“I don’t want to kill anybody,” says scrawny 4F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in answer to whether he wants to go kill Nazis. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” And there’s the way into Captain America: The First Avenger even for long-haired lefty peaceniks like me. The movie’s politics pretty much stay that simplistic, but then it harks back to a more simplistic time, when America’s enemies were big and bad and all you had to know was where they were so you could shoot ‘em. Despite being a sickly stick figure, Steve desperately wants to join the Army so he can go fight in World War II. He rejects the notion of finding some way to serve at home; other men, including his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), are charging into the lion’s mouth, and he doesn’t feel he has a right to do any less than what they’re prepared to do.
The CGI-depleted Chris Evans, by way of a “super soldier serum,” becomes normal, beefed-up Chris Evans, and he proves his mettle right away, chasing a spy through the alleys and crowded streets of 1942 Brooklyn. Here and elsewhere, the production design is impeccable, a dream of the wartime big city as seen on Life magazine covers (and probably only there), and director Joe Johnston proves his mettle, too. I can’t say he has a vision, but he has a solid sense of pace and composition that stands him in good stead when he’s got sturdy material to work with. (With Johnston’s last effort, The Wolfman, he wasn’t so lucky.) The elements, including Alan Silvestri’s bombastically retro score, come together to form a ripping good adventure yarn that succeeds where J.J. Abrams’ too-reverent Super 8 failed in paying homage to Steven Spielberg’s salad days.
Captain America is a productive mix of square fortitude and very mild tongue-in-cheek. Even the hero’s name begins as an emasculating joke: Steve, having gained some fame, is pressed into USO service wearing a laughable version of the uniform he eventually wears in combat; he stands in front of crooning showgirls, beseeching audiences to buy bonds, and the media dub him Captain America. Soon, in battle against the fearsome Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his army of soldiers, he will become a real captain and leader of men. The Red Skull is a Nazi so megalomaniacal he doesn’t think Hitler is evil enough; with the help of a “cosmic cube” (which ties this movie to Thor) he builds super-weapons and an army of interchangeable soldiers. I could be wrong, but I think the Red Skull is personally shown killing more Nazis (out of the usual mu-ha-ha, you-dare-to-doubt-me Evil Genius pique) than Captain America is.
Indeed, the real threat in the movie is the Hydra legions, not the Nazis, which helps Captain America neatly avoid any real-world issues. Not that I’m complaining. Nobody particularly wants to see Captain America witnessing flyblown children’s corpses in Auschwitz, or for that matter flinging his impenetrable shield at Iraqi insurgents. What saves the movie from dumb jingoism is Cap’s reliance on a group of good, ethnically-mixed men, even including a Japanese-American soldier. The Howling Commandos, they’re called in the comics, though not in the movie. The actors, particularly Evans, do what they can to invest the film with personality, but in the crunch the script sort of loses track of the people; one major character dies so abruptly, and with so little blowback aside from a brief obligatory mourning scene, that I half expected him to have survived, somehow.
Captain America sells a country’s long-dead dream of itself as an aw-shucks giant modest about its power and benevolent in exercising it. This was never true, really, even before Vietnam made it abundantly clear to anyone without blinders on; see George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 for the scoop on how we’ve treated the rest of the planet as our playpen and piggybank for centuries. But the movie, full of good humor and color and foursquare opposition to bullies, is a lacquered pop-culture valentine to the ideal of America as the good neighbor. That its symbolic hero looks more or less like an Aryan übermensch (and was created in 1940 by two Jewish comics legends, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is among the many pleasant ironies spinning around in this clean, unpretentious, brawnily entertaining fantasia.