The New Classics is a weekly series of extended film reviews and essays on modern cinema, hoping to shine a spotlight on the undervalued, the worthy of reappraisal, and the indisputable modern masterpieces. This column runs every Monday.
The definitive lead performance in this contemporary era of superhero films has been Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, the scrawny brawler turned supersoldier called Captain America. Much is made in the Marvel cinematic universe’s movies, from “The Avengers” to last year’s “Captain America: Civil War,” of how old fashioned Captain America is in modern times, how his innate, uncomplicated decency makes him a fish out of water in a more complicated age. It is precisely this basic goodness that makes Evans’ performance, and this character, so important; that Evans plays Rogers without so much as a wink — no wry asides, no knowing, cynical nudges to the ribs — is vital to this depiction’s success. This character’s triumphant first film, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” provides Rogers with a World War II-era origin story in which Evans swiftly becomes one of recent blockbuster cinema’s most aspirational moral anchors. He does good things for their own sake because that’s what Americans do, and he does them without regard for personal enrichment or selfish benefit. In times like these, that portrayal isn’t only refreshing; it’s necessary.
The bulk of “Captain America: The First Avenger” serves as a prelude to the modern stories of the Marvel cinematic universe; it is mostly a wartime story that places Captain America in Nazi-occupied Europe, facing the threatening secret society within the Third Reich. As enjoyable as the modern action of sequels “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” have been, the nostalgic, streamlined action and adventure of “The First Avenger” make me yearn for a series of self-contained Captain America stories set in the 1940s.
It’s a wonderfully unpretentious story that should have been even simpler; a number of burdensome tie-ins to other films, if not moments that feel like outright advertisements for future films, are among the weakest points in “The First Avenger.” Frankly, anything set in the present doesn’t really work; the film begins with a short glimpse at a team of contemporary explorers who discover a crashed plane in the Arctic and a frozen Rogers within, and ends with an extended epilogue directly building the foundation for 2012’s superhero alliance in “The Avengers,” in which Marvel’s team organizer, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), makes a cameo appearance. Other connections are more organically woven into the film’s story, such as the Tesseract, a powerful Asgardian weapon and the film’s primary MacGuffin, or a supporting role from Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark — future father to Iron Man, Tony Stark.
When we meet Steve Rogers, he’s on yet another attempt to enlist in the Armed Forces, as he sits in a waiting room with other young men, all reading the latest news of the war effort. “A lot of people getting killed over there,” says another guy to Rogers. “Kind of makes you think twice about enlisting, doesn’t it?” “Nope,” Rogers replies. Never mind that Rogers is immediately once again classified 4F — unfit to serve — based on a long list of ailments. He’s also scrawny, short and looks like he weighs about 90 pounds soaking wet. What Rogers lacks in an able body, he more than makes up for in heart — and a will to keep fighting. “You don’t know when to give up, do ya?” asks a neighborhood goon who handily beats Rogers in a fistfight. “I could do this all day,” he says, getting back up — only to be knocked down again. The pre-Cap Steve Rogers was created using face-replacement effects pioneered on David Fincher’s film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Evans’ face was digitally superimposed on the body of a smaller actor. The effect is still quite successful.
While his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is preparing to ship out to Europe, Rogers still can’t give up on his need to enlist. “There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them,” he tells Bucky. While on a double date, he slips away to a recruitment center — and catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (the terrific Stanley Tucci) of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, who sees in Rogers the right sort of man for Erskine’s newest experiment. “So. You want to go overseas, kill some Nazis?” Erskine asks him. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Rogers replies. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
“I can offer you a chance,” Erskine says. “Only a chance.” Rogers must prove his mettle to Erskine, Agent Peggy Carter (a charming Hayley Atwell) and Col. Phillips (a beautifully sarcastic Tommy Lee Jones) to become what Phillips calls “the first in a new breed of supersoldier” who will “personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of hell.” Rogers is dosed with a serum that gifts him with superhuman strength and speed — and about two feet of height. But he’s still the scrappy Brooklyn kid with the good heart who hates bullies, the sort of guy who won’t let his new gifts change him for the worse, and who puts his duty and his squad ahead of himself. “A strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power,” Erskine tells him, “but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.”
Meanwhile, deep within Nazi-occupied Europe, the mad Nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), transformed by an earlier version of Erskine’s serum into the mutated horror the Red Skull, seeks a legendary power, left by the Teutonic gods of old. This is the Tesseract, an artifact of untold energy. The superweapons it powers could turn the tide of the war and hasten the rise of Schmidt’s splinter group, HYDRA, more powerful and fearsome than the Nazis, nearly unstoppable without the help of truly exceptional opposition.
Initially sidelined as a performing star for propaganda (with a song-and-dance routine halfway through the film advertising the sale of war bonds, one of many delightful touches), Rogers adopts the Captain America namesake on the battlefield, and leads his team, the Howlin’ Commandoes (featuring actors including Neal McDonough, Derek Luke and Kenneth Choi), to face off against Schmidt and HYDRA, save American lives and put an end to the rising threat once and for all. And if there’s time for a wonderful romance with Agent Carter — which is never not funny, given Rogers’ complete ineptitude with courtship of any sort — all the better.
Director Joe Johnston is a Steven Spielberg-George Lucas acolyte whose directorial style, while not as polished, draws from the same well of inspiration as those two significantly more famous directors: the punchy pacing and high-concept heroics of 1930s adventure serials. (In fact, listen for an explicit reference to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that’s very quick and very fun.) There’s more than a little Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the retrofuturistic designs on display, from HYDRA’s mountainous lair to the alien technology-derived weaponry Schmidt and his nefarious scientist cohort Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) have worked to develop. And the Stark Industries World’s Fair-style World of Tomorrow is a feast for the eyes, even in its brief appearances. Johnston brings the same borderline-steampunk interests he proudly displayed in his 1991 cult favorite “The Rocketeer” to “The First Avenger,” albeit with a classic Jack Kirby-inspired, Golden Age Marvel Comics visual twist. The burnished digital cinematography from Shelly Johnson and Alan Silvestri’s triumphant orchestral fanfare only add to this retro sheen.
The cast is uniformly excellent; this is perhaps one of Marvel’s most stacked ensembles. But Evans deserves separate praise. In a sense, his Captain America has become the best on-screen version of Superman in recent years — a selfless, patriotic but morally upright hero who does the right thing because it’s the right thing. Consider DC’s recent filmic interpretations of a brooding Superman in 2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” who mopes and contemplates the righteousness of his role as humanity’s protector — who contemplates whether humanity even deserves to be saved at all, especially at the expense of his own life. Meanwhile, a pre-super serum Steve Rogers hurls his body on a grenade to save a platoon of fellow soldiers who don’t really even like him that much. Perhaps this modern Superman more closely reflects the tenor of our myopic times, but to paraphrase a more successfully morally ambivalent superhero movie, this Superman may be the hero we deserve, but Captain America is the hero we need.