Selling Captain America to a modern audience is a challenge. He represents an old-fashioned, “square-jawed” type of heroism and is steeped in the kind of pure-hearted patriotism that wouldn’t fare well in these cynical times. Thus, this character seems like a perfect candidate for a “re-imagining” that would take him far from his roots. Given that the Captain’s current cinematic vehicle was basically made to set up his appearance in the eventual Avengers movie, it seems like its producers would have plenty of motivation to do this.
Thankfully, the people who made Captain America avoided any such temptations to pander to the market. Instead of trying to modernize the story, they made it a period piece that stays true to the character’s World War II inspirations. The hero is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a young man who desperately wants to join the armed forces and help fight the Nazis. Unfortunately, his brave heart is outpaced by his 4-F weakling body and he can’t catch a break. Fate rears its head when one of his attempts to sign up under an assumed identity is spotted by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who has developed a “Super Soldier” formula that can transform an average man into a superhuman fighter.
Steve signs on to be his test subject and the results are better than anyone expected… but his rebirth turns tragic when Erskine is assassinated by a spy in the employ of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a budding supervillain and former Erskine test subject. Steve wants to fight but is diverted into serving the war effort by appearing in cheap films and U.S. bond promotions. However, when his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is endangered during a battle between the Army and Hydra, an army led by the Red Skull, Steve takes matters into his own hands and becomes the hero he’d always dreamed of being.
Captain America stands out from today’s crowded superhero-flick marketplace because it takes a direct, non-cynical approach to its subject matter. Steve doesn’t cope with tormented psychology or front with an irreverent attitude: instead, he’s a humble guy who wants to do his part and live up to the ideals that inspire him. The film’s theme is embodied in a few nicely-written exchanges between Steve and Dr. Erskine where the doctor proposes that heroism isn’t determined by strength but by being a good, kind person who stands up for what is right. Some might consider that idea corny but it’s put forth with such sincerity that it is hard to deny — and is thus a fresh breath of air.
It helps that this idea is packaged skillfully by not only the writers but also director Joe Johnston. He is an excellent FX-movie technician so the period detail and the visual effects are as skillfully rendered as you might expect (the digital effects used on Evans to create the scrawny, pre-heroics Steve are nothing short of astonishing). However, the most important thing he gets right here is the non-ironic, heartfelt tone. He previously showed a knack for period heroics via his cult favorite The Rocketeer and he brings the same gee-whiz sensibility to his work here. He makes Steve Rogers the kind of hero we can root for and handles a subplot about Steve’s interrupted romance with unexpected tenderness for the director of a summer blockbuster.
That said, the part of Captain America that sells its “cheer on the good guy” approach the best is the work of its well-chosen cast. Evans makes a perfect all-American hero: he’s humble, sincere and witty in a charmingly self-deprecating way. He carries the film with the confidence of a leading man but he also benefits from a strong ensemble backing him all the way. Tucci does well as Steve’s mentor, adding some sly humor as he gives voice to the film’s theme, and Hayley Atwell is impressive as a female officer who becomes Steve’s ally and love interest. Elsewhere, Tommy Lee Jones does the deadpan-sarcastic Southerner schtick we’ve become familiar with since The Fugitive — but his sergeant role here is an ideal vehicle for it and he does pitch-perfect work.
Ultimately, Captain America shapes up as a strong entry in the current superhero-flick cycle because it offers a straightforward, unexpectedly pure-of-heart alternative to mindless CGI-action flicks and the sometimes overwrought psychological approach to these movies. Sometimes, all we need from a cinematic hero is to just be a good guy we can root for — and Captain America gets that job done with style and charm.