From a certain point of view, the 70-year-old Timely/Atlas/Marvel superhero Captain America is tailor-made for the movies. After all, he has relatively down-to-earth abilities (much like Batman, his abilities have been increased to the peak of human perfection; but he does not have Superman-like physics-defying abilities); his adventures are filled with swashbuckling derring-do; and he has that patriotic thing going. No wonder that he has been depicted on the large and small screen in no less than five movies: A 1940s serial; two TV-movies in the 1970s; a feature film in the mid-1980s that was never officially released; and the current CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. (That doesn't count EASY RIDER, with a main character named after Cap.)
One might then wonder why the superhero film craze of the last decade has taken so long to showcase the Star-Spangled Avenger; or why Marvel itself released the CA movie after other licensing studios passed on the character. There are several reasons. Perhaps the most significant is the clout that foreign markets carry today -- foreign markets that might be less than enthused with a hero who wears red, white and blue and calls himself America. Further, Cap's brand of genial patriotism has gone in and out of style in the American cinema. Further, the previous movie adaptations of Captain America have been less than thrilling.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER therefore has a lot to live up to. Fortunately, the Joe Johnston-directed feature strikes the right note, in several ways: The retro-futuristic look, which includes many tributes to original Captain America artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, as well as the death-ray tech of 1940s science fiction; the sweeping Alan Silvestri score; action scenes that recall the rough-and-tumble of Kirby's Cap stories, both those from the '40's and those from Cap's revival in the '60's (just as in the comics, anyone Cap socks goes flying across the room); Cap's weapon, his shield, which he carooms off targets and back into his hand like a billiard-ball frisbee; and the inclusion of another Jack Kirby creation (with Stan Lee), the Howling Commandos (with their multi-ethnicity diversity increased to appeal to international audiences); Chris Evans' earnest and nuanced portrayal of Cap; Hugo Weaving's Red Skull, who would twirl a mustache if he could grow one on his excoriated face); and the ending to the movie, a terrific bridge between the 1940s and the present that pays homage to the comic book story while avoiding some of its absurdities.
The movie did sound some wrong notes with me, however:
-- In what appears to be an attempt to avoid ticking off international audiences, Cap and the Howling Commandos battle Hydra, depicted here as a renegade branch of the Nazis, rather than the Nazis themselves: There is hardly a swastika in sight. This lessens the significance of Cap's symbolic battle against the Nazis themselves and all that they stood for.
-- The U.S. Government's initial repurposing of Cap as a USO performer selling savings bonds is a witty commentary on how the armed forces often misused the talents of their personnel. But if the USO is going to put Cap into a costume and have him perform, why not take advantage of his physical abilities and have him perform some acrobatics? (One of Stan Lee's best Daredevil stories from the '60's involved DD going to Vietnam and performing acrobatics for the troops. A similar scene here would have made good cinema.)
-- I understand the filmmakers' decision to create a more practical field outfit for Cap. But I do wish that they hadn't created such an awful, comic-relief version of his original uniform for the USO scenes. Simon and Kirby's Captain America costume is an inspired visual creation; it deserves some respect.
-- Finally, I found the 3-D incredibly distracting. Although the scene with the shield flying toward the viewer was quite effective, the effects tended to undermine the action scenes, by focusing the viewer's (this viewer's, at least) eye on the wrong elements.
But overall, the movie deserves the accolades it has received. Marvel Studios is developing a Pixar-like record of solid movies that has likely made its initial investors happy -- and must certainly be pleasing its current owner, Disney, happy.
Bring on THE AVENGERS.