Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel) provided one of the best sensations I've felt at the movies this year: the pleasant shock of expectations reversed. Captain America isn't a masterpiece, but it's a solidly crafted, elegant adventure movie that held my attention from start to finish and sent me out into the street energized instead of enervated. I didn't think any comic-book blockbuster could get through the scar tissue that's built up around my heart. This year alone we've already had The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern —movies that have run the gamut from bad to less-bad to really-not-so-bad-in-parts-all-things-considered. But Captain America serves as a reminder of why we started plundering comics for story ideas in the first place: because they're great sources of American populist myth, in addition to being rollicking good fun.
Captain America also proves the point—seemingly simple but oddly difficult for Hollywood producers to retain from one movie to the next—that what makes a film sing isn't the special effects or the casting or even necessarily the direction: It's the script, stupid. Good writing is the sine qua non of good narrative filmmaking. Blue-chip actors are of little use if they're wrapping their mouths around shoddy dialogue, as Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, and Christoph Waltz have all made clear this year in superhero-supporting roles. And spectacularly destroying Chicago, as Michael Bay did in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is only thrilling if you've created characters the audience doesn't want to see crushed by rubble.
The writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also collaborated on all three Chronicles of Narnia films) choose to start their story in March 1941, the date of release of the first Captain Avenger. That comic, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, carried an unabashed anti-isolationist message that made it controversial in those pre-Pearl Harbor days: The cover showed our flag-emblazoned hero, Steve Rogers, socking Hitler in the jaw. Markus and McFeely's bright idea was to approach Steve Rogers' story as a straight-up period piece: no smirking nods to fans, no stunt performances or fourth-wall-breaking celebrity cameos (with the exception of a questionably necessary epilogue that we'll return to later). This is an earnestly inspirational war picture; it's no accident the closing credits begin with the image of an "Uncle Sam Wants You"-style recruitment poster.
In those days before Pearl Harbor, a barking mad Nazi officer, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) breaks into a Norwegian crypt to steal a small crystal cube whose possessor can harness near-infinite power. As Schmidt gloats over his prize, we jump ahead to the first confused days after America's entry into the war. The 98-pound patriot Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, his head digitally transposed onto a much smaller man's body) has been trying to get into the Army by any means necessary, including lying to the draft board. Asked why he's so fiercely committed to fighting Hitler, Steve says simply, "I don't like bullies." But his small stature and long list of physical ailments have earned him an unwanted 4-F exemption. When Steve's valor is spotted by Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a government scientist working on a secret experiment, Erskine convinces a hardboiled Army colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) to hand over the puny recruit.
After a lab procedure turns him into a towering slab of manhood, Steve is first recruited to sell war bonds: Outfitted in a hooded woolen suit and billed as "Captain America," he tours the country performing staged feats of derring-do in front of a line of red-white-and-blue-clad chorus girls. (The musical montage in which we see this act coming together, over a note-perfect period-style song, is one of the movie's many small delights.) The gambit of having the Captain America character be someone else's creation—all Steve wanted was to serve as an ordinary soldier—cleverly circumvents a problem endemic to the superhero origin story: How can our hero credibly go from normal to super without sacrificing his humility?
When Steve hears that his childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has disappeared behind enemy lines in Italy, a career punching out a Hitler stand-in before cheering crowds abruptly loses its appeal. So, aided by Peggy Carter (the luscious Hayley Atwell), a top agent at the mysterious Strategic Science Reserve, Steve steals away on a one-man rescue mission. In the process, he learns that the renegade Nazi Johann Schmidt has now become Red Skull, a crimson-skinned supervillain who's so unhinged he makes Hitler look mellow. Even under a half-digital, half-latex mask that limits his range of expression, Weaving makes a splendid meanie, striding the halls of his Goth-Nazi-industrial hideout in a billowing leather coat.
Chris Evans, who's been a memorable supporting presence in mainstream movies for a while now (he played the volatile Human Torch in the Fantastic Fourfilms and the arrogant action star Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), effortlessly owns the role of Steve Rogers. He's wholesome but not goody-goody, masculine but not macho, and likeable without begging for the audience's love. In fact there's not a role here that isn't well-cast: Toby Jones as a pusillanimous German scientist, Dominic Cooper as the wealthy industrialist Howard Stark (father of Iron Man Tony Stark). Only when Samuel L. Jackson popped up near the end to remind us that this movie is only the latest chapter in the Ring Cycle-length windup to the coming Avengers movie did I feel torn out of Captain America's remarkably consistent and well-integrated world.
Between the old-fashioned, gung-ho score by Alan Silvestri and the loving attention to WWII period detail, Captain America at times recalls (without ever being as good as) Steven Spielberg's wartime adventure yarn Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tommy Lee Jones, as the cranky Colonel Phillips, gets a few Indiana Jones-worthy rejoinders, and there's a propeller-related stunt that recalls one of Indy's more memorable skirmishes. This Spielberg connection makes sense, given that director Joe Johnston won an Oscar for his work designing visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's probably too much to hope that Captain America represents a new kind of superhero movie. I'm just grateful to Johnston for a nice midsummer break from the other kind.