More than any Marvel Studios film since Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger feels like it’s working from a conceptual checklist titled How To Make A Superhero Movie Fun For Everyone. For mainstream viewers, there are big action sequences, a heady battle montage, a ’40s setting featuring über-Nazis with glowing laser-guns, and plenty of well-timed one-liners. For the hardcore comic-book fans, there’s the Wilhelm scream, the Stan Lee cameo, the Marvel-history inside jokes, and a self-aware humor that even includes a wry dig at Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Just so everyone feels included, the eponymous hero has a competent multicultural support team and a kick-ass love interest who never needs to be rescued. And to cover even more bases, director Joe Johnston reaches past all the modern meta humor to inject the film with the cheery gosh-wow sincerity he brought to The Rocketeer. The roster of crowd-pleasing elements seems dubiously calculated and ambitiously lengthy, but ultimately, that’s no strike against the film, which follows Iron Man’s lead in obscuring the calculation behind outsized, gleeful fun.
Granted, Captain America could use some of the charisma of Iron Man’s star. Thanks to a creepy Curious Case Of Benjamin Button-like effect that puts his CGI-shrunk head atop a smaller man’s body—making him look like the world’s gauntest lollipop—Chris Evans (the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four films) spends the first quarter of the film as a scrawny, short, asthmatic, but lion-hearted New Yorker desperate to join the military and help fight Hitler. Evans gets a lot of pathos out of the frustrated-shrimp version of himself: Constantly tempted to be bitter or belligerent, he instead endures his physical limitations with appealing determination.
But once German expat scientist Stanley Tucci recognizes his sterling qualities and uses mad science to transform him into a muscular golden god, he loses all nuance and becomes a bland slab of beef. Fortunately, the film around him remains a fast-paced, four-color delight. As Nazi crypto-researcher The Red Skull (Matrix-series baddie Hugo Weaving) delves into mad science of his own, he launches a global takeover that naturally requires superhero intervention—but thanks to grumbling commanding officer Tommy Lee Jones, Evans is sidelined as a touring propaganda device until he takes matters into his own red, white, and blue hands.
Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (partners on the three modern Narnia movies) let the first quarter of the movie stretch out slowly enough to establish a vast cast, including tough-as-nails military liaison and ass-kicker extraordinaire Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Captain America’s best bud Bucky (Sebastian Stan). Then they ramp up the comedy with a terrific propaganda montage before getting into the heroism. At times, Captain America feels like four films in one, packed with incident and distinct acts, a few of which work better than others. (The tone-deaf ending, which turns a tragic situation into a stupid punchline, is a massive miscalculation.) But for the most part, it manages to balance laughs, genuinely rousing moments, and a fully packed agenda into something fleet enough to keep running under the weight of its rich ambitions.