Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
Nazi-fighting hero who is almost super
Chris Evans as Captain America
The comic-book superhero Captain America was the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both Jewish, both the sons of immigrant tailors. He first appeared in print in December 1940. Though it was a full year before the United States was to enter the war, the series took a firmly interventionist, anti-Nazi stance. Indeed, the first issue showed Captain America slugging Hitler on the jaw.
The film adaptation, directed by Joe Johnston, accordingly locates its action in World War II and does a good job of capturing a flavour of the 1940s.
Unfortunately this prequel to Marvel Comics films like Iron Man and Thor starts promisingly but becomes progressively less involving after its hero undergoes his transformation from runt to superhero. This is despite a winning performance by Chris Evans in the lead role, a strong supporting cast and some intelligent mockery of the era's propaganda.
Once Captain America joins the fighting in the filmmakers' alternative version of the war - in which the main enemy is not the Nazis but the super villain Red Skull and his Hydra organisation - it all starts to feel as if each noisy scene is designed to suit the special effects rather than the other way round.
Steve Rogers (Evans) is a skinny asthmatic who has been repeatedly turned down by the US military as unfit to fight. Despite - or as the movie would have it, because of - his size he is a brave and compassionate young man. These are qualities sensed by Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), an exiled German scientist with a Rocky Horror accent. Erskine is working on a serum that he hopes will create "a new breed of super soldier".
The Nazis are, of course, working on the same thing. Indeed, an early version of the serum has been sampled by an occult-obsessed German officer, Schmidt (the always excellent Hugo Weaving). Because the serum amplifies all the qualities within a man, Schmidt is even more monstrous than he was.
When Steve is given the serum in Erskine's Brooklyn lab he undergoes a Charles Atlas transformation (the effects that made hunky Evans look like a runt are extraordinary). After he outruns a taxi to chase down a Nazi assassin, he becomes a national hero. A cynical senator gives him a superhero uniform and uses him to sell war bonds. Much to his despair "Captain America", as Rogers is known, is despised by the troops in the field. Nevertheless he makes his way to the front and undertakes a solo mission which results in him taking on Schmidt and the Hydra organisation.
Although Captain America follows the superior Indiana Jones films in introducing a supernatural element into a WWII story, there is something creepy about the way it does so, something reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's politically and historically illiterate Inglorious Basterds. You can sense this quite early in the film when its hero is asked if he wants to kill Nazis and he says no, he just does not like bullies.
And by the way - don't pay extra to see the 3D version. It's not worth it.