The folks at Marvel Entertainment have unleashed their third outing of the year—“Thor” and “X-Men: First Class” being the first two—and their interlocking superheroes again are feeding on and off one other. It’s a good gig for Samuel L. Jackson’s eye-patched Nick Fury character, who hits the trifecta, at least in small roles until “The Avengers” is released next spring. Chris Evans, who graced the two most recent “Fantastic Four” features as the Human Torch/Johnny Storm, gets the full body, eponymous treatment with Joe Johnston (“Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park III,” and—my personal favorite of his oeuvre, the coming-of-age “October Sky”) directing this jingoistic sci-fi salute to what was worth fighting for 70 years ago.
For those of you who flunked American/World History, that would be World War II. While the film starts out with the current day discovery by a Russian oil team of a downed aircraft hidden beneath the polar crust—perhaps a frozen mausoleum as Washington starts to snoop—it quickly flashes back to the early-1940s, and stays there until nearly two hours later. Despite its length, the feature generally moves along with moxie, charm, gobs of special effects and stunt work, and fond memories of the USO style shows that sold war bonds and boosted support in the battle against the Nazis. Yes, there’s even some singing and dancing.
In Europe, a black booted German commander and eventually deranged meglomaniac Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, who seems to embrace his numerous bad guy roles with lunatic glee) is building up a deep science division called HYDRA within, then without, the German war machine. He’s absconded a secret blue power that can destroy enemies in a single, energized beam. It’s a war/world changing spark of light. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, not far from the old Ebbetts Field, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), an expatriate and former colleague of Schmidt’s, is doing his own mumbo-jumbo Vita-Ray experiments (complete with period gauges, dials, lights, and goggles) for the Allied war effort assisted by Stark Industries flamboyant founder Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Their subject? The puny, patriotic 90-pound weakling known as Steve Rogers, as created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941.
As Captain America he’s sold hundreds of millions of comic books and became the first ever Marvel character adapted into a different media—the 1944 Republic Pictures serial. In Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely’s breezy screenplay (they wrote the several “Chronicles of Narnia” films), he’s got the same optimism and gung-ho up the wazoo, although asthma and other sickly flaws eliminate him as a possible inductee into the U.S. Army. It turns out his mild-mannered heroism catches the eye of Erskine, and soon the poor kid is upgraded from 4F to 1A and comically suffering through boot camp under the eye of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, perfectly cast) and his sassy, smart assistant Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The CGI wizards have done a marvelous job of grafting Evans’ technically shrunken head onto someone else’s slender frame. It’s a rather convincing, sympathetic interpretation of the runt of the litter, at least until he morphs into the good captain.
The now super-sized, super-strong Steve manages to stop a German spy who destroys the laboratory that birthed him with a mad run through the streets of 1943 Brooklyn and the Army sees his worth immediately—as a publicity and sales machine! Do they stick him in battle? Nope. They put him in a stupid costume and parade him around the country in a terpsichorean pageant in which he knocks out a faux Hitler hundreds of times. While the American public eats this pablum up, he’s met with laughter and derision when the show lands before the troops in Italy near year’s end. Embarrassed that his commanders have not used his physical potential as a fighting machine, he gets new super duds courtesy of Stark (with an admiring wink from Carter), and that ever-identifiable red-white-and-blue shield. Of course, as soon as he picks bigger fights with HYDRA and its minions, it’s hard to stay inconspicuous behind such a patriotic, metallic banner.
Steve Roger’s close friend “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), rescued by Captain America along with nearly 400 other soldiers from one of the Red Skull’s several expansive power centers, becomes part of the brawny and brainy leader’s jovial ‘Howlin’ Commandos’ serviceable derring doers. Others are Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi, Bruno Ricci, and J.J. Feild.
Alan Silvestri’s music reminded me of John Williams’ soaring score for the 1978 “Superman,” while director Johnston’s frequent collaborator Shelly Johnson’s cinematography captured nicely the period design work by big budget production designer Rick Heinricks.
As it battles Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the last week of July, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a pleasant retro surprise with decent 3D work, with 2/3rds of the picture’s 3,700+ opening week screens presenting in that format. After catching up with and suffering through the interminable and poorly written “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” I was smiling with this latest summer action-adventure effort. As usual, look for Stan Lee in another amusing cameo, muttering “I thought he’d be taller” at a military ceremony honoring the titular character.