By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Johann Schmidt, the mad scientist also known as the Red Skull in director Joe Johnston’s rousing adventure tale, thinks his boss, the Führer, is a wimp and not nearly hard enough on those whom he would vanquish and/or dominate. That’s the kind of über bad guy he is. But fear not, fans of freedom. We’ve got “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
That is, we’ve almost got him. It’ll take some fancy scientific footwork, faith and inspiration on the scale of the Manhattan Project to realize our own super man. And just to make a poetic point about where true heroes come from, this tale based on the Marvel Comics adventure picks a ninety-pound weakling as the raw material for its experiment.
He is spunky Steve Rogers, handsomely portrayed by Chris Evans. But although five times deemed 4F by the U.S. Army, his zeal and determination to storm Europe and make quick work of WWII are not lost on Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Abraham Erskine. A German expat now heading the hush-hush project, he sees in Steve all the necessary qualities.
Thus the old allegory about perfecting man for the greater good via a blood and sinew version of highly secret, human alchemy, is reworked here with a fine reverence for the fantasy. Combine that with a splendidly photographed action yarn and a love story that complements the scenario, and saving humankind has rarely been more entertaining.
Of course the question that puts us on tenterhooks is, can Captain America stop the fiend in the nick of time? At least as bad as Steve is good, the rogue Nazi supersedes the swastika with a skull as the symbol of his crazed, HYDRA organization. But, whether as a courtesy to the boss he now disparages, or for old time’s sake, he has left in the heil.
A fine cast makes possible a nice assortment of enhancing subtexts. Stanley Tucci is philosophically wise as the scientific brain on our side, the kindly coach behind the golden boy; Tommy Lee Jones is acerbically witty as the starchy C.O. who tends to reserve the compliments; and then there’s pretty Hayley Atwell, the love interest.
Alluring without being so smoochy that it betrays our inner adolescent, Miss Atwell is Peggy Carter, a British military liaison who wields her professional interest in Captain America’s progress to veil her attraction to the diminutive Yank turned hunk. But then again, it seems like she has some sort of relationship with Howard Stark, the gizmo king.
Hmm, that’s curious. Later in Comicdom, Stark will have a son named Tony…who will become Iron Man. Ah yes, for died-in-the-wool devotees who keep their eyes peeled and ears to the ground, there is much here in the way of Marvel Comics cross-pollination. Dad Stark begins the dynasty by inventing much of the wizardry behind Rogers’s powers.
This can get complex, especially since the film doesn’t always jibe with the comic series. So if you must have reason supporting your chimera, consult the bevy of superhero lore and read about concepts like retro continuity. There’s probably more legend about Captain America’s shield than there is about Excalibur. Kind of the same deal, though.
However, for the Great Unwashed, it’s a lot easier to just take it all on faith and, well, simply let it all wash over you. But gee, that shield, which constitutes the bulk of Captain America’s offense and defense, sure is cool. Using it as an ultra boomerang, there is nary a snazzy move the crusader can’t execute. Ooh, but let’s not underestimate HYDRA.
Schmidt’s strengths, a result of the same super soldier-making serum Dr. Erskine was forced to create back in the Fatherland, are at the very root of the story’s object lesson. Essentially, it teaches about power and how it relates to its beholder. It is Dr. Erskine’s belief that Steve’s goodness accentuated will prevail over Schmidt’s iniquity amplified.
It is a neat modernization of the countless fairy tales that helped form humanity’s moral code. “Captain America: The First Avenger,” available in a decent but superfluous 3D, is both cutting edge sci-fi and a paean to the stylistically innovative library of comic heroes created as an emotional, hopeful response to the evil that gripped the globe in the 1940s.
Symbolic of that scourge, Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt/Red Skull is key as the arguably equal and opposite force without which no superhero can achieve glory. OK, so it would be nice if world peace could be pursued about fifteen minutes quicker. Still, that said, “Captain America: The First Avenger” and what it stands for are worth your time.
“Captain America: The First Avenger,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Joe Johnston and stars Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell and Hugo Weaving. Running time: 125 minutes
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