The problem we are finding ourselves faced with, as audiences, with the rash of comic-book titles now swarming around theaters, is that they are absolutely committed to the idea that they should “start.”
The origin story was pretty clearly the right way to go when we started having comic-book titles (Superman, etc.), and when they are done brilliantly (Batman Begins), they make for great films. On the other hand, the idea that all such films have to start at the “beginning,” has led to some disasters, and has even compromised some of the better efforts. Iron Man, for example, was a very good movie, but was either too much origin, or not enough, and ended up with a strange transition from its first half to its second.
It’s a tricky affair, what with so much to do in (hopefully) less than two hours. Doing justice to the origin story is hard enough, but then you have to also include the antagonist, work in plenty of time for massive action sequences, and somehow get things together in a way that actually works as a movie. While some very good films push the genre along, and a lot of of people will go see the right superhero, no matter how good the film is, we all know that most of the time having all of these balls in the air means that some of them are going to get dropped.
More interesting, perhaps, than how well it works, there is something that just isn’t especially “comic-book” about the idea. It’s just not how they work really. You don’t take an interest in Spider-Man and go down to the comic-book store, and say, “I’ll take the last fifty years of Spider-Man, please.” But, a few movies in, and we’re already starting that one again. Why?
I mention all this because I think it’s worthwhile to point out the strange difficulty Captain America: The First Avengeris overcoming, especially since it isn’t something that is going to be noticed as a difficulty. The only real worry of the film is that it still showcases the burden of all the things it must accomplish, because at a certain point you become increasingly aware that you’ve been watching it for quite a while. Still, it isn’t simply that the film overcomes the challenge of dealing with an origin story, it is that it tries to decide on the workable construction of a story, given that it is forced to include Captain America’s origin. As with Batman Begins, it’s easy to see how these are different ideas.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a shining example of American spirit during the ’40s, and all he really wants is to serve his country. The struggle is that he looks both brilliant and terrible on paper, depending on what you’re looking at. Brave, idealistic, loyal, honorable, and filled with his own sort of patriotism, he is also five-foot-not-much, asthmatic, and the sort of scrawny that causes people to say things like, “someone get him a sandwich.”
He tries to join up several times, using fake names, and is finally noticed by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist with a serum that enhances all your qualities (or whatever). Despite the misgivings of many, Dr. Erskine insists that it is Rogers who will be selected from the many candidates, because he has the qualities necessary for a truly successful result of his serum experiments. We even get a bit of detail there, with scenes at the Army base of Rogers outperforming the competition in all but brute strength throughout a variety of tests. Injections, bright lights, bombardment with Vita-whozit, and the fantastically buff Steve Rogers steps out of the magic chamber.
Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly as planned, and we not only learn that we are up against a strange research branch of the Nazi regime, known as Hydra, but that they have their own super-powerful weapons in play. Worse, the course of events leaves us not only without the ability to make more soldiers into… whatever Steve Rogers has become, but leaves the Army without a lot of interest in one man, no matter how strong he is. With little other choice, Rogers goes on tour trying to increase war bond sales as Captain America, the front of a song and dance show surrounded by “gorgeous dames.”
Eventually, the tour takes him close to the front lines, where he meets real soldiers, and finds that he can probably do something more for the war effort than bump the war bond take 10%. Thus, much action ensues.
The film caught a lucky break in that Captain America’s origin is rather hopelessly tied to WWII. That puts us in the position of being forced to build the world that was home to the Golden Age of comics, and if we’re clever, construct the societal perspective that led to that Golden Age into the bargain. It was a different time then, so the film will wax poetic at us, not because Captain America stood up to bullies, but because Steve Rogers did, and he was ready, willing, and able to bleed all over the alley of your choice if that’s what it took.
Director Joe Johnston (whose sell at getting the spot needed little beyond, “I directed The Rocketeer“) layers in a number of other enjoyable nods at the comic world as well, including an action rundown of attacks on Hydra bases that is the closest thing to creating a couple of pages of comic panels as film that has ever been managed. Add in the massively entertaining, and clearly comic-inspired efforts of Tommy Lee Jones (as the gruff Army Colonel) and Hugo Weaving (as the Red Skull, who is magnificently almost too insane), and the fact that Chris Evans pulls this comic-complicated character off, and there aren’t many who will be disappointed.
Captain America wins out over many recent entries in the comic-book department largely because it acknowledges, and at the same time mostly ignores, the origin story. That may sound odd, given that viewers will note there is an awful lot of the runtime that seems devoted to pre-Captain Steve Rogers, but that is in a sense what I mean. How he became Captain America really comes down to – genius scientist with a serum, yada yada yada, Captain America – just like the origin of Spider-Man is really just – radioactive spider, yada yada yada, Spider-Man.
What’s interesting is not How he is Captain America, but how he is Captain America, and that’s what this movie is about. Truer to the comic, and indeed all comics, than the vast majority of efforts, Captain America delivers its messages in bold strokes, has action scenes which practically have “Kapow!” bubbles in them, and focuses very little attention on what superpowers Rogers might have acquired, because it is the one he already had that matters.