Review: Captain America

by Tom Ingram

It seems that superhero movies have been trending badly lately. This could just be Sturgeon’s Law–as more of them are made, there’s bound to be more bad ones, but it seems like there hasn’t been a decent one since The Dark Knight, and that’s a long time ago now. The effects get layed on thick and the writers seem to get so caught up in the origin story and the idea of the hero that they forget they’re supposed to be writing a story. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Captain America movie was not that bad.

The movie begins with a young Steve Rogers, as eager to join the army as he is wildly unqualified. His numerous health problems and short, skinny body have got him rejected by the recruiters several times. A German doctor working for a top-secret wing of the army takes pity on him and pulls some strings to get him into a program for producing supersoldiers. Rogers is chosen to be the first test subject because the serum, which has already been used on a Nazi doctor named Johann Schmidt, amplifies personality traits: bad becomes worse, good becomes great.

The procedure works correctly, but the doctor is killed by a Nazi spy who steals the last sample of the serum, meaning it can’t be reproduced. Because the army cannot be sure how Rogers’s powers work, he is not allowed onto the battlefield. Instead he’s used as the star of a cheesy musical revue to sell war bonds, which is wear the costume comes from. On one particularly unsuccessful tour of the army bases in Europe, Rogers discovers that his friend’s company was taken prisoner by Schmidt’s forces, and he slips away while still in costume to mount a rescue mission. This marks the beginning of his career as a Nazi-fighting superhero.

Overall it was handled remarkably well. Captain America is, to my mind, one of the least interesting superheroes, but they gave him an arc, of sorts, grounded him in human form and some semblance of realism (the wacky superhero stuff doesn’t start till about halfway through), and a strong supporting cast to play off of. Chris Evans as the Captain is really just there to have a pretty face and big pecs, but Tommy Lee Jones as the stern military commander, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, and especially Stanley Tucci as the mentor figure are excellent. There are enough small departures from formula to keep things fresh–the mentor figure, during his inevitable death scene, does not get any meaningful last words–but not so many that the movie starts to look coy. The script keeps things moving briskly and has a few laugh-out-loud moments. Best of all, the effects are used sparingly compared to many entries in the genre. Thor was especially bad for this; since the world it took place in was entirely CG, it didn’t feel real. While there are a few effects, they’re not used in ways detrimental to the appreciation of the film.

Of course, it does have its issues. It starts stronger than it ends. The Captain America mythology does not translate well outside of comics aimed at ten-year-olds, and by the end the movie is struggling to keep a straight face and collapses into mindless (but stylish) action. Some plot points make no sense, such as the decision to use the invincible super-soldier as a figurehead instead of putting him in a combat role. The actual shield and costume are pretty obviously out of place–ironically, this would have been a much better movie if the superhero angle was cut out completely. The villain’s disfigured red face is rather silly, and the image of Uncle Sam fighting Satan is much more ham-handed that it needs to be.

It could have been better, but the writers took the material as far as they reasonably could without making major changes that would have made it less marketable. Captain America is only a moderately good movie, but if more summer blockbusters were this good, it would be a much better world.