Perhaps emboldened by the gleeful revisionism of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, or maybe just reaching for pop culture relevance, some summer blockbusters have reached backwards in time, offering new versions of world events with far more mutants (the Cuban Missile crisis rewritten for X-Men: First Class) and giant robots (who inspire the moon landing in Transformers: Dark of the Moon) than you might remember from history class. Now Marvel Studios jumps in with Captain America: The First Avenger, which re-imagines World War II as a battleground for patriotic super-soldiers and mega-villains who are even more dastardly than Hitler himself.
To be fair, Captain America was conceived during World War II. His origin as a Nazi-walloping hero and popular conveyer of propaganda is ready for a winking, pulpified revamp. The surprise, then, is the straightness Joe Johnston’s film. It retains the director’s gee-whiz, ’40s serial spirit (he made the film version of The Rocketeer), but it doesn’t turn Cap into camp. Neither, for the most part, does it attempt to wring unearned gravitas from World War II iconography.
In fact, the movie gives Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the 90-pound weakling who volunteers for an experimental procedure and becomes the enhanced Captain America, a propaganda-related epiphany. When Rogers first undergoes his metamorphosis — a process that works on him but is halted before it can be applied to a whole army of soldiers — and gets some press for some impromptu heroism, he’s enlisted by the government to hawk war bonds wearing a goofy star-spangled costume and surrounded by dancing girls.
But Rogers, who in his pre-super state tried to enlist in the army five times, doesn’t want to fight for the PR machine; he wants to join the boys on the battlefield, and use his powers for the greater good. He goes on a mission of his own, aided by the steely Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), to rescue a battalion of troops behind enemy lines. He goes on to recruit some of these men (conveniently but also nicely diverse, including Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi, and Bruno Ricci) to fight the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who begins the film as a Nazi scientist, and is soon overcome by his own cartoonishly evil plot for world domination.
This might well sound like the typical independent-minded action hero cynically married to the WWII model of self-sacrifice — as well as vaguely insensitive to the real-world evil perpetrated by the Nazis. But Evans, usually more of a wiseass in the Ryan Reynolds mode, makes Cap’s earnestness winning and believable. His early, “puny” incarnation is the product of CGI, while Captain America’s physique takes the actor’s human (which is to say near-superhuman) form. Because of Evans, and Johnston’s obvious and un-ironic enthusiasm for this story, Captain America never becomes an insufferable, stereotypical “American,” and remains grounded in his pre-change friendships and ideals.
Captain America does get caught up in its own propaganda machine, though, not so much for war or country, but, as indicated by the phrase, “First Avenger,” its ultimate allegiance to the Marvel Universe. This is yet another Marvel Studios production intended to tee up a number of characters for a forthcoming Avengers movie. By virtue of forging new Marvel Universe history, it does this with more skill than Thor; the inclusion of Iron Man’s dad, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), is a neat touch (you can see the son’s excesses and vulnerabilities in the father’s self-importance and -awareness).
At the same time, The First Avenger rushes through some of the action in service of moving the story to a place where it can be reasonably picked up by The Avengers. Perhaps the filmmakers deserve credit for not drawing out this origin mythology endlessly, but the middle of the movie passes by in an enjoyable but indistinct blur, giving short shrift to any number of characters, including Cap’s all-star team and the glowering Red Skull. And Carter, who is allowed to be more capable and also more touching than many Marvel girls, could use more screen-time.
Though Johnston does well by his ’40s setting — the cinematography and production design are some of the best yet for a Marvel Studios production — the movie presents World War II a means to an end. Not the personal journey of Steve Rogers, but the advancement of the Marvel brand.