Silver Screen: Captain America **
At this point, Marvel Comics' The Avengers might be the most-hyped movie in history. There were a few years of anticipation building up to the release of the second Star Wars trilogy, but at this point The Avengers, due out in 2012, has not only been bandied about in the fan press for half a decade, it's spawning its own movies.
While both Iron Man II and Thor spent some time laying the groundwork and establishing characters for The Avengers, the woeful Captain America plays like short-film teaser tacked onto a DVD special features list, but one stretched out to two full hours. At its best moments, it's little more than a good advertisement for The Avengers, and at its worst it's embarrassingly shabby and generic.
The head of hunky actor Chris Evans is digitally shrunken and Photoshopped onto a spindly ninety-pound frame to make Steve Rogers, an asthmatic spitfire with more moxie than macho. Despite his various schemes and scams, he can't trick the military into letting him join up to fight the Germans at the dawn of American involvement in World War II. (For whatever reason, he expresses zero interest in battling the Japanese.) But he's the perfect candidate for an experimental program shepherded by an expatriate German scientist (Stanley Tucci, exactly zany enough) and the charismatic industrialist who will go on to be Iron Man's father (Dominic Cooper). They need a pure-hearted test subject for their new “super soldier” formula, which gives Rogers the physique to match his iron will.
As Captain America, he's both a symbol to the troops and America's own one-man army. But before he can move on to bumping Hitler out of the way, he must foil the plot of renegade Nazi soldier Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), an occult-obsessed budding tyrant who acquires the glowing-box thingy seen in the post-credits sequence in Thor. Oh, and his face is actually a blood-red skull hidden beneath a flesh mask, for no real reason.
With the exception of the distracting, silly effect of Evans's tiny head floating over the hyperbolically spindly body, the first half hour of Captain America plays out fairly well. Rogers is moderately compelling, and Tucci, along with costar Tommy Lee Jones as a hard-nosed colonel, provide enough zippy lines to propel the movie forward. The sequence after Rogers's transformation in which he's forced to travel the country in a silly proto-superhero suit and put on shows to sell war bonds is a particularly interesting detail, although ultimately it does nothing to help shape the persona of Captain America, who gets less defined and compelling as the movie moves forward. It's as though he trades all his personality for muscles, an effect not buoyed by Evans's flat performance.
Where this big-budget production really falters, surprisingly, is when at last the action sequences kick into gear. Director Joe Johnston sports a spotty ré sumé that includes exciting adventure fare like Jumanji and Jurassic Park III, but also major duds like Hidalgo and The Wolfman. One of his best films, however, is the woefully overlooked 1991 would-be blockbuster The Rocketeer, another superhero period piece with a World War II-era backdrop. The trouble is, for the most part, Captain America looks like it was made just a year or two after The Rocketeer. It's not just the awkward-looking effects for the Red Skull (a.k.a. Plastic Face Man) or the dumb plastic laser guns the thugs tote, but Johnston's inert execution of the action sequences themselves. There's no verve to the choreography or the cinematography, just quick cuts of a lot of flat, blandly realized shots of guys punching one another or running around a big open field stippled with loud pyrotechnic effects. It's as though Johnston, like our soon-to-be Avengers leader, was frozen in time for a few decades and hasn't caught up to the future. None of this seems intentional or has the effect of giving the film a retro look, just a cheap one.
Johnston maintains precious little fidelity to the period, aside from the hairstyles of the female characters. Evans is an essentially modern-looking guy, which is a minor stumbling block compared to the contortions the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely twists itself into to P.C. up the 1940s. Cap's love interest is not only a soldier, she's a high-ranking officer who also happens to be deadly with hand-to-hand combat and a crack shot with a pistol, because that's how the Army worked back then. He commands a veritable NATO squadron of troops that includes a Japanese guy, a black guy, a Frenchman-- the kind of mushy historical inaccuracy that's all the more egregious for the fact that none of these characters gets more than a couple of stray lines, heightening their tokenism.
At the same time as it fails to appropriate their innovations, Captain America hits all the same lazy points of the superhero origin story. Its most redeeming quality is that it's the final windup before Marvel Studios delivers the actual movie its been teasing all this time. Get on with it.