While I generally don’t open up the reviews until long after the fact, I do, like many others, make a habit of checking out the cumulative grades of newly released movies on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the time I only cite the scores as a means of convincing other people to join me on my movie watching quests, but this week I suffered a weird case of geek rage. I have absolutely no idea why it is that the mediocre Levi’s ad Thor and the passably entertaining but oft silly X-Men: First Class have both topped Captain America in terms of critical consensus. Seriously. What are you people drinking? There’s no doubt all three films are enjoyable action flicks, but for my money there’s only one that really seems to be reaching towards some organic summer movie experience apart from tying up loose ends or mandatory introduction. Captain America may be a lead in to The Avengers, but its framework allows this origin story to feel self-contained without the rushed moments or forced character introductions that made Thor problematic. This is more than just another superhero blockbuster, in fact, it’s barely that. There are effects, sure, but they’re not the focus. Instead, Captain America is a surprisingly solid, frankly old-fashioned adventure story. In my opinion, this is the best thing to come from Marvel since the first go at Iron Man, and it saves Chris Evans from his lamentable turn in those god awful Fantastic Four bombs.
Where the film delivers the goods expected from a traditional comic book film, its strengths are not derived from action. In a way, the story seems custom built to match our hero’s traits: it feels untainted and sincere. Contrary to popular belief, the good Captain is not some sort of Marvel excuse for Superman. The movie opens on Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a shrimp of a kid from Brooklyn who desperately wants to be able to join up and serve his country in the fight against Hitler. So much so that he’s tried to enlist on multiple occasions, under multiple pseudonyms, and been turned away each and every time. Enter Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German ex-pat who sees potential in Rogers’ earnestness and opens up a military loophole that allows young Steve to suit up for boot camp and have his mettle tested by a smart-mouthed, exhausted Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones). One thing leads to another, Rogers proves he’s got soul and guts, and soon he’s strapped into one of those magical, mystical machines of comic science being vita-lasered until he’s pumped from 90-pound weakling into a super-soldier prototype. Even in the wake of his mutated abilities, however, no one has faith in his powers. They use him as an Uncle Sam symbol, a patriotic puppet to sell government bonds. The key to the character’s success, which Dr. Erskine points out early on, is that Rogers has heart. Here’s a hero who was not born into privilege or physical strength, but who acquires it in part because of his strength of character. Evans is a perfect choice for the character. Where we’re used to seeing him in roles as cocky hotheads, in this film he’s immediately likable as a warm, smart, All-American boy next door. His character’s innocence registers in his eyes, and here Evans comes off as alarmingly genuine, he believes in his convictions, is loyal to those he cares for, and unflinchingly self-sacrificing even when confronted with the most dire of world-threatening situations.
So, the film is not made of razzmatazz but of the meat and potatoes of retro adventure. Captain America at its best feels like a radio play gone rogue; done up for the big screen and made into a cinema spectacle. At its worst, it feels like a bit of a rerun. There’s nothing especially new here, of course. The story offers fairly obvious twists and turns and pulls from numerous other tales of wartime adventure, but when you’ve got a solid hero and the best types of villain (watch as Hugo Weaving tries out his oddly inflected German accent as Red Skull, one nasty Nazi mad scientist), it’s hard to veer too far off track. This film does what other contemporary comic book adaptations have not been able to do: it plays with the superhero mythos as originally intended, mixing in real societal yearning and patriotism with an odd, self-aware, satirical quality. Captain America is a hero without conflict because his aim is true and his targets are those we know to be really and truly evil. He’s in the right, and somehow this certainty triggers an odd nostalgia in the illusion of black and white battles. At its core, the film is a period piece with beautiful touches from the art directors that keep it somewhere between picking up where Indiana Jones left off and drifting too far towards what Sky Captain attempted. We can feel good about it, even as Captain Rogers’ story turns bittersweet. These factors are amongst the reasons why this character may perhaps be the most interesting one mixed into The Avengers. He’s lost everything of the life he knew, frozen (as we learn in the opening scene) for 70 years and reborn in a world where nothing is black and white, where America is under attack, and where the type of bright-eyed patriotism he embodies no longer exists. I look forward to seeing how this character adapts and struggles. If they can’t fit that subplot into The Avengers, I can only hope Captain America gets the sequel he deserves.