Ten years ago, Joe Johnston directed "Jurassic Park III," a much-maligned sequel to the Steven Spielberg original(s) that can be enjoyed if you forgive the more cartoonish, Joe Dante-esque turn of the series (speaking of which, Dante should helm part IV). And it's not really too much worse than Spielberg's own sequel ("The Lost World"). Now Johnston gives us the latest "Avengers" franchise title, "Captain America: The First Avenger," and at many times it begs to be thought of as an entry in Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" series. Again, it's a cartoonish distortion of the original(s), but it's also not any worse than the last Spielberg-directed installment ("The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"). It's good enough and, yes, maybe the best superhero origin movie since "Iron Man," as well as a lot more entertaining than "Thor," but neither comparison is much to celebrate. We might as well just say it's better than the 1990 "Captain America" movie. Which it certainly is.
The "Indiana Jones" evocation is not too much of a grab. Johnston began his film career as an artist for George Lucas and ILM and is one of the credited effects Oscar winners for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." He also worked on "Temple of Doom" and directed an episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." But this movie is only really like an Indy movie if you imagine Lucas himself having helmed the first film -- 20 years late (yes, I mean 20). Considering the context of Johnston's filmography he was definitely the most apt for an adaptation of Marvel's "Captain America" comics. With it, he also seems intent on correcting his mistakes with "The Rocketeer," a similarly retro superhero film that flopped back in 1991. This time he'll make money (a rarity for him with period-set works). Creatively, though, he's succeeded only partly, delivering something more epic and thrilling yet also far less interesting in both design and character.
"General" Turns "Captain"
For a comic book movie that takes a very, very long time to get through the origin and into the action, "Captain America" is way too short on character development. At the start, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is simply a digitally un-enhanced weakling with a lot of guts and not enough muscle around them. Initially he's reminiscent of Buster Keaton in "The General" with his multiple attempts to enlist in the U.S. Army to no avail. Of course, that made me wish this was in fact a movie about a scrappy kid who uses his size to advantage, both intuitively and accidentally. Stanley Tucci, as the German emigre responsible for developing a 'Super Soldier Serum' (he's the equivalent of the 1990 film's Dr. Maria Vaselli, for those keeping track, though this one is actually from the comic), even says that maybe there's room for a little guy in the WWII effort. What he means, apparently, is a little guy shot up with a kind of steroid that augments a man's personality and intelligence as much as his physical tissue.
If only that correlated well with the film itself, in connection with its 1990 predecessor and Johnston's past failures, rather than merely making up in surface spectacle. I wouldn't call it an increase in physical tissue, however, since most of the movie looks like it was shot on a sound stage with green screen. Maybe there were a few more actual locations than comes across, but it resembles something by a veteran of the "Star Wars" prequels instead of the first trilogy. I wasn't the only critic to come out thinking even more of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" than "Indiana Jones" due to its intangible computer-generated aesthetic (I find it a slight improvement in some ways, while David Ehrlich prefers Kerry Conran's 'Saturday Matinee' throwback). Was the train real, even as a model? A real "Indiana Jones" wannabe would have featured more material stunts, less animated sequences like the embarrassing-looking zip-line bit.
Great Escapism and the Burden of Fantasy
Back to the characters, there's sadly little to them. Once Rogers becomes 'Captain America,' half through the serum, half through the pageantry of war bond drives (think "Flags of Our Fathers" meets the wrestling part of Spider-Man's origin story), he takes it upon himself to go on an unauthorized Rambo-ish one-man-against-all rescue mission behind enemy lines. I heard some critics referencing older works like "Dirty Dozen" and "Great Escape," but those only relate in terms of their setting. After too-easily saving about 400 men of various Allied forces, Rogers bands together a handful of them for a special-ops mission (montage) to destroy secret weapons factories around Europe. We barely meet them beyond their faces and accents. One is British, another French, I think there might have been an Australian (it doesn't matter), there's a token black guy and an Asian (from Fresno, explained just in case there are viewers aware there's also a Pacific aspect to the war, even if the movie ignores it). If you know these 'Howling Commandos' from the Marvel Comics universe, you're fine. Without any such background material, though, you might see them as a good way of universalizing the movie for global box office purposes, reminders that it wasn't just the super powers of America that won WWII, nor is the character of "Cap" a completely solitary hero.
There is also an implication, possibly for appeal to those viewers in the former Axis nations, that there could have been a greater evil than Hitler and the Nazis: namely Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and HYDRA, who break off from the apparently too-moral and too-slow Third Reich to form a real world-domination-bent organization. It's akin to the revisionist history we saw this summer in "X-Men: First Class" where the Germans are somewhat given a pass because of the worse maniac with supernatural magic/science that's deadlier than any gas pellet. The baddie here, an earlier guinea pig for the Super Soldier Serum, is also out to destroy most of the Earth for no clear purpose but to reign over a wasteland of faceless, Stormtrooper-like followers. Red Skull is far and away the best character in the film, as is common of villains of comic book adaptations especially since Heath Ledger stole the show in "The Dark Knight" (already this year, Kevin Bacon, Tom Hiddleston, Peter Sarsgaard and Christoph Waltz have chewed the celluloid triumphantly), but even if Weaving is a pleasure, particularly if you're a Werner Herzog fan, his thin hammy portrayal is still faulted with a lack of real substance. Great villains are the sort you can almost reason with, such as Nolan/Ledger's punk-political Joker.
And if you're going to have a nemesis with Herzog's voice, you really need to give him some deeper dialogue, something the real guy might say were he narrating a documentary about his plot to exterminate the human race (maybe actually cast Herzog). Just because it's historical fantasy doesn't mean it has to be as loose with logic as a dream.
The worst of "Captain America"'s character development comes through in the romance. For a combination of continuity and appeal to women the role of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is included. Mostly she's there to fill out her tight uniform and give flirtatious glances to Rogers, even when he's Buster Keaton size. The close-up-as-signal of affection is lazier than Atwell's eyes -- it's no wonder Cap always thinks she's more interested in Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, also seemingly lazy-eyed at times), she probably accidentally always appears to be looking at him -- but even beyond that we're just supposed to accept her as the love interest simply because she's a female written into the plot. Evans and Atwell have absolutely no chemistry, though (to be fair, Indiana Jones rarely had any with his ladies, either), and a long, meant-to-be-sad scene near the end, when it's clear they'll never get to be together because he's sacrificing his life to save the USA, is an unbelievable drag. There's more emotionality to be felt in some porn films.
That's not a spoiler, to be fair, because you know where the movie is headed: in a straight line towards next summer's "The Avengers" movie. Plus, the movie opens with a modern-day scene where Cap is found frozen in a crashed airplane in the Arctic (nice subtle "this area keeps changing lately" global warming message, by the way). It's basically the same sort of prologue as seen in "Thor," except it's more a bookend than unnecessary prelude. Actually, "Captain America" has a few too many nods to the other franchise forebears. It's kind of neat to have Tony Stark's father here, partly because he's a bit of a nod to Howard Hughes' presence in "The Rocketeer" also, but we're introduced to him at an anachronistic World's Fair, corresponding to the Stark Expos from the "Iron Man" movies (particularly the Queens-set one in "Iron Man 2") as if they're trying for "Back to the Future"-level historical parallelism. But it works for the "BTTF" movies due to the abundance of such connectivity. And because they're more directly linked. Do we really need to keep thinking of this movie as an "Iron Man" prequel, or even an "Avengers" prequel before the fact? Also, was Tucci cast just to make us think we had previously seen him as Yinsen in "Iron Man"?
"Goodbye Brooklyn Dodgers!"
I know the complaint is getting old, but I really would like one of these movies to hold up on its own, the way "Iron Man" does. Thank god the Avengers will finally assemble next year and we can see how necessary all this cohesion has been. Rather than following Rogers into the present, though, I'd like Marvel to make a "Howling Commandos" movie where we see more of that ensemble, and maybe get to know them beyond their skin color and old-timey facial hair. That's as likely to happen as Johnston's proposed Boba Fett film, I guess.
Final question, and this is maybe a spoiler but not a big deal one: if S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to do a "Goodbye, Lenin!" thing with Cap in the present, why are they going to bother holding him around the corner from Times Square, the busiest, most temporally revealing place on Earth? Except that maybe Nick Fury's HQ is inside the Paramount-owned 1515 Broadway, it's a silly sight gag too much like something we'll probably see also in next week's "The Smurfs." Revive the hero in the middle of a timeless rural area, ya dummies.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: "Captain America" comics; "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"; Werner Herzog impressions