Actually, yes, the United States did flirt with eugenics for a while, and Nazi Germany did try to vaporize whole populations, but of course those scenes played out a lot less wholesomely than do the plot points in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Even having the word “avenger” in its title at all seems bold for the movie in question, whose emotional baseline is so safe, so neutral, that for a while there he might as well be Captain Switzerland. (Consider also the perforated cheese of the plot.)
Just have a little faith, avers director Joe Johnston, with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for maybe you can get a good summer blockbuster from a comic book based on a 70-year-old propaganda trope. Just like maybe you can get a metabolically enhanced “super-soldier” from a puny and sickly but brave and eager kid.
Chances are better than average if the kid’s played by Chris Evans, who got into superhero movies as the man on fire in “Fantastic Four” but now at last inhabits his more suitable element. Here he is as Steve Rogers, the willing World War II enlistee who actualizes a pronouncement made by Stanley Tucci’s sagely-schmaltzy German scientist: “A weak man knows the value of strength.” However weird it is to behold those early scenes with Evans’ head digitally grafted onto somebody else’s much less brawny body, his face and voice seem durable and reassuring. Swerving away from self-pity and into plausible humility, passing tests of character with declarative pluck, his Rogers is as ready for this particular promotion to captain as anybody can be — ready to stand up and sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the privilege of luxuriating in chastely spiffy, square-jawed Americana.
This is twice-filtered nostalgia, really, as Johnston draws much from the vintage Lucas-Spielberg playbook, itself a study of the pulp serials those directors grew up with. But moral reductiveness affords a certain popcorn-compatible clarity of presentation. In “Captain America”’s world, every Allied soldier is a decent guy, every woman a pin-up-worthy beauty, every authority figure an avuncular wit and every villain a faceless monster — be he a bondage-hooded foot soldier or, well, the aptly named Red Skull. Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving pose very naturally in these respective categories, each enjoying and enlivening the proceedings considerably. Meanwhile Toby Jones gives a glimmer of intelligence to a sub-par supporting role in just such a way as to suggest we’d all be better served had the role been reduced to a single scene.
Affability can’t last forever, and doesn’t, in a film so willing to neutralize its own personality for the sake of humdrum plot. But overall it does compare favorably with recently reviewed YouTube snippets of the draggy 1979 “Captain America” TV movie, which plays like educational-film-strip kitsch, and the 1990 attempt, which appears to have just plain sucked.
Determinedly, this one works as another component of a now familiar franchise kit. Iron Man’s father is here, and the inter-dimensional portal that brought us Thor, and so on. As to that bold extra bit of title, it too obviously sets up next summer’s “The Avengers” — cleverly encouraging us to wonder just how the good captain’s super-square valor and virtue will play in (the comic book movie version of) the America of now.