Review: ‘Captain America’ offers sprawling, sincere superhero story

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of the finest movies yet from Marvel Studios, and a big departure in tone and storytelling from most of the films they’ve made so far.  It is a strong indicator that the more willing the studio is to experiment, the more exciting the payoffs can be.  In this case, there’s no clear precursor to this one in anything else Marvel’s done, and it feels like branching out and trying something this different freed them up.  It helps that director Joe Johnston shot the film like he had something to prove and Chris Evans appears to have been born for this role.  Everything came together here in a way that I’m not sure anyone could have predicted, and that indefinable chemistry is one of the things that makes this feel so special.

The first and most immediate difference between this and the other movies Marvel has made so far is the time frame over which the story plays out.  The film starts in the present day, then flashes back to the early days of WWII.  The main story plays out not over days or even weeks, but over years.  It is, in essence, a look at the entire WWII career of Captain America, and his origins as Steve Rogers.  It isn’t structured like a typical superhero film, either.  It focuses on two main arcs over the course of its running time.  First, there’s the story of Rogers, a skinny weakling with a lion’s heart who is chosen to be the test subject in the Super Soldier program headed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and how he learns to handle the power he’s been granted.  At the same time, we follow the efforts of Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka The Red Skull, whose HYDRA is starting to outgrow its origins as the dark science division of the Nazis thanks to his discovery of a strange glowing cube that once resided in the vault of weapons kept by Odin in Asgard.  The collision between these two story arcs is what keeps driving the movie forward, but there is plenty of room built in for digressions, and the end result feels like reading an entire collection of issues of the same book.

The first movement of the film is just concerned with getting Rogers into the experimental chamber that transforms him, and it’s during this sequence that it becomes clear just how strong a handle Johnston has on the tone that is so crucial to making this film work.  After all, WWII was a war that made clean moral sense, part of an age before widespread cultural irony and snark, and the film has a sweet, innocent feel to it.  Rogers is, simply put, a good guy.  He believes in serving his country.  He believes in putting his life on the line for ideals. And even though he’s a physical washout, he is so determined to join the Army that he refuses to accept the word “no.”  It’s that spirit which informs the very storytelling, and there’s something lovely about something so clearly fantastic being grafted onto what is essentially “Band Of Brothers.”  There is a familiarity to the way the war is shot that calls on our collective film memories of the war in a very smart way.  I wouldn’t say “Captain America” ever feels particularly real, but it creates such a strong and persuasive heightened reality that it doesn’t matter.  I like the version of the world that Rogers lives in, and there’s a sequence at a World’s Fair, including an appearance by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) that suggests Tony comes by his ego honestly, that is gorgeous, painterly in design and execution.  There’s some Fleischer “Superman” in this movie’s DNA, some Norman Rockwell, and a whole lot of LIFE magazine photography, and the result is stylistically exciting.  I can see why Johnston has spent so much energy comparing this to “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” and there’s even a laugh-out-loud clever reference to “Raiders” early on, but Johston’s done more than just ape someone else’s work.  He’s taken all of these influences, including his own “Rocketeer,” and he’s bent them all into something that perfectly fits the story of Captain America.

Watching the way he develops from test subject to unproven hero to veteran warrior, Rogers is given more room to grow into the character we’re going to see in “The Avengers” than almost any of the other Marvel heroes so far.  It’s not immediate for him, and simply sprouting muscles and a six-pack does not make him into the hero who could lead others.  His development also isn’t a humbling, a la “Thor,” but rather a process of settling into the skin he’d always felt like he deserved.  As with the best of these movies, the Red Skull isn’t just an antagonist to Captain America, but a skewed reflection of him.  In both cases, these men were given the same serum, and whatever they were on the inside, they became on the outside.  As good and as decent as Rogers is, the Skull is pure amoral ambition.  Weaving is disturbing as the Skull, but it walks that fine line where I think adults will appreciate the subtle shadings of the character while younger viewers will be thrilled by his unrepentant nature.

They each have plenty of assistance, of course.  Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as Col. Chester Phillips, the military head of the Super Soldier program.  He’s so disappointed in Rogers at first that he hands him off to the USO to sell war bonds and put on shows.  Jones brings his expert comic timing to the role, and he also lends Phillips some real weight.  It’s one of those things that could have been flat in the wrong hands, but he finds every nuance in the role and really makes the most of it.  Hayley Atwell is Peggy Carter, on loan to the US Army from England, and one of the real surprises of the film is the way she and Cap end up as the first truly credible romance in a Marvel film.  Because we’re not dealing with something that plays out quickly, there’s time for these two people to learn real respect for one another, and the attraction they share is based on who they are inside.  Peggy knows the real Steve Rogers, the skinny kid from Brooklyn, and while she can certainly admire the new gift wrapping, it’s the humanity that Rogers brings to his choices that draws her to him.  Because their storyline works so well, it adds a heartbroken punch to the end of the film that I hope will inform who Cap is when we catch up with him next summer in “The Avengers.”  The movie ends on a note I didn’t expect, and it’s stronger for it.

In addition, Cap ends up working with a childhood friend, “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as well as a group of battle-hardened soldiers led by “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough), and the Howlin’ Mad Commandos register more strongly as a group than the Warriors Three did in this summer’s “Thor.”  It’s not a matter of more screen time, either.  It’s just that the actors are all very good at suggesting relationships that have played out over time, and they’re used well.  Stan’s version of Bucky is absolutely being set up to be the Winter Soldier in future films, and there’s one moment in particular that is basically a giant blinking neon sign designed to indicate exactly where the story’s headed.  I like the energy he brings to the role, and I’d hope to see more of him in future films in the series.

Meanwhile, Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones) makes a great toady for the Red Skull, taking the cosmic energy he’s harnessed and using it to build out a science-fiction arsenal that adds one more degree of remove from reality.  It can easily go wrong when you add science-fiction to another genre, and the worst case scenario is something like Will Smith’s take on “The Wild Wild West.”  Here, though, it feels perfectly blended in, and it allows the film to play rough without being overly violent.  It’s thrilling, often very exciting, but it is not graphic, and that makes a huge difference in what age range I’d recommend the film for, opening it up to much younger viewers.

Alan Silvestri does some of his best work in a while here, giving Captain America some of the best themes in any Marvel film, and Alan Menken contributes a song for the USO sequences that is flat-out brilliant, a perfect slice of propaganda that is era-appropriate and witty without winking.  Shelly Johnson, who has shot several other films for Johnston including “Jurassic Park III,” “Hidalgo,” and “The Wolf Man,” is an invaluable part of what works about the movie.  Even though it doesn’t feel like an effects-heavy film, it’s technically very impressive, even more so when you realize that the work wasn’t all done by one FX house.  I think it’s smart to farm out particular things to particular teams, and this is a film that was worked on by a number of different vendors.  Whoever handled the skinny Steve Rogers effects deserves a pat on the back because as strange as it looks, that wears off quickly and it just becomes a performance.  There’s a lot of beauty to the way the FX work was designed and executed, and I just plain enjoyed looking at the movie.

Marvel has been working towards this moment for a while, and there have been a few moments where it felt like they were making missteps with the individual movies in their rush to reach “The Avengers,” but they’ve saved one of their very best movies for last, and I suspect “Captain America: The First Avenger” will send audiences out of the theater rabid to see what’s next.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” opens everywhere this Friday.  And, yes, you should stay until after the credits, but only if you want your butt rocked off by all the awesome.