It’s a point of dispute as to where Marvel Studios exactly took a turn as to pure genre cinema. The Shane Black touch on Iron Man 2? The political thriller aspect of Captain America: The Winter Soldier? It definitely was most prevalent in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what with space operas and heist pics and so on, but I have my own guess.
Captain America: The First Avenger lends its tone and approach 100% to a camp that other modern films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, The Rocketeer, and The Phantom jump for: The World-War-era Serial. Unlike the latter two, Captain America: The First Avenger hits it bullseye.
It’s why Captain America: The First Avenger was – up until the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, another obvious MCU genre picture – my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film.
But I will get to that in a moment. How about the legend of Captain America (Chris Evans) himself if you’ve lived in a rock and haven’t caught what it is by now? Steve Rogers is a patriotic Brooklyn kid in 1941 who wants to fight for the country against the Nazis, but he’s really disappointing on the physical. After trying to register more times than is legal, German defector scientist Erskine (Stanley Tucci) witnesses Rogers’ tenacity to fight and enters him into a military program that makes Rogers come out the perfect American hero – by which case, they mean ripped as fuh and able to do impossibly crazy tricks with his shield. Now that the US Army has the perfect soldier, what do they intend to do with him?
Use his ass as a mascot to his dismay, yet my joy at hands-down my favorite montage sequence of the film, where he just regrets standing in a mock-up uniform costume and punches a mock-up Hitler while urging citizens to buy war bonds.
But wait, what’s occurring in Europe? My dear friends, I tell you, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is concocting an evil plan with Reich offshoot HYDRA to steal cosmic power for world domination (feeling somewhat like The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. to me). It’s eventually up to Rogers and his allies, Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones stealing the motherfucking show in that “tired of this shit” manner that he can do with his eyes closed), British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and inventor playboy Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to stop Schmidt before he gets what he wants and the world is decimated in the way.
If I read theatrically, that’s because this movie is kind of that amount of theatrics, in its period trappings that just give it the right amount of bearing to feel old and nostalgic while also bold and comic book-like – from the costumes to the set design to the acting (particularly Cooper knows exactly how to hit the right beats of Howard Hughes, way more overtly than the otherwise superior performance of Robert Downey Jr. in the other MCU films as his son).
This lightness of plot and air of cinematic remembrance of an era long past makes the picture a hell of a lot more fun at a time where it seems like every comic book movie except the failure that is the Fantastic Four films feel so much more devoted to making everything so dark and severe by simply trying to throw in bootleg nihilism into their presentation. The primary difference between Captain America: The First Avenger and the Fantastic Four pictures being that Fantastic Four is soulless and empty and going practically nowhere with itself while Captain America: The First Avenger is living through the 40s and moving and all though we know that the whole MCU shoving thing (especially the bookends) are just fan service, they give The First Avenger even more direction on itself than one would have expected it to lead to.
Also, Chris Evans is a lot more tolerable, here…
… Albeit Chris Evans is undoubtedly the worst part of Captain America: The First Avenger. Ah yes, Evans tries to make his Rogers sincere and upstanding without being wooden and less than human and it’s not like he totally fails, it just doesn’t lead to Rogers being the proper emotional surrogate we’d have liked to get into the movie. Which sucks for two reasons – 1) Everybody else in the cast is playing their plastic parts fantastically and 2) it means that we still don’t feel engrossed and surrounded by the film as we’d like to be. The celluloid divide is still there and now it feels like looking at history through glass rather than reliving this corrupted and entirely more exciting history than it should be.
Still Evans’ performance is not enough to derail what a joyous ride Captain America: The First Avenger is. And I will be the first to claim that he totally has improved over the franchise, making Captain America become more of a presence and a person to care for in the universe. And it all begins with the film that immediately follows this one…