"Captain America: The First Avenger" owes a heavy debt to Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," visiting the same era, with a similar villain and threat, all while trying to evoke the B-movies and serial adventures of the day. While it lacks its predecessor's thrill-a-minute energy, director Joe Johnston delivers some great thrills and a sincere brand of patriotism that's often lacking anywhere.
Chris Evans makes for a great asthmatic-weakling-turned-super-soldier, who is powered up by a top-secret team of scientists dedicated to defeating Hitler. Meanwhile, across the pond, Johannes Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka Red Skull, the leader of Hydra (a Nazi offshoot unit specializing in the occult) has unearthed an ancient power source with the potential to make him unstoppable.
Johnston's FX team does an amazing job paring down Evans' buff physique to that of a skinny little runt - yeah, you can see the seams straining on the illusion at times, but it's still impressive. Even better is the job done crafting Red Skull's red skull—it's magnificently hideous, even if Johnston tries to overplay the drama.
Both Evans and Weaving make the most of the movie magic at their disposal. Evans' progression from Steve Rogers to war bonds shill to super soldier is impressive, no matter how appropriately hokey the dialogue, whether he's taking a beating from a bully or a super villain. As for Weaving, Webster's should put his picture next to the word "Sinister"—he's awesome.
If screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did not in fact write the part of Col. Chester Phillips for Tommy Lee Jones, they should just tell people they did. It's the kind of role - the gruff and grizzled sardonic old cynic who's a softie underneath - that the man was born to play.
The look and feel of the film is just about perfect, from the recreation of downtown Brooklyn (children from all across the borough will soon be wearing t-shirts that say, "I'M JUST A KID FROM BROOKLYN") to Cap's outfits and the kind of clunky technological wonders of the day.
The film is slow burn, however, taking too long to build its momentum. There are flashes of action early on, but not enough tension, as the Captain and Red Skull move ever slowly toward their inevitable showdown. And once the action starts, Johnston fails to give it context—it's just a long montage of Cap and Co. kicking Hydra butt. There's no sense of the stakes involved, there's no personal connection between the two foes, it's just white hats vs. black hats.
Since Marvel started making movies in earnest, they have wisely maintained a tight control on what they call the Marvel Universe, insisting on a narrative consistency that serves each individual film well, including this one, which acts as an integral piece of the puzzle that will ultimately come into focus as "The Avengers." It's an impressive level of discipline to bring to a brand of storytelling that has historically - and unfairly - been dismissed as low art.
Now if someone could just explain the difference between Captain America and Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, we could settle this whole performance-enhancing drugs debate once and for all.