Slowly but surely, Hollywood is wearing us down with this superhero thing. By “us,” I mean moviegoers who have never argued the merits of Marvel vs. DC Comics; who don’t harbor even an ironic affection for masks and tights; and who had to learn from the Internet that before he was cast as Captain America, Chris Evans played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films, defying the logic of the Marvel Universe that contains both. (Our heads need not explode, however, because the FF movies weren’t made by Marvel itself.)
Ten summers ago, even five summers ago, it was possible to say, “I have no interest in seeing grown men fly around on screen.” Now, as comic-book movies proliferate, and action-movie characters become increasingly superheroic, the genre is hard to avoid.
So let’s accept the new regime of bulging biceps and start appreciating the nuances. Plenty of non-comics readers can now name the members of superhero supergroup the Avengers, or at least its film incarnation: Iron Man, Thor, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Each has received a film (or two), like an exorbitant debutante ball, to introduce him to comics-illiterate America and prepare us for their much-hyped team-up in 2012.
Now it’s Captain America’s party, helmed by The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston. In these films, it’s the cast and the human drama of the first few acts that make the difference between a just-tolerable Hulk (or an intolerable Green Lantern) and a highly diverting Iron Man. When the CG battle effects start flying, especially in 3-D format, characters, motivations and witty self-reflectiveness tend to go out the window.
As good, old-fashioned entertainment, Captain America’s origin story has two things going for it: a World War II setting and an underdog hero. With the help of special-effects wizards, brawny Evans plays Steve Rogers, a patriotic Brooklyn boy so puny and asthmatic that no army recruitment office will let him in the door. Except, that is, the low-profile outfit where a hard-ass colonel (Tommy Lee Jones); a tough-talking, bodacious science officer (Hayley Atwell); and a German émigré researcher (Stanley Tucci) are recruiting volunteers for a project designed to turn ordinary men into “super-soldiers.”
Here’s where casting is key. Evans, his mournful eyes dominating his reshaped face, manages to arouse pathos while staying spirited, and Tucci gives sly humor to his stock scientist. Rather than belaboring the point that a man of super character deserves super abs and delts, too, the filmmakers establish Steve’s selflessness with a sight gag. After he gets his super-serum injections and becomes the title character, a snappy montage mocks the government’s first deployment of the All-American superhero: as music-hall propaganda.
That’s not to say Captain America has much to say about America. This is, after all, the Marvel Universe, and the film’s villain (Hugo Weaving) is not Hitler or Stalin but a rogue Nazi out to rule the world with the occult power of a Norse artifact. He plays the fascist übermensch to Captain America’s superpowered humanitarian, but the film doesn’t delve far into this potent dichotomy at the heart of the mythos. What it does instead is blow up a lot of stuff, before reaching a surprisingly poignant conclusion that does double duty as another teaser for the Avengers movie.
As superhero flicks go, the first half of Captain America — the one that counts — is well above average. But the real superheroics here belong to the F/X team that painstakingly transformed Evans into a solid-looking doppelgänger with a completely different physique. Johnston told Reuters that no body double was used; the actor’s image was literally “shrunken,” shot by shot.
The power of digital illusion to alter the appearance of flesh and blood is impressive — and, to be honest, a little scary. A Norse power source doesn’t have anything on it.
* Running time: 125 min.
* Rated: PG-13