Clad in a stars-and-stripes outfit and introduced clocking Hitler in the mug, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s ’40s funny-book patriot took the notion of superhero as cultural moral conscience to torn-from-the-headlines extremes. You didn’t see Superman or Batman giving Der Führer what for on their comics’ covers, but there was our homegrown do-gooder – an ironically blonde, blue-eyed Aryan specimen – defending truth, justice and the you-know-what way eight months before our nation had even entered the fray of WWII. After Marvel’s Silver Age hero was literally thawed out of a block of ice in the early ’60s, miraculously unaged and ready for action, the company’s current stable of complicated, neurotic crusaders only underlined what a curiously bland greatest-generation relic he was. Kudos, then, to the creators of Captain America’s big-screen blockbuster for keeping the action rooted in the past; except for some brief present-day bookends (gotta stump for next summer’s Avengers movie!), this addition to Marvel’s expanding multiplex universe avoids the modernity pitfall by unfolding entirely in the era of Axis agents, dogface grunts and a total lack of ambiguity about U.S. military might equalling right.
The old-fashioned vibe, in fact, does more than just distinguish the story of skinny runt turned supersoldier Steve Rogers (Evans) from every other comic-book movie out there, though its fetishization of retro-techno gizmos and getups – call it leatherbucklepunk – immensely adds to the fun. (It’s too bad the film’s presentation didn’t follow that lead; avoid the dim, cruddy 3-D version by any means necessary.) This throwback concept actually emphasizes director Joe Johnston’s decision to mount the hero’s origin story as more of a pulpy, vintage boys’ adventure tale, going so far as to initially mock the whole men-in-tights genre by parading the crudely costumed Captain as a symbolic show pony hawking war bonds. Only when Rogers goes rogue behind enemy lines, hooking up with a motley crew that comic fans will recognize as the Howling Commandos, does the film truly find its summer-flick footing. By the time a properly armored American hero takes on archnemesis the Red Skull (Weaving, treating the villain as one giant movie-Nazi composite) during a spectacular airship set piece, you wouldn’t be surprised if Audie Murphy showed up to get his licks in as well – or, given how the Spielberg protégé expertly apes his mentor’s gee-whiz potboiler vocabulary, Indiana Jones.
If only Johnston had his mentor’s gift for facilitating performances. Given that Captain America may be one of the least tortured comic heroes around, the fact that Evans plays him primarily as a walking, talking glass of skim milk doesn’t seem out of character; call upon him to, say, mourn fallen comrades or actually emote, and the movie hits a pothole. The rest of the cast merely represents barely sketched archetypes, from Hayley Atwell’s stock love interest (her primary direction must have been 'now widen your eyes in mild shock again') to Tommy Lee Jones’s clichéd cantankerous wisecracker. You may laugh at the idea of looking for a pulsing heart instead of active adrenaline glands in a summer movie, but that’s not to say Captain America: The First Avenger still wouldn’t have benefited from fleshing out its human elements as much as its superhuman ones. David Fear