If you’ve seen more than one Marvel Entertainment film, survived the standard cameos by Stan Lee and the obligatory appearances by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, you would be more than forgiven for feeling you’ve seen enough. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is not the film to change your mind, but it does have something the others do not: Chris Evans in the title role.
Evans has gone the Marvel route before, playing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in a pair of “Fantastic Four” movies. But as Steve Rogers, a weak young man who gets turned into the husky Captain America by a dose of Super-Soldier Serum, this part brings out an appealing earnestness and humility in the actor that is certainly not business as usual in the comic book superhero genre.
“Captain America” is not just set during World War II. As the first comic book in what was to become the Marvel universe, it actually dates to March 1941, months before America’s entry into the conflict, and its cover of the captain cold-cocking Adolf Hitler apparently turned some heads back in the day.
Though it begins and ends with a scene or two in the present, as directed by Joe Johnston from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, “Captain America” is first and foremost an origins story. Almost half of the film’s running time elapses before Rogers gets any kind of power at all, and though its elements are awfully familiar, it’s the most involving part of the film because it takes advantage of Evans’ performance.
These early-days sections are so old-fashioned that, if you take away the copious special effects, watching “Captain America” feels akin to watching the venerable 1950s television version of “Superman” starring George Reeves. Buttons are pushed, dials are turned, secret passwords are uttered and lights blink, just like they did way back when.
We first meet Steve Rogers as the classic 98-pound weakling, a young man so determined to join the Army like best buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) that he keeps trying to enlist even though the armed services keep turning him down.
Impressed by his gumption, if not his physique, is émigré scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci with an accent and Albert Einstein hair) of the government’s super secret Strategic Scientific Reserve.
Erskine developed the Super-Soldier Serum but fled his homeland because the Nazis wanted to get their hands on it. The good doctor knows that because the drug amplifies “all that is inside you,” potential super soldiers must be pure of heart. Which Steve Rogers definitely is.
The Americans, wouldn’t you know it, are not the only people with super soldiers on their minds. The Third Reich, led by a renegade officer named Johann Schmidt (an expert Hugo Weaving) is also in the market, but it is going about it in a somewhat different way.
Schmidt is the top man in HYDRA, the Nazi’s occult research arm, and early in the film we see him somewhere in Norway making off with a mysterious green object, “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.” That turns out to be an energy source so phenomenal it could pulverize the world.
No one ever tells us exactly what this cube is (this is a comic book movie after all, and you are expected to know going in), but its power convinces Schmidt to step out of Hitler’s shadow and rule the world on his own. Far too soon we are treated to the spectacle of uniformed minions shouting “Heil HYDRA” as they lift both hands in a rather silly salute.
Weaving is only one of the strong supporting cast this movie has attracted. Toby Jones (Truman Capote in “Infamous”) capably plays HYDRA’s No. 2, Dr. Arnim Zola; British actress Hayley Atwell is both starchy and sensuous as potential love interest Peggy Carter; and Tommy Lee Jones has a bit of fun with Col. Chester Phillips, a part he could probably play in his sleep.
Johnston, who has the gentle and charming “October Sky” on his résumé, is at home in the film’s softer moments, including the difficulty Captain America has getting taken seriously as a soldier even after his transformation.
The film’s action-heavy second half, even with the addition of 3-D, can’t help but feel pro-forma. Even though the captain is not technically invulnerable, it is so not in the cards for anything to happen to him that it is hard to stay involved.
There is, in fact, a pro forma nature to this entire project, which exists not just for its own sake but also to prepare the movie-going universe for next year’s “Avengers” movie, which will unite the Captain with Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk and assorted other comic book folks for the greater fiscal glory of the Marvel juggernaut. That’s understandable from a business point of view, but the captain is such an unexpectedly humble hero it’s hard not to hope he’ll get more screen time of his own.
‘Captain America: The First Avenger’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of science fiction violence and action
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: In general release