In a world where Marvel Studios has managed to turn likes of Thor and Iron Man into cultural icons, Captain America has a lot to live up to. Not only is he already a well-known superhero, he’s the final piece of The Avengers jigsaw: failure now would lead to a year of uncertainty and pessimism heaped on a film that’s already got its fair share of both riding on top of it.
So it’s just as well that Captain America (or, to use its full title just this once, Captain America: The First Avenger) is a speedy, no-nonsense action-adventure with some gloriously mental villains, a charming period aesthetic and more than enough variety to sustain itself without sagging for even a moment.
If you don’t know the story, it’s simple enough: 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is admitted to an Army test program and transformed into buff super-soldier, Captain America. Heading to the battlefront in Europe and joined by his best friend, James ‘Bucky’ Buchanan (Sebastian Stan) and his handler, British secret service agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Cap must fight his German counterpart, The Red Skull, who leads the occult Nazi offshoot group, Hydra, in a bid to enslave the globe using a stolen artifact of great power.
Steering the film is director Joe Johnston, whose career encompasses a selection of variable-quality action-adventure films, from the fantastic Honey I Shrunk the Kids to the less fantastic Jurassic Park III. Though generally unspectacular, Johnston’s abilities prove reliable and he gets the job done. It’s hard not to enjoy the results.
It helps that the cast is strong in every area. As Rogers, Evans is square-jawed and earnest, simple but not naive. As Carter, Atwell is feminine and formidable, embodying a genuine post-suffrage 1940s spirit. Tommy Lee Jones almost steals the show as the grizzled Col. Phillips, while Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones (playing villains the Red Skull and Arnim Zola) prove an entertaining, if cartoonishly evil double-act. There’s not a weak link anywhere.
Indeed, Captain America‘s faults are so few and far between that they might as well not be mentioned at all. Maybe the endless parade of identikit Hydra soldiers nudges the action a little too close to video game territory. Maybe the threats to Cap’s survival are never all that credible. Maybe the final scenes could have lingered a little longer before the credits rolled.
In any case, it’s trivial stuff compared to the film’s successes, which are numerous. Not least during the first hour, which is near-perfect in its exploration of Rogers and his role, before a parade of action sequences takes over.
Perhaps the biggest concern was that that the filmmakers would push the patriotism a little too far. Two hours of ‘America is great’ might have flown in the States, but it’s fair to say not every country is going to share that opinion.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. Captain America offers a self-consciously even-handed look at World War II, avoiding any suggestion that America’s might would naturally eclipse European inadequacies. Not only does it contain British and French characters to root for, it even throws in a sympathetic German or two.
Indeed, while Hydra is based in visual and cultural references to the Nazis, Captain America sticks to its own fiction rather rigidly, neatly avoiding any potential trivialisation of the conflict it portrays.
The truth is, Captain America succeeds in just about everything it sets out to do. What prevents it from being a five-star movie, is that it never tries to be anything more than a superhero action-adventure. It’s got the right mixture of jokes, thrills and romance, it hits all the right plot beats, looks great, sounds wonderful, and you’ll leave the cinema with a grin on your face. But it’s undeniably, unapologetically one-dimensional, and lacks even the swagger of Iron Man or the flamboyance of Thor to distract you from that.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with being straightforward once in a while. Captain America isn’t going to make you think, but it will entertain you, without insulting your intelligence. Chiefly, you’ll come out of this film feeling like you know Steve Rogers – and when The Avengers picks him up next year, you’ll be more than ready to see him back in action.