By far, the most difficult comic book superhero to adapt to the silver screen is CAPTAIN AMERICA. First, from a studio business perspective, CAPTAIN AMERICA is a horrible property for any studio to distribute because of its uniquely American character. Paramount and Marvel Studios can pretty much kiss any prospect of big international box office goodbye. Financial success of this movie solely relies on how it does at the U.S. box office. Second, a superhero who pretty much wears an American flag, has a shield for a weapon, and is called Captain America is going to be a pretty tough sell to jaded, tech savvy kids who are more used to the likes of darker superheroes like Batman and Wolverine. I always felt that the best way to overcome the cheese factor of CAPTAIN AMERICA was to approach the character in 1 of 2 ways: you either set it during World War II and make it look nostalgic like THE ROCKETEER (also directed by Joe Johnston) or you go the other extreme and set the story in a cold, dark, gritty world of international espionage that deals with issues of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and other modern day political issues. What would not work on the big screen would be to tell a straight-forward comic book superhero tale like they did for GREEN LANTERN.

Fortunately, Paramount and Marvel Studios seemed to agree and opted to set CAPTAIN AMERICA during the 1940s. Many fans questioned the choice to have Joe Johnston helm the film, especially after the disasterous results of his last film, THE WOLFMAN. For one, THE WOLFMAN can’t really be blamed on Johnston because he took over the directing reins from another director pretty late into the production. Johnston did the best he could to shape that film into something half-way decent given the little time he was given. More importantly, Johnston’s successful adaptation of THE ROCKETEER and his love of the 1940’s era made him the perfect choice to bring CAPTAIN AMERICA to the screen. A protégé of Steven Spielberg, Johnston presents a classic, nostalgic take on America’s superhero with a story that’s full of the sort of action and adventure that’s reminiscent of 30’s and 40’s era serial adventure movies. The movie isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it miraculously avoids being a disaster, which it easily could have been in the hands of most directors.

CAPTAIN AMERICA is sort of Marvel Comics’ answer to DC’s Superman. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a scrawny young man who’s numerous attempts to enlist in the Army are denied due to the laundry list of health conditions he suffers from. Undeterred, Rogers continues to try joining the Army and go overseas to fight the Nazis. One day, Rogers’ frustrations are overheard by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), an expatriate German scientist who now works for the U.S. government. The doctor is developing a super-soldier secret serum that enhances the physical attributes of a person. The doctor uses his influence to get Rogers enlisted and eventually become the doctor’s first subject to be injected with the super-soldier serum. The serum works and Rogers basically becomes super-human powered. At first, Rogers is relegated to selling war bonds in traveling musical shows. Dressed in a costume and calling himself Captain America, Rogers becomes a celebrity. However, his real desire is to join America’s soldiers to defeat the Nazis. He finally gets that chance by freeing a platoon of soldiers who have been captured by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer who plans to use his personal army to take over the world, including Nazi Germany. Finally gaining legitimacy, Captain America becomes America’s go-to soldier and is sent out to take out the Red Skull.

I was really skeptical when Marvel announced the casting of Chris Evans as Captain America. I had just seen him in last year’s THE LOSERS and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how this actor could possibly embody the nobility, courage, and patriotism that symbolizes Captain America. I always felt that Paul Walker would have been the ideal Captain America and I still feel he was the better choice. Although I wasn’t overall disappointed by Evans’ portrayal of Captain America, there was something missing. I didn’t sense the larger-than-life presence that I should have felt whenever I saw Captain America. Even when he fights alongside other superheroes (as we will see in next year’s THE AVENGERS), Captain America exudes a commanding, almost god-like presence. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that from Chris Evans.

On the other hand, Chris Evans is supported by a marvelous supporting cast that brings a lot of energy and humor to the film. Its been a while since I’ve seen Tommy Lee Jones in a film and his appearance was a most welcome sight. Jones plays Colonel Chester Phillips, who works with Dr. Erskine to develop the super-soldier program. Jones plays the craggy, sarcastic character that we have seen him do in the past, most notably in THE FUGITIVE. Normally, the superhero’s love interest is usually a two-dimensional damsel in distress figure who barely registers on the audience’s radar. This was glaringly true in this summer’s GREEN LANTERN. However, CAPTAIN AMERICA breaks that mold with Hayley Atwell, who plays SSR officer Peggy Carter. Carter has spunk, intelligence, and as much bravery as Captain America. I have a feeling this movie will get Atwell a well-deserved notice by audiences and studio executives. Rounding out the strong supporting cast is Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine and Neal McDonough and Derek Luke as members of Captain America’s Howling Commandos. All of these actors bring dimensionality to the film. By the way, I missed the Stan Lee cameo so if anyone saw him, please feel free to submit a comment to this review and let me know where I can find him.

Saving the best for last, CAPTAIN AMERICA, like most other action-adventure films, benefits greatly from the fine performance of Hugo Weaving as Captain America’s arch-nemesis, Red Skull. You couldn’t ask for better casting than Hugo Weaving to play the Nazi and he plays him to absolute perfection. Unlike my disappointment with Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Voldemort in HARRY POTTER 7.5, Weaving wisely avoids a clichéd portrayal of the Red Skull’s evil. He infuses the character with enough nuances to give the character dimensionality and originality.

When it was announced Martin Campbell would direct GREEN LANTERN, I expected that the director’s old-school mentality would result in a lot more practical effects than CG effects. However, the director instead opted to rely on much more CG effects, which clearly became a problem for someone who’s not used to using CG effects in his films. Joe Johnston doesn’t make this mistake with CAPTAIN AMERICA. The director has been around a long time and he began making movies before CG effects entirely took over practical effects. Consequently, Johnston is comfortable using practical effects and he does so frequently in CAPTAIN AMERICA. Because of its practical effects, the movie adds to the nostalgia effect and I felt like I was watching an 80s action-adventure film.

At the same time, Johnston’s direction also results in unoriginal and clichéd action sequences that we’ve seen way too many times in past films. None of the action sequences are interesting and this is where the fresh perspective of a younger director would have come in handy. The scenes where Captain America saves the American soldiers from the Red Skull’s castle and where Captain America goes after the Red Skull in the 3rd Act completely lack originality. I wanted to see set-ups and choreography I had never seen before such as what Zack Snyder had done in THE WATCHMEN. I also never felt that Captain America was in any danger. I understand that a character of his mythic proportions will always escape danger, but it would have been nice to at least have felt some high stakes in the situations the hero finds himself in. I didn’t even get this in the scene where his sidekick, Bucky Barnes, gets killed.

Another issue I had with CAPTAIN AMERICA was the lack of clear motivation for Steve Rogers. Its made clear that Rogers wants to join the Army to fight for his country against the Nazis. However, we don’t get a good picture as to why he’s so determined to do so. At one point he tells someone that he doesn’t like bullies because he’s a weak guy, but there needs to be more. What lies in his past that compels him to be the man that he is? This is a basic problem that comic book superheroes face in that their motivations are usually not explained in-depth. They are simply committed to fight for justice and their reason for doing so is usually pretty basic. However, in a movie, I think you need to give the character a little more motivation than what you would find in a comic book. That way, you dimensionalize the character more and connect with him better.

CAPTAIN AMERICA is a decent overall effort from Joe Johnston and I was grateful that the director was at least able to avoid crafting a complete disaster. If you love the 1940s era and were particularly a fan of THE ROCKETEER, then you’ll find a certain pleasure in watching this movie. Don’t go into this expecting high superhero art like THE DARK KNIGHT because this was clearly not intended to be that. It’s as summer-y as a summer popcorn movie can get (I think I said that about SUPER 8 as well), which is not entirely a bad thing. By the way, make sure you stick around through the end credits to see a teaser trailer for THE AVENGERS.

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