There is so much "business" the fourth big comic book movie adaptation of the summer has to take care of that it's astounding director Joe Johnston (Jumanji) is able to take care of it all — and with style.
Captain America has to connect this World War II-era hero to modern times. The movie has to tie into all the other Marvel comic book movies that are part of The Avengers because, as the title implies, the good captain is "The First Avenger." It has to deliver the origin myth: How Captain America was born out of a "supersoldier" experiment during the war. The film has to back-engineer its way into the meeting between the Captain (Chris Evans) and the Avenger leader we know as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and give us a credible version of Howard Stark, the inventor dad of future Iron Man Tony Stark.
And it has to be fun.
Johnston has delivered a light, clever and deftly balanced adventure picture with real lump-in-the-throat nostalgia and loving references to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Hunky Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) was digitally changed into Steve Rogers, what comic book ads used to call "a 98-pound weakling." With World War II on, Rogers is determined to serve his country, even if the military rejects him as unfit. He signs up for a special unit to be turned into supersoldiers, thanks to a serum by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci, with a kitschy accent).
Erskine picks Rogers because Rogers keeps on fighting hopeless odds when he knows he's right, and "he's not a bully." Rogers sticks up for the little guy.
America needs supersoldiers because the Nazis have one. Johann Schmidt, played by that villain's villain Hugo Weaving, and his Hydra organization are developing superweapons and other supersoldiers. And Schmidt has his hands on Norse god Odin's legendary source of power. "And de fuhrer digs for trinkets in ze desert," Schmidt smirks in contempt.
It's a good thing Rogers is ready to chase him, because Indiana Jones doesn't appear to be available, being in the desert, digging for trinkets.
Rogers is treated with scorn by his commanding officer, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Rogers is sent on publicity tours, given a silly costume and a red, white and blue shield. But a little interference by a British agent (Hayley Atwell), a little gadget-tinkering by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and a USO tour to the front lines, and the Captain will soon show his mettle.
Normally jokey Evans isn't given much funny to say, but he brings proper earnestness to the character. "There are men laying down their lives. I've got no right to do any less than them."
On its face, Captain America seems like the corniest, most dated of the Marvel super heroes to bring to the big screen. One way to get past that is to frame the story in the Captain's rediscovery by a new generation — in the present day. The other is by spending money on good actors.
Others might roll their eyes at the motorcycle chase ripped from Star Wars and a certain upgraded flying prop from Raiders. The "borrowings" made me giggle, just as I marveled over the scenes in which Rogers first encounters a group known in early comics as "Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos."
It's too long and it could do with a few more laughs. Why cast Evans as the modest Captain America if you're not going to let him put his quirky stamp on the character? But then, Evans has so much business and back story to carry that the real marvel of it all is how much fun it is.