Thursday, July 21, 2011

A salute for 'Captain America'

It may not be great, but the latest Marvel Comics origins movie is better than expected.
Captain America: The First Avenger begins where many comic book stories find their origins -- with vicious Nazis. As World War II rages, a fiendish Nazi harnesses a power that is both occult and mythical. Johann Schmidt, a fiend with the towering posture of a wannabe ubermensch, threatens to destroy all of the world's major cities.

Back in the U.S., diminutive Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is devastated by the 4-F rating he's assigned by his draft board. Rogers, who weighs an anemic 90 pounds, wants to fight for his country. Eventually, he's given an opportunity to participate in a top-secret program designed by German refugee scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci with a German accent).

Here's where the comic book fun begins in earnest. After being placed in a machine that zaps his cells, Rogers emerges with a health club physique. He also has lightening speed and the ability to out-leap even the most gifted high jumper. He's transformed into Captain America, and almost immediately swings into action.

I'm condensing, of course, but that's the gist of director Joe Johnston's hearty contribution to the origin stories that precede next year's release of The Avengers. Johnston, who directed the retro favorite Rocketeer, again dips into nostalgia. It's as if the 1940s world he creates == an America full of futuristic expositions and war-bond drives -- has been assembled from dozens of patriotic posters and old movies, a fantasy version of the past that's particularly satisfying.

Evans brings self-effacing charm to the title role. He's joined by a variety of strong performers. Tommy Lee Jones plays a gruff Army officer who's not entirely sold on Rogers' abilities. Hayley Atwell portrays the Army officer who assists in Rogers' training and who eventually becomes his love interest -- in chaste fashion, of course.

Villainy is supplied by Hugo Weaving who plays Dr. Schmidt, a character who eventually reveals himself as Red Skull, a man with a skeletal face that clearly places Johnston's movie in the land of the comic book. Red Skull looks as if his skin has been ripped off, exposing the raw underside of a countenance that already seemed plenty evil.

The action sequences in Captain America tend to be somewhat extended, which I found a bit boring. But there are plenty of battles for action fans, and a prologue and epilogue that explain how Captain America will be catapulted into the present for the upcoming Avengers movie.

And, yes, in some sense, Captain America, like Thor, is a preview of coming attractions for The Avengers, which promises a mega-helping of Marvel Comics heroism.

Still, Captain America has some kick, and it can be found in the star-spangled spirit that, like its title character, carries the day.

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