Captain America: The First Avenger
“Arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say you do it better than anyone.” So sneers Hugo Weaving’s dastardly Johann Schmidt/Red Skull the first time he squares up to the walking red, white, and blue that is Steve Rodgers – otherwise known as Captain America. One can certainly understand his concern given our nations penchant for flag-waving self-aggrandizement, but thankfully you won’t share his sentiments, as director Joe Johnston skillfully sidesteps the minefield of jingoism that could have so easily obliterated this final piece of The Avengers jigsaw puzzle.
Clearly very mindful that the slightest misstep could see his picture veer off into pastiche, Joe Johnston casts his hero – a “ninety-five pound weakling” transformed into a super soldier by Stanley Tucci’s ex-patriot German scientist and his secret serum – as a man prepared to forgo individual heroism for the greater good. A self-aware, country-first guy, to whom service means donning a ridiculous outfit and pretending to deck a guy dressed as Hitler in front of a scantily clad chorus line in an effort to sell war bonds. It’s a stroke of genius on the part of the writers, Chronicles of Narnia scribes, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and one that lampoons the very cartoon that the character could so easily morph into.
While well served by clear-cut character development such diligence ironically serves to rob the film of much needed momentum, the obligatory origin story and set-up taking an age to accomplish. Rare indeed is it that a summer blockbuster tests your patience with character and story to the point where you yearn for them to simply cut loose with the ass-kicking and unleash the gawdy, CGI mayhem. After all, it’s not as if they’re throwing much that’s memorable our way in terms of plot or story.
Genre helmer for hire Joe Johnston’s direction is perfectly passable, but was seemingly informed that priority number one was simply to not turn anybody off. To that end Johnston has delivered a glossy tentpole that’s engrossing, yet seldom gripping, populated by overly familiar archetypes – see the painstakingly diverse commando squad Roger’s puts together – to aide an already vanilla hero.
Chris Evans, so often cast as the obligatory smart mouth in any given ensemble, is painfully aware that this role could be his shot at the big time and has dialed himself down to next to nothing. Given his typical appeal, this self-effacing is admirable, but you find yourself craving just a little bit of the sass that makes him such fun to watch.
Elsewhere, Tommy Lee Jones' acerbic Col. Philips gets some good one-liners, and if ‘being spunky’ is ever designated an Olympic event, then Hayley Atwell is a shoo-in. Much more fun than all of that is Hugo Weaving’s Schmidt, leader of the Nazi occult division Hydra. Not only is he so evil that he finds the ambition of Hitler to be smalltime, but if you close your eyes when he speaks he sounds just like Werner Herzog, which is infinitely more entertaining than anything likely happening on the screen.
It would be unfair to accuse Johnston of not trying. When the action finally does arrive it is more than adequate to the occasion, with Rogers flinging his iconic shield around with wanton abandon, and such disregard for the laws of physics as to be positively gleeful. No, the only gripe is that the focus of the powers that be is clearly on the larger (read: more lucrative) picture, making this a $140 million advertisement for another film – in fact another franchise – entirely.