weakling could be transformed into a super-soldier capable of leaping high walls and lifting motorcycles over his head. The super-science, for example, is always clad in World War II vintage cast iron and giant rivets. Readouts and maps are always vintage analog. Period costumes and music, acting choices and Johnston's direction all serve the film's patina of realism; we could almost believe that if history had been different, if technology had only progressed a little faster, the events of the film could have happened.
Chris Evans, above all, allows us to believe in the film. His portrayal of Steve Rogers/Captain America presents us with a hero who is determined, vulnerable and perhaps a little sad, yet filled with a genuine desire to serve his country. Evans' Rogers embodies all the positive aspects of patriotism, the love of country that manifests itself as a desire to serve others and sacrifice for the common good.
"Do you want to kill Nazis?" asks good-hearted German expatriate German scientist Professor Erskine, as part of a test to see if Rogers is the man he needs for his experimental super-soldier project. Rogers, at this point still a brave but physically hopeless weakling, shrugs:
"I don't want to kill anyone," he says. "I just don't like bullies."
Rogers' compassion, his lack of blood-lust and desire to simply do the right thing, convinces Erskine that Rogers is worthy. And so Rogers undergoes the heroic transformation from everyman to superman that forms the necessary dramatic nexus of virtually all superhero films. The magic of science morphs Evans from a scrawny runt to a mesomorphic fantasy figure, an ironically Aryan Übermensch. It's an irony that Johnston chooses to ignore, though, perhaps for good reason; too much self-awareness would destroy the verisimilitude he's worked so hard to establish. Evans and Johnston play it straight, even during the comic interlude that serves to establish the iconic costume: before being allowed to participate directly in the war, Rogers is forced into a propaganda role, acting as a sort of USO entertainer, movie star and comic book hero, clever touches gleaned from the character's real-world media presence.
The film's pacing and believability do suffer somewhat after the generally excellent opening act. Captain America's adventures on the battlefield are presented in a frenetic montage of over-the-top action; Cap tosses his shield at a sniper, Cap gets into a James-Bondian motorcycle chase, Cap tosses grenades into tanks, etc. While this approach economically establishes Captain America as a force to be reckoned with, we lose some of the emotional connection we had with the character; it's hard to care about Cap's exploits when they're presented without any context. I far prefer Richard Donner's approach in Superman, in which the titular hero has only three our four heroic exploits on his big debut night, but each is given the appropriate weight and pacing to establish his heroism. In other words, we have enough breathing space to care about what's happening, to have some investment in the outcome.
The film regains some of its momentum in the final act, as Captain America squares off with his nemesis, the Red Skull (the always-affable Hugo Weaving) in a gigantic flying wing full of kamikaze buzz-bombs with the names of American cities painted ominously upon them. Like most Marvel movies, the story climaxes with a super-powered fight scene, and on this point I do wish the writers could come up with something new. Not all conflicts need to be resolved with fisticuffs; Captain America should be clever enough to outwit his foes. At least it would be a change.
Still, the climax ends with some genuine poignancy, dovetailing as it must into the film's modern-day prelude. A final radio conversation between Rogers and the object of his affections is quite moving, especially when the audience knows that their romance is ultimately doomed by time and tragic circumstance. Dramatic irony is rare in superhero films, and much appreciated here.
The present-day coda provides a well-crafted if somewhat utilitarian setup for the next film in this sequence of Marvel adventures, next spring's The Avengers. Stay for the post-credits teaser!
Final verdict: not as good as Thor or X-Men: First Class, but still enjoyable summer entertainment.
7.2 star-spangled vibranium shields out of 10.