The best attempt thus far at bringing Cap off the page and onto screens. Too bad it was hamstrung by “setupforsequelitis.”
After the United States enters World War II in 1942, every able-bodied American man is being sought for the effort. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to fight for his country but deemed physically incapable by the US Army. A chance meeting at the World’s Fair introduces Rogers to Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who is experimenting to create the perfect soldier, but Erskine wants to ensure his candidate is a good man first. While the experiment succeeds, Rogers newfound strength is put to use in propaganda films and USO tours to boost war bond sales as the patriotically costumed “Captain America.” Yet when he learns his buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured, he finally proves himself with a daring rescue but also puts himself at odds with Erskine’s earlier failed experiment in perfecting humanity: Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), better known to his peers as the Red Skull.
When casting for this Marvel Comics film began, many resisted that Chris Evans could pull it off after his turn as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films. Evans put that to rest very quickly and breathes new life into a character that has gotten the short end of the stick both on film and television for years. While the film beautifully captures the era of Captain America’s creation and his contribution to fighting the Red Skull and his HYDRA organization, the third act skews deliberately into setup for the upcoming Joss Whedon-directed Avengers movie and loses focus on the good Captain himself.
The origin of Captain America is handled wonderfully. From a small but eager kid from Brooklyn, New York to a lab rat in every sense of the word, Captain America is not only created through science but propaganda, even becoming a joke to true front-line soldiers. When he proves himself through combat and self-sacrifice, it isn’t lost on anyone that he’s the real deal. In true Marvel Universe form, the histories of their heroes tend to overlap; Cap’s origin story also introduces us to Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s father, Howard (Dominic Cooper), and we learn quickly that Tony is definitely his father’s son. Rounding out the larger-than-life characters is the villainous Red Skull, played to the hilt by Hugo Weaving; how can you hate a man that loves his car that much? You’ll love it, too.
The third act works but feels off; it disappoints in delivering what was promised. The culmination of the efforts of the Red Skull seem woefully small considering the effort. It’s true that one man, Captain America, had to be capable of ultimately stopping the threat himself, but it’s never clear what that danger is. We never see an example of the ultimate weapon the bad guys have created (which could have been handled with a missed target perhaps) and it sure seems like something was missing (what kind of Marvel villain doesn’t have a backup plan?) Finally, it’s clear from the beginning that Cap is the kind of soldier willing to die for his country, but to paraphrase Judy Dench as M in James Bond’s Goldeneye, he shouldn’t do it on a whim. Did they run out of money? The epilogue feels hollow as a result; it reeks of “to be concluded” in another movie, or what I like to call “setupforsequelitis.” It feels like the rug was pulled out from under a more epic conclusion and moved ahead to another ticket sale for next year.
Where the film does succeed is in establishing the character and providing a back story, and that’s what every good origin story should do. Also, good Marvel villains get their butts kicked, but great Marvel villains never die and that’s no secret to comic book fans (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). Thor also suffered from a similar problem earlier this year, and it’s something Marvel should take into consideration for future installments of their films. We know there’s more coming (it’s a franchise, after all), but skimping on the film at hand feels like a cheat and ploy to get us back into theater seats. Sure, it will probably work, but can’t they at least pretend we don’t know that already? Be sure and stay until the end of the credits for a glimpse of The Avengers.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)