There’s a moment in all the best geek adaptations in which I – being a massive geek (thank you in advance for not turning that into a fat joke) – find myself suffering a fit of the giggles. Not sneering giggles, no, but that genuine hysterical reaction you have when you experience something you didn’t think you’d ever see. Spider-Man flying betwixt the skyscrapers of New York City comes to mind here, or Wolverine finally going into a berzerker rage in X-Men 2. At its best, the excellent Captain America: The First Avenger makes me giggle like a maniac when the titular hero throws his shield at Nazis or when the Red Skull stomps around like the glorious supervillain that he is. At its worst, which isn’t so much “worst” as “not at its best,” the film has a slightly low-budget feeling that contributes as much to a sense of nostalgia as it does naïveté. There are also a few nitpicks here and there, but we’ll peel off those scabs in a moment.
For those who don’t know, Captain America: The First Avenger tells the story of a willing but unable soldier named Steve Rogers, who wants nothing more than to join the World War II effort but is hindered by his tiny, frail physique and a laundry list of ailments which I didn’t entirely catch but was so long that I wouldn’t be surprised if it included the gout. He’s recruited for a secret “super soldier” program, designed to make an army of perfect warriors to fight the Nazis, but after the procedure works the scientist who created it is killed, taking the secret with him, and the higher-ups decide that Rogers is better suited for morale-boosting U.S.O. shows than active duty. Eventually he goes AWOL and proves himself in a daring battle with The Red Skull who, along with his Nazi splinter group Hydra (giggles), has decided to take over the world using super weapons devised from the Cosmic Cube (more giggles). From then on “Captain America” and his elite squad of Howling Commandos go on the offensive, proving themselves some of the greatest heroes of World War II.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve a particularly forceful pat on the back here: they adapted the hell out of a hokey concept, managing to make Captain America the biggest hero of World War II without completely rewriting the history of the engagement. They justified Cap’s outlandish costume, made the Red Skull into a superior villain and even avoided the thematic snarl of defeating the Nazis, a group which attempted to use eugenics to create the ultimate blonde super soldiers, using the ultimate blond super soldier created with (essentially) eugenics. The acting is also stellar, from the perfectly cast Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving to an unexpectedly large role from Tommy Lee Jones as a deadpan general. Witty banter, legitimate drama and a classical cinematic style all contribute to yet another winner from Marvel Studios.
But Captain America: The First Avenger does fall short of more dramatically successful Marvel outings like Iron Man and Thor, thanks to a series of small issues incapable of bringing the film down on their own but, when taken together, do manage to knock it down a peg. Although the special effects work is largely incredible, and wimpy Steve Rogers may in fact be the most impressive CGI creation I have ever seen, the film tends to rely heavily on green screen for much of the period locations, giving the film a Sky Captain feeling that keeps it from feeling lived in. The practical sets, all beautiful, are mostly cramped and heavily favored instead of actual locations, and the film favors smaller skirmishes instead of epic war zones, preventing the film from ever feeling like a World War II epic in the vein of Saving Private Ryan and instead like an exceptional TV movie version thereof. It gives Captain America a slightly storybook effect, nostalgic but a little naïve, much like the decision to include a multi-ethnic military unit in an era when such a thing was simply unthinkable. It’s a sentimental thought, perhaps (and accurate to the progressive 1960’s comic books), but distractingly inaccurate anyway.
The film concludes as it must, which I will avoid describing in detail for the five people who don’t already know, but the downer cliffhanger of an ending is diminished somewhat by a jarringly congratulatory closing credits sequence. Taken on their own, both elements are just about perfect, but when played right after the other it feels like someone on the production of Captain America wasn’t reading their e-mails and missed the point of the finale. It’s an odd note to take the film out on. Perhaps the last scene had been planned for the end of the credits, but the Avengers teaser ended up taking priority.
I realize that I spent as much or more time criticizing minor elements of Captain America than I did praising it. It’s a shame that it takes longer to explain why little details didn’t work than why the majority of the film plays like a comic book fan’s wet dream. Joe Johnston has directed his best movie since 1991's The Rocketeer, giving Captain America a classical Republic serial feel without sacrificing contemporary dramatic stylings. This is exceptional summer entertainment and another jewel in the Marvel Studios crown, but with just a little tweaking it could have been a timeless classic.
CRAVE Online Rating: 8/10