If you’re going to do a movie about Captain America, you’d better make damn sure you get the shield right, and in Joe Johnston’s surprisingly adept adaptation of the patriotic Nazi-beater, Cap’s shield looks just about spot-on. Best of all, the shield isn’t some kind of CGI fantasy cartoon: The heft and density are palpable, and while the paint gets scratched and pockmarked and scuffed, the vibranium holds firm and true. It’s a seemingly small detail, but for true Cap fetishists, a poorly constructed shield would be the first sign that the filmmakers weren’t taking their hero seriously. Rest assured, the reverence for the character is palpable throughout this exemplary production.
The eschewing of obvious CGI throughout the film also suggests the painstaking effort that went into its production: Unlike much of the genre of comic book heroes, this wasn’t some fly-by-night affair with a halfwit director standing in front of a green screen, promising his producers it will all come out in post. Johnston and his capable team, including screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have brought us the rarest of all summer action fare: a truly engaging comic book adaptation.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny, sickly kid from Brooklyn, who wants nothing more than to join the army and fight for his country against the Nazis. Unfortunately, his diminutive size and various health ailments prevent him from being accepted, time and again. At least until a scientist named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices the young man’s selfless desire, and accepts him into his special super-soldier program, designed to chemically enhance a regular man into something extraordinary. Unfortunately, immediately after successfully completing Rogers’ transformation, the doctor is gunned down by a Nazi spy, leaving the now huge and buff Rogers as the only prototype. Initially treated as little more than a PR coup for the war bonds effort with Cap performing an awkward song and dance number with a group of star-spangled dance girls, when the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) rears his crimson head as the leader of a super-powerful rogue group of Nazis known as Hydra, he is finally called into real action.
Despite his moniker and the red, white and blue garb, the draw of the Captain America character isn’t so much jingoistic as it is his insistence on upholding the universal moral values of the best kind of soldier — courageous, humble and cunning. Refreshingly, the film’s pace feels just right: Slow enough that you can soak up the ’40s atmosphere, all sepia-toned and muted (though some of that might be from the obligatory 3D), and letting the characters breathe without being choked by plot details. Clearly, a lot of energy was spent getting the details right. As good as the shield looks, the Red Skull’s face is even better, perfectly emulating the evil look of the comic character without veering into parody. Weaving, whose made the most of an accomplished career being evil and hateful, is in fine form, but no more so than the rest of accomplished cast, including Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones (who plays an Army commander with a dry wit) and, it must be said, Evans, whose considerable charisma is finally put to good use.
The film is plotted without being plodding; action-packed without sacrificing smaller moments that add to the weight. We might be finally nearing the end of this summer’s barrage of big budget extravaganzas, but finally we’ve got ourselves a blockbuster that’s just about right.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
Bypass theater ticket lines. Buy movie tickets in advance at Fandango.com.