Captain America: The First Avenger is a flawed film, but ultimately it succeeds thanks largely to the charisma and likeability of its two stars, Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell.
Evans plays Steve Rogers, a scrawny wannabe soldier who tries to join the army not because he wants to kill Nazis, but because he doesn’t like bullies. The opening of the film establishes Rogers well, as we see him repeatedly attempting to pass physical examinations under various names. Finally, he gains the attention of German-American scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, making the most out of small role as usual), who just so happens to be working on a project that will attempt to create genetically modified supersoldiers.
From there, Rogers reports for training, joining a group of soldiers also vying for the chance to be selected as the army’s guinea pig. Naturally, his small stature makes him a target for the other soldiers, and the project’s overseer Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is skeptical of his abilities. But Agent Peggy Carter (Atwell) sees something more in Rogers, and Phillips grudgingly comes around to her way of thinking.
These opening scenes move quickly, and the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely mixes in just the right amount of dry humour (much of it coming from Jones, who is perfectly cast as the gruff, sarcastic colonel). Rogers and Carter are attracted to each other, but the relationship is handled well and doesn’t feel rushed. Even after his selection and transformation, Rogers remains the same awkward man on the inside, and doesn’t slide easily into the role of the calm, collected superhero. He’s not a take-charge guy at first, and Evans portrays this very effectively.
For her part, Atwell is excellent as Agent Carter. Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, she has a no-nonsense nature, but can also be sweet. She’s also physically capable, although this doesn’t show up as much later on in the film.
The problems with the film begin to crop up as the villain is introduced. Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt, a brilliant member of the Nazi-offshoot organization HYDRA who develops all manner of deadly weapons. Weaving is fine in the role (though his faux German accent isn’t as good as Tucci’s), but his character is shallow and not particularly well written.
In the past, cartoonishly evil villains were de rigueur, but today’s superhero films usually at least take a stab at explaining what makes these bad men tick. For example, just look at Loki and Magneto (from Thor and X-Men: First Class, respectively). These are villains, but the reasons for their actions are understandable, if not particularly rational. Schmidt is simply portrayed as power-mad, and he has little discernible back story.
That’s not to say one-dimensional villains are automatically terrible; they can be fun, especially when they’re gleefully maniacal. But Schmidt just comes across as matter-of-fact and boring, and his scheme for world domination is almost an afterthought.
Other minor players suffer from similarly poor characterizations. “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is Rogers’ best friend, but after a strong introduction his character falls by the wayside and is given a rushed arc that feels devoid of any emotional impact.
Comic book fans will also recognize Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, excellent as usual) appearing along with other future members of S.H.I.E.L.D., but his character isn’t even named in the film. Dugan and the others actually have significant roles in the proceedings, so it seems likely scenes expanding on their backgrounds might’ve been cut, which is unfortunate. Director Joe Johnston deserves credit for making the central Rogers-Carter relationship in the film a strong one, but in doing this, he forgets about virtually everyone else onscreen.
Thankfully, not all minor characters are bungled. The film introduces us to Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). As the future father of Iron Man, Cooper has the unenviable task of living up to the performance of Robert Downey Jr. He does a good job of it. Despite not having many scenes, we see him as a man who is brilliant, charming and quick with a joke, just like his son.
Composer Alan Silvestri handled the scoring duties for Captain America, and the results are very good. The Captain is given an appropriately brassy, patriotic theme tune. The music here is easily the best among the more recent crop of superhero movies, although it lacks the truly infectious quality of something like John Williams’ Superman theme.
Ironically, Captain America: The First Avenger takes the opposite journey of the Captain himself. It comes out of the gate strong, then falters along the way, ultimately ending up feeling more like a 97-pound weakling. That said, the movie is fun despite its numerous faults. It just feels like a missed opportunity.