Red, white and bland, “Captain America: The First Avenger” plays like a by-the-numbers prequel for Marvel Studios’ forthcoming “The Avengers” movie, the proper teaser for which lies buried after the words “Captain America will return” in the end credits. While that 2012 tentpole will lump Cap in with Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and various other superheroes, this one focuses on constructing a blockbuster origin story for one of Marvel’s most iconic creations. Although Joe Johnston earnestly attempts to resurrect the WWII-era action figure, with 3D conversion boosting the glossy pic’s B.O. potential, his debut adventure comes across as remarkably flat.
Back in 1990, Marvel learned a valuable lesson in protecting the brand when 21st Century Film Corp. threw together a shamefully low-budget version of the Captain America story. Two decades later, the now-Hollywood-savvy pulp pubbery attempts to do right by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s all-American hero, recruiting a genuine star (Chris Evans) and an established director (“The Rocketeer’s” Johnston) to mount a megabudget retelling of how 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers was nuked into Charles Atlas shape by the U.S. military, then turned loose to hunt Nazis in star-spangled spandex.
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Even as Marvel film honcho Kevin Feige has managed to attract a diverse mix of ace helmers to bring these future Avengers’ adventures to the bigscreen, the films all seem to coexist within the same universe, aesthetically speaking. The same goes for Johnston’s contribution, which sticks to the lustrous, tactile look of earlier chapters, despite the added challenge of “Captain America’s” period setting.
Though the pic opens in the present day, as an arctic exploration crew uncovers Cap’s shield frozen in ice, the action unfolds back in 1942, when both the Yanks and the Krauts were using a special serum to create super-soldiers for the war effort. On the Nazi side, an injection turns teeth-gnashing ex-general Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) into a force more power-hungry than Hitler. Rather than repeat the same mistake, German defector Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, in heavily accented character mode) hand-picks Rogers to test his perfected formula for the U.S. Army.
For roughly the first reel, Rogers appears as a spindly but sure-hearted runt, digitally slenderized by a process weight-conscious stars may want to consider going forward. These early scenes are designed to establish the character’s humanity, as the determined-to-enlist young man suffers humiliation from bullies and boot camp alike, only to prove his natural altruism in a field test from surly Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (veterans of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series) do a nice job of making Rogers a relatable Everyman, only to transform him into a one-dimensionally dull meathead — one who looks alarmingly similar to Hitler’s Aryan ideal as he emerges, bare-chested and gleaming, from a chamber designed by none other than Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, playing the father of future “Iron Man” character Tony Stark in a bit of cross-franchise plot synergy).
As Marvel heroes go, Captain America must be the most vanilla of the lot. He lacks the inner turmoil that DC Comics’ Batman brought to the genre, and while not exactly invincible (a minor injury sustained during his first action scene suggests he bleeds like the next guy), he’s quick to heal and a bit too handy with a shield. It’s refreshing to see someone slug it out the way a ’40s tough guy would, absent the Hong Kong-style choreography of most modern-day fight scenes, yet there’s never the slightest concern that the Nazis might get the better of him.
Back when Captain America debuted in print, the character served as a baldly patriotic embodiment of the American spirit, socking Hitler in the kisser on the cover of his first issue. Pic pays homage to those origins in a cheeky montage, featuring Cap’s original costume and his overtly propagandistic raison d’etre as he hawks war bonds.
On the war front, however, the character sticks to the tried-and-true Hollywood model of the enlightened loner who disobeys his superiors in order to save the day. Rogers is effectively a one-man army, with those who help him — including love interest Hayley Atwell and best friend Sebastian Stan, plus an “Inglourious Basterds”-like coterie of implausibly integrated soldiers — edged offscreen whenever things start to get hairy.
Since Quentin Tarantino already had his fun rewriting Hitler’s defeat, “Captain America” concentrates on a more fantastical enemy, as the megalomaniacal Schmidt, who rips off his own face to become the Red Skull, uncovers a magical cube that will give him the power to wipe out entire cities. Creepy appearance aside, such a villain would feel like yet another stock Bad Nazi stereotype if not for Weaving’s wickedly slick performance, colorful enough to upstage the pic’s pretty-boy hero any day.
It’s a shame, then, that the ultimate showdown between Captain America and the German general doesn’t make more of their contradictory natures. Pic’s actual finale is a strangely anticlimactic one, as Rogers must make the tragic personal decision that will put him out of commission for the 70 years until Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson, making yet another high-camp cameo) and his fellow Avengers need him again.