Captain America ✮✮✮
Red, White & Buffed
by Glenn Lovell
It’s every 97-pound weakling’s dream: to sprout Charles Atlas biceps, romance a pretty government agent (standard-issue blonde, of course) and foil a fiendish Nazi plot involving ‒ what else? ‒ world domination.
A shrimp even by hors d’oeuvre standards, Brooklyn’s Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) lives the dream in Paramount-Marvel’s new “Captain America: The First Avenger,” a fast-moving, gee-whiz adventure that mixes plot elements from “The Incredible Hulk” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with retro-futuristic art design that rivals anything found in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”
It’s the kind of style-over-substance ride we’ve come to expect of director Joe Johnston, known for such throwback entertainments as “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Rocketeer” and, more recently, “The Wolfman.” Johnston apprenticed as production designer and visual effects supervisor on “Return of the Jedi” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” hence the emphasis on a digitally rendered “World of Tomorrow,” circa ‒ here’s the fun part ‒ 1942. (Captain America made his debut as a Timely Comics superhero in 1941, the year the U.S. entered World War 2.)
With his country now battling bullies on two fronts, Rogers, the son of decorated war heroes, is desperate to do his part. Unfortunately, he’s a puny asthmatic who’s classified 4-F, or unfit for duty. What he lacks in physical stature, however, he makes up for in tenacity and “little guy” heart. Which brings him to the attention of a fatherly German scientist (Stanley Tucci) looking for a guinea pig for his molecular-growth serum. Rogers volunteers as a pipsqueak and exits a ripped, 6-foot-2 Adonis ‒ the “first in a new breed of super-soldier.”
Observing from the wings are a skeptical, hard-ass colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) and the aforementioned agent (Hayley Atwell), whose eyes seem to say, “Hmm, bigger IS better.”
It’s here that Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (collaborators on the “Chronicles of Narnia” series) throw us ‒ and their not-quite-ready-for-primetime hero ‒ a curve. Instead of Rogers being sent to the front, his Captain America persona is assigned a home-front tour to remind Americans to “Buy Bonds!” In other words, he’s a make-believe hero in a make-believe adventure. It’s a clever ploy that allows for a colorful musical montage with flag-waving, Irving Berlin-inspired song (“Star-Spangled Man”) and high-kicking chorines. When the tour takes Rogers overseas, the troops boo the showboat “hero” in red-white-and-blue leotard.
Obviously a rescue mission deep behind enemy lines is called for. Enter the real deal with the titanium shield.
If the action sequences to come often seem phonier than Cap’s phony PR war, it’s not for lack of trying. Hugo Weaving (“V for Vendetta,” Agent Smith in the “Matrix” series) has fun with the egomaniacal archfiend, called Red Skull for his skeletal Dr. Phibes visage. Like the evil Nazis in “Raiders,” he’s bent on overstepping the Fuhrer and harnessing occult power for world domination. His Hydra Cult is a sort of Fifth Reich. His wing-shaped bomber, lifted from H.G. Welles’ “Things to Come,” already has Boston and New York in its sights. Other toys in an arsenal that would delight James Bond’s Q: mini-sub, oversized ray-guns, gargantuan tanks ‒ all struck from vintage Marvel blueprints.
Granted, the performances are nothing to write home about. With the exception of Weaving’s villain, cut from the same Swastika as Christoph Waltz’s laughing colonel in “Inglourious Basterds,” they’re serviceable at best. But that’s OK. We don’t frequent this type of movie for Olivier-type histrionics. It’s enough that Evans, Jones and Atwell don’t crack a smile while reciting the cartoon balloons that pass for dialogue.
The first Avenger won’t be the last. One of the delights of this movie is discovering that it’s been designed as a 2-hour trailer for “Cap 2: Rip Van Rogers.” Ordinarily, we’d be put off by something this crass and manipulative. But this adventure is so stylish, so good-natured, we gladly buy into the con.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. ✮✮✮ Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan. Directed by Joe Johnston; scripted by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely. 125 mins. PG-13 (much over-the-top battle violence; some gruesome makeup effects)