One way to describe the minor appeal of Captain America: The First Avenger is to say it’s a movie of knobs and levers, not touch screens.
Set during World War II, the picture has a delightful aesthetic that’s part Art Deco and part steampunk. Dashing men in uniform visit a world expo. A mad scientist conducts experiments that rely not on computers, but mechanical gears. The whole thing is bathed in a quaint, sepia tone. Add a dash of director Joe Johnston’s earlier hero tale, The Rocketeer, and some heavy lifting from the fondly remembered (at least by me), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and you have a superhero story with considerable style.
The original “Captain America” comic book aimed to be more than that. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940, it was essentially a piece of pop-art propaganda in favor of American intervention in the war (the debut cover featured Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw). Captain America: The First Avenger mostly avoids jingoism in favor of a gee-whiz, aw-shucks take on patriotism and combat. Puny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) longs to join the fight but is continually rejected for being too weak. An army scientist (Stanley Tucci) notes his resolve, however, and enlists him to receive a serum that will turn him into a super soldier. And so it’s off to war – or at least off to take on a demented rogue Nazi (Hugo Weaving) who is pursuing his own source of god-like power.
With its childish approach and relatively gentle tone, Captain America sometimes feels like the kiddie version of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s bloody Nazi comedy. Both offer parallel takes on World War II that are infused less with the reality of war than with the thrill of the movies. The difference is Captain America leaves you with a smile rather than a bad taste in your mouth.
The movie has its faults. The early scenes using CGI to put Evans’ head on a scrawny body don’t work at all. It doesn’t even look right, but when that voice comes out – yikes! (Evans’ baritone and the pinhead it’s coming from are completely mismatched.) What’s more, as the title implies, this is yet another installment in the ongoing Marvel franchise of interconnected superheroes (Iron Man, Thor) that will culminate in next year’s The Avengers. What this means for Captain America is that the narrative proper is completely discarded in the finale for an extended lead-in to that forthcoming picture. Marvel fans may be thrilled, but as someone who was enjoying Captain America just fine, it made for a deflating ending to a mildly diverting film.