2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
The 90-pound weakling does the heavy lifting in the otherwise lightweight World War II-set Captain America: The First Avenger.
Sure as popsicles melt in a July heat wave, Hollywood wants to lure us into the nice, cool multiplex with a slew of superhero fare.
So far the summer of 2011, especially with offerings Thor and Green Lantern, has hardly been hitting them out of the park. And it hasn’t achieved that with the backstory for Captain America, setting him up as the final member to join Joss Whedon’s massive hero-fest The Avengers next year.
But it’s the best of the lot so far, thanks to the gentle heart, some snappy quips and the novelty of a 1940s setting.
The “before” picture capably played by Chris Evans (Human Torch in the Fantastic 4 flicks) as World War II wannabe solider Steve Rogers is the more interesting of the two sides of the superhero coin in Captain America. An earnest little guy — made truly little thanks to CGI trickery that seamlessly pares Evans down to puny size — he wears his patriotic heart on his sleeve.
He wants to do his bit for the stars and stripes in defeating Hitler although he’d rather not kill anybody in the process. He can’t get past the physical, but he’s got spunk and a can-do attitude that impresses scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, excellent as always) a New Yorker by way of Berlin who’s doing top-secret research to make a corps of super soldiers to send Hitler “to the gates of hell.”
That pithy quote comes from Col. Chester Phillips — played by Tommy Lee Jones with usual craggy wit and a smart lip. He begrudgingly lets the doc try out his super serum on Evans, who he’s dismissed as a “gerbil.”
Rodent put-downs don’t bother Rogers. He’ll do anything for his country, even try to make small talk with that pretty British solider lady with great lipstick (Hayley Atwell).
You can’t have a superhero movie without a villain. You’d think Hitler would be enough (shades of Indiana Jones), but instead we get Hugo Weaving as Red Skull, an evil-tempered German who’s having a bad face day. He looks like Hellboy’s better-dressed Eurotrash uncle.
Red Skull relies on a cowering toady, Zola (Toby Jones) to help him get on with world domination by building crazy-powerful weapons involving something to do with Norse mythology and being a god. Do these evil dudes never give up?
The attention to 1940s detail adds a sense of fun: countdown devices are flip clocks, the microphones are old-fashioned plastic items and machines run on toggle switches and wheels. Even the dialogue from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely crackles with some period sass.
A satisfying bit part introducing us to Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) as the visionary inventor imbued with a liberal dose of Howard Hughes lets us see where Tony the kid gets his slick charm.
But the rest of the movie is ho-hum, let’s blow stuff up and mow down bad guys. Evans shows he can handle irony when he ends up shilling for war bonds with dancing Yankee Doodle dollies and cold-cocking a Fuhrer lookalike before he gets to kick enemy butt.
But his straight-up do-right 1940s persona as the Captain leaves all that in the dust and the characterization may not fly with 2011 audience, despite the fancy excess of explosions and mega-weapons, courtesy of Red Skull’s modern-looking arsenal.
Alan Silvestri’s rousing, military-inspired score helps set the mood, but the use of 3-D does little more than make many of the scenes look muddy behind the glasses and does no special feats beyond removing a few extra bucks from pockets. It works best for the entertaining closing credits which feature art from American propaganda posters from WWII.
Director Joe Johnston, who made the wonderfully sentimental October Sky, gets caught up in the bigness of the project (he did also direct The Wolfman and Jurassic Park III) and that’s when Captain America becomes just another superhero movie.
The small things — from the leading man to ‘40s flourishes — make the movie work. If only Johnston had sweated the big stuff as well.
Linda Baranard is a syndicarted movie critic for The Toronto Star.