Captain America has, most would agree, the worst record for film adaptations from comic books of any well-known title. Sure, Fantastic Four got the Roger Corman treatment, but Cap has suffered through two Reb Brown TV movies and the zero-budget 1990 Matt Salinger version shot amidst Yugoslavian rubble.
So it's both ironic and immensely gratifying that the star-spangled hero has been treated to not only a proper adaptation of his own story, but one of the best-constructed, and least smug, superhero stories in recent years.
Redefining the Hero
Captain America is a hero whose starting point is decency and compassion, and every frame of this film, from The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston, is about finding heroism not in broad shoulders and big pecs (though these are on display, to be sure) or massive explosions (those are in evidence as well), but in selflessness, compassion, and granite determination. Captain America's origin lies in a super-serum that makes a small man big; but -- more so than for any other comic-book figure -- it's not his size or power that makes Cap a hero, but his heart and his will. As the serum's developer, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), puts it in this film, the serum merely magnifies what's already inside.
The way in which this is told, in a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and through Johnston's pitch-perfect direction, is captivating. In recent years we've seen not only our screen superheroes but the superhero genre as a whole become both haughty and complacent, sure that glib one-liners and pyrotechnic climaxes will be enough to wow crowds and bring home the box office bacon. But Captain America takes the trouble to introduce us to a man, Steve Rogers, whose character is rooted at the film's core: even when he's using his fists, which is seldom, we're watching his face, empathically connected to his stubborn resolve and utter unselfconsciousness. Here is a superhero film without a swagger or a stage wink, as honest as its pure-as-snow hero, yet never smarmy or gratingly earnest either -- he's good company even on his own journey.
The Strongest Weakling
To be sure, Captain America has fun with its premise: if you thought Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent was innocent, here's a guy who's never even danced with a girl; and yet, when he says he's been waiting for the right partner, you smile, but you smile with him. This film manages at once both the best, and the funniest, of any film explanations for the ridiculous costumes that are compulsory in the comics: after he's given the serum but there's no chance of repeating the experiment and creating an enhanced army, the brass don't know what to do with one lone super-soldier -- so they turn him, figuratively, into a cartoon, sending him out on a USO tour as a beefy new Uncle Sam to drum up bond sales. And yet this side trip is integral to the development of Steve Rogers's heroism, because it inspires him to be not just a soldier but a symbol.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, for those who had snickered at his work in the two recent Fantastic Four movies, is how perfect Chris Evans is for this role. Both during his early scenes as a 90-pound weakling and later on as a towering hero, Evans grounds his performance in rock-solid integrity and an unshakable understanding of who Steve Rogers is. It's a challenge, especially when playing a two-fisted American icon, not to let pride seep into your character's attitude; but Evans is so sure of Steve's humility that you can actually believe it never even occurs to him to get too big for his britches. Steve Rogers is never a joke, never an object of laughter for Evans or Johnston: he's solid, dependable, and what a hero is supposed to be.
The Right Tone
The supporting cast is thoroughly entertaining, and a reminder of how the tone in a comic book drama does not have to involve fan-pandering self-referentialism or mock bombast to be met by knowing grins. Stanley Tucci, in the key role of Dr. Erskine, strikes the right note: a scientist who's passionate, but not unmoored by his endeavors. Tommy Lee Jones plays Col. Phillips as a gruff old grandfather: crusty and dismissive until you've demonstrated your worth, while Dominic Cooper's engineering genius Howard Stark comes across as the worldly big brother you can always count on. And Hugo Weaving, as Red Skull, gives us not so much an over-the-top performance as a man who's been pushed beyond ordinary behavior.
The screenplay supplies crisp laugh-lines that aren't one-liners designed to be thrown away (at the audience), but which help tell the story: when the German-accented Erskine is asked warily, as he would be in World War II New York, where he's from, he answers, "Qveens." The joke then leads to a connection between Steve and the doctor. Other light-hearted moments, like Steve's confusion about the meaning of the word "fondue," serve dual purposes, relieving the dramatic tension while guiding us around Steve's endearing naïveté.
Love and Valor
The iron rules of formula, particularly when it comes to male and female leads, are not so much ignored as revisited with a fresh eye: the movements of Steve's gentle dance with Peggy are always sketched with an eye for the longer story of who Steve is and what does and does not change about him. To a certain extent this does a disservice to Hayley Atwell -- the story is not about Peggy at all -- but it is about how Peggy comes to be the most important element of Captain America's transformation.
Captain America is fantasy in the best sense. As a boy growing up I hesitated about wanting to be Clark Kent or Peter Parker -- yes, their feats and adventures were amazing and their characters and conflicts deeply compelling, but at the end of the day the world lay heavily on their shoulders, and their anguish and frustration sometimes led them to condescension or even destructiveness. Captain America always seemed like the milquetoast alternative, too good to be true. But in this film version of that hero's story, we find a path toward inspiration not through consciousness of superior power but through the embrace of the best we can imagine in ourselves, in its purest form, and somehow it's not something to dismiss as impossible. Like the finest of superhero stories, Captain America urges us to aspire toward an ideal.