Review by Ryan Wilson

Pity poor Captain America. In the larger popular culture he’s somehow been relegated to a second tier superhero when in the Marvel universe he’s the figure all the other heroes admire. In this way and others he’s been largely misunderstood.

Given his moniker and his stars and stripes uniform, it’s easy to dismiss Steve Rogers as simply jingoistic, a symbol on par with freedom fries and flag pins. And this is a shame because the character of Steve Rogers often struggles against the bad decisions his country makes. For example, when Iron Man and other Marvel heroes require all super-humans to disclose their identities to the government, Captain America calls it fascist and even begins a civil war within the hero community.

Yet we mainly know Captain America from his time fighting the Nazis, most notably the Red Skull back in World War II, and this also doesn’t do Captain America any favors because that fight is so black and white that it feels nostalgic, even corny at times, especially when you factor in his boy sidekick “Bucky,” Marvel Comic’s answer to Robin the Boy Wonder.

It’s no wonder then that it’s taken Captain America so long to make it to the big screen. You could make an even stronger argument that Cap is only getting his turn now to fit him into Joss Whedon’s Avenger’s movie out next May. So it’s heartening to see that Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t just a prelude.

Like nearly every comic book adaptation, we’re in store for Captain America’s origin story. This is by now a tedious trope in any superhero franchise, as most of us know our hero’s origins well before we buy our ticket. It even looks like they’re going to do this again in next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, just ten years after we saw it the first time. How many times do we need to see that radioactive spider bite Peter Parker or that crook shoot Bruce Wayne’s parents in Crime Alley? Why can’t these films begin just as any comic book would, with the hero already established?

Despite this personal gripe going into Captain America, I surprisingly found the origin story to be the strongest part of the movie. Maybe because the film is most character-oriented early on and exhibits patience. We first see Steve Rogers as a frail kid with a big heart, just attempting to con the draft board into letting him serve. Again this is not jingoistic. As he tells a scientist willing to take a chance on him, “I don’t want to kill anyone; I just don’t like bullies.” We see this as he takes a pounding from bullies both on the streets of Brooklyn and in basic training, but through his suffering we also see that the character of Steve Rogers believes in something greater than himself, that he truly doesn’t care what happens to him so long as it’s being done for the right reasons.

It’s difficult not to be moved by Chris Evans who plays Rogers in these early scenes. Evans isn’t new to Marvel Studios. He played the overly cocky Johnny Storm in the less than average Fantastic Four movies a few years ago. Given his sheer volume in those performances, it’s surprising that the studio would see in Evans the sensitivity he displays as Rogers. Also effective is Hugo Weaving, best known as the big baddie in the Matrix movies, as the Red Skull. Like Evans playing pre-Captain, Weaving is at his best before he rips his face off halfway through the picture. The menace in his eyes is more threatening than any grotesque disfigurement.

The film’s slow anticipation toward action is much more exciting than the action itself. Director Joe Johnston rushes too much when the war inside the war actually begins. Johnston is at his best simply capturing the intrigue of the era. He loses his pacing after Captain America and the Red Skull emerge as fully formed characters and confront each other. Like his 1991 film The Rockateer, everyone and everything is set up perfectly, only to be settled through a climactic battle that feels anti-climactic. After making the Red Skull sound like every child’s worst bedtime story, the movie basically uses him as a prop. Anyone who’s read Marvel comics knows of the potential in the Skull’s evil organization Hydra, but the sinister organization ultimately feels like a small business with weak middle management. Likewise, Captain America bristles against the two- dimensional thinking of the U.S. Military in the form of a crusty Tommy Lee Jones, but this story thread is resolved too easily.

The movie is too concerned with getting Steve Rogers to our time so Joss Whedon can get his hands on him. Hopefully Whedon won’t lose sight of the character and his being out of sync with more contemporary attitudes. It should be a treat, for example, to see Rogers' idealism confront the slick corporate power wielded by Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.

As fun as that might prove, I still pity Captain America: The First Avenger. The first half of the film is so polished and superb that if it had come before The Dark Knight or, say, Spider Man 2, it might have been heralded as one of the best comic book movies of all time. Instead, the movie will add another hero on the pile. Cap deserves better.

Take 5 on Film is a production of  Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011