'Captain America': Absurdly Fun
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
After a summer of lackluster action films ("Transformers 3," "Pirates of the Caribbean") and dull, dud superhero movies designed more with an eye toward the toy store and the quarterly balance sheet than enjoyable storytelling ("X-Men: First Class," "Green Lantern" ), "Captain America: The First Avenger" comes as a welcome relief. It's light and bright and brisk, but never glib: It's a layer cake made of one part Indiana Jones, one part James Bond and one part "Inglourious Basterds," with the bright colors, tone and style of a four-color comic book as the icing holding it all together. With director Joe Johnston hitting the same tones of retro-styled high adventure he did in 1991's "The Rocketeer," "Captain America" is not high art, but it is so unabashedly fun -- and such well-made fun -- that it is hard to not like and admire it for so steadfastly being what it is.
Created in March of 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America's adventures were a cornerstone of the Marvel Comics empire before it even existed under that name, as a puny 4-F reject named Steve Rogers (played here by Chris Evans) was made mighty by the super-soldier formula of Dr. Abraham Erskine (played by Stanley Tucci). Better, stronger, faster and armed with a circular red, white and blue shield, Captain America fought the enemies of freedom. After his World War II adventures, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the Captain to the modern day via some accidental cryogenic suspension in 1964, just in time to enter the Marvel Comics canon.
And so, brought to the screen as part of the same Marvel corporate media strategy that recently brought us "Iron Man," "Thor" and "The Hulk," "Captain America" is a solid, snappy origin story that not only presents absurdity, but uses it even as it revels in it. Cap's first assignment isn't a drive toward enemy lines, but, rather, a drive to sell bonds on the home front, complete with goofy costume, rousing musical number and dancing girls. But for all of the film's knowing winks -- bad guy Johann Schmidt, with the nom de guerre The Red Skull, is played by Hugo Weaving with the wardrobe of an S&M fascist and Werner Herzog's voice -- there is also something appreciably hokey about it, something agreeably square. Rogers (initially shown as puny through a variation of "Benjamin Button"'s high-tech tricks) wants to enlist to fight like his dad did in WWI and best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is about to. Erskine, recruiting him, asks, "Do you want to kill Nazis?" "I don't want to kill anybody," Rogers says. "I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from."
And not only is Evans' trick of playing a comic-book hero as an aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart character -- fluid and instinctive in action, stammering and awkward in repose -- an effective and endearing part of a great starring performance, it's also part of a terrific ensemble. Stan gives good support while Tucci provides both heart and humor; Tommy Lee Jones is gruff and rough as Col. Phillips, the officer reluctantly in charge of Rogers; Hayley Atwell is British Intelligence officer Peggy Carter, whose stiff upper lip is also bearing a bright smear of lipstick.
Behind the scenes, screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, working alongside director Johnston, do remarkable -- or, at worst, competent, which is more than you can say for "Green Lantern" or "X-Men: First Class" -- work. Yes, the Skull's pursuit of the great cosmic whatsit that will give him power is off-the-shelf stuff, and the finale is a little heavy on the CGI, and the 3-D is, by and large, unnecessary.
But "Captain America" is more than just pretty solid. It's great in spots, good in others, and hits exactly the right tone, combining real history and comic-book mythology in a way where both work together without making us feel burdened by the facts of the former or the trivia of the latter. I don't know if I'll wind up going back to "Captain America" on a regular basis the way I do "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Goldfinger," but I also know it's the most purely enjoyable and breezily brilliant superhero comic-book action-adventure film since 2004 gave us "Spider-Man 2" and "The Incredibles." For the first time in a long time, the promise of a comic-book character's return to the big screen sounds more like an anticipated good thing than a contractually obligated threat.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.