Review: ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

The Projector

1. "Captain America" is cheerfully dopey and silly, but I still can't help but report that it's even dopier and sillier than it thinks it is. It is to its credit that it does not treat itself with the deadly seriousness of some of the more turgid superhero adaptations, but I'm not sure you get a cookie for that. The temptation is to praise it for dialing back, for being more plucky and aware of its cheesiness, particularly when it's nestled within the bluster and bludgeoning of "Transformers" and "Green Lantern." But the fact remains: Captain America, as a hero, is sort of lame. The movie tries to have fun with this idea, and at certain points it does, but at the end of the day, you have a blank beefcake with wings on his head throwing a shield and kicking people. As much as we might like to pretend that the film is having some sort of postmodern, winking sport of its empty vessel of a hero, it wants to have its retro-cheese and eat it too. A movie like this needs to be a lot more fun than it is.

2. Even "Captain America"'s origin story feels like it came out of a one-page advertisement for a Jack LaLanne juicer. A 90-pound weakling named Steve, with a big heart but no brawn (rendered in unconvincing and distracting CGI that makes Chris Evans look like Moby), wants to join America's war effort. He stumbles across a kindly German doctor (Stanley Tucci) who is working on a supersoldier serum. The procedure takes place, and suddenly Steve is jacked and huge and able to punch people across the room. For reasons that the movie never explains, the Army uses him as a propaganda tool -- which is where the Captain America comes from,  via some few charmingly goofy newsreel footage -- before Steve realizes, "Hey, I'm a supersoldier" and starts kicking some Nazi butt. Meanwhile, there's an evil German general who has access to the same powers as the German doctor had, though for some reason, it turns his head beet red and blows off his nose. When this happens, naming yourself "Red Skull" is perhaps your only recourse.

3. I'll confess, I'm not really sure what's going on in this movie, the basic plot constructions and motivations, what everyone's up to at a fundamental level: What the Red Skull wants (just to destroy earth? Sure.); what the strange crystal cube everyone's fighting for actually does; what the initial plan of creating Captain America was in the first place. I swear I was watching closely, but I'm still not entirely certain what Captain America's powers are. I know he grows larger, I know he's able to punch people through walls, and I know he can run a lot faster than he used to. (There are many, many scenes of Captain America simply jumping.) This still doesn't make him particularly super, or even special: The best thing he seems to have going for him is a cool shield. And the Red Skull, for such a scary-looking villain, is pretty lame himself: His primary attribute is a couple of nifty airplanes. These two run after each other, and eventually fight, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be impressed by. At least Green Lantern could do something.

4. That's to say that if you're going to make a superhero movie that is supposed to harken back to the old newsreel cliffhangers, you need to make it feel like one of those old newsreel cliffhangers, or at least modernize it and make it relevant. Indiana Jones it up, if you will. But "Captain America" keeps banging its head against the modern wall, never figuring out if it's a cheeky riff or a sleek superhero action franchise launch. It ends up neither. Sad to say, some of this can be pinned on Evans, who is muscular enough, sure, but is a total slab of inexpressive meat otherwise. Compare his square-jawed emptiness to, say, Chris Hemsworth's markedly more enjoyable performance as Thor; Hemsworth knows he's playing a ridiculous character and runs with it, running around and punching things and speaking Norse while still keeping a twinkle in his eye. There's nothing much behind Evans' eyes: He's posing for a magazine cover. It turns the would-be romance with a British agent (Hayley Atwell, who does hit the right tone) into a peripheral plot point rather than the centerpiece it should be. Evans has no there there.

5. The film scoots along agreeably, looks terrific (its art directors understand what the movie should be, even if its star and its workmanlike director don't) and it gets the most out of its supporting actors, most notably Tucci, an oddly plucky Tommy Lee Jones and Dominic Cooper as Tony Stark's father. (Cooper has little dialogue and little to do and still might be the most compelling character in the film.) It's difficult to dislike "Captain America" too much, because it's harmless and innocuous and, unlike almost every other tentpole summer movie, isn't secretly trying to give the audience a seizure. But you need a director with a firmer hand on the till than Joe Johnston, who is too professional and plodding to have as good a time with the Sgt. Rock-esque vibe this needs to have. But really: I'm sorry, but Captain America is just a big square-jawed dude who can punch hard and carries a shield. Shouldn't we expect more powers and ingenuity from our superheroes? Times are tough all over. Everyone's cutting back, apparently.

Grade: C+