The least you can expect from a superhero is that he’ll be colorful and more dynamic than real life – it’s pretty much the job requirement – but if there is a more homogenized, blander hero than the new Captain America, I haven’t encountered him.
This patriotic World War II version of a bionic man, bulked up by a mysterious serum into a supersoldier, is played with Ken Doll stiffness by Chris Evans, who makes the character more interesting in his early, pre-transformation scenes as scrawny Steve Rogers. Once he becomes the supposedly dashing hero of Captain America: The First Avenger, he’s the cipher at the center of big-budget action that is both cartoony and 3-D but never engaging
The disappointment with this big tub of popcorn doesn’t hit right away. Steve has a fierce determination to join the army and fight the Nazis, even though he has been rejected as unfit several times, and that spunkiness makes him a hero worth rooting for. He is also so short and skinny that what we see on screen is Evans’s head attached to a computer-generated body based on a double’s, and even the double’s body was slimmed down by CGI effects. The movie sets up the kind of gung-ho let’s-do-our-part patriotism that is familiar from World War II movies and Evans (or his detached head) is a good fit for that wholesome, milkshake-swilling atmosphere.
Steve is soon recruited by Dr. Erskine, the scientist who has invented the superhero serum. Erskine is played by Stanley Tucci with an Austrian accent and makeup that makes him look a bit like Scrooge McDuck, and the movie is downhill from there. A pallid Captain America is born, and ultimately faces Hugo Weaving as a maniacally evil Nazi with his own scientific plans and secrets.
Director Joe Johnston (most recently he made The Wolfman, most famously Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) has always been more workmanlike than inspired, and never nudges Captain America beyond that by-the-numbers approach. Conceptually the film should work: the look is retro-muted, the plot driven by classic elements like Steve trying to rescue his best friend from behind enemy lines. But there’s a huge distance here between the concept and the flat way it lands on screen.
There are some really fine minor performances that suggest what the movie could have been. Hayley Atwell is a natural as an army officer and Steve’s romantic interest, and Dominic Cooper does a scene-stealing young-Howard-Hughes turn as Howard Stark, a brilliant engineer whose son Tony will become Iron Man.
Best of all, there is Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff officer who is skeptical about Captain America. Jones seems to be in a different, better movie, one that has wry comic lines and plays its stock characters for the fun of it. At the very end, Samuel L. Jackson shows up in a quick scene, and he pops off the screen too. It’s not a generational difference that make these two so much better than the film they’re in. After all, Robert Downey Jr. leaps off the screen in the Iron Man franchise. What they all understand is that this kind of genre piece has to be played with a brashness that suits its cartoon roots. Evans and Johnston play it safe, and hand us a tame Captain America more at home in a Barbie Dream House than a war.