LOS ANGELES - No one is going to pretend that this is art, psychologically profound or anything other than preposterous. It is a popcorn movie, but much better than most of its kind. Director Joe Johnston makes populist movies, but he showed a flair for period in “The Rocketeer” and a grasp of dealing with actors in “Jurassic Park III”. Even in “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids”, he didn’t allow the cast to be overpowered by special effects. This picture reflects all those talents, plus two qualities you don’t often encounter in summer blockbusters: intelligence and humanity.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a puny asthmatic from Brooklyn who dreams of serving in the U.S. military, while neighborhood bullies kick metaphorical sand in his face. He’s in the middle of World War II, but his country doesn’t need him until, that is, a scientist named Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recognises qualities in Steve that might make him ideal military material, if he were bigger and much, much stronger. Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is in charge of Erskine’s secret government programme manufacturing super-soldiers, and in no time at all Steve is the bulked-up, super-powerful prototype. But a Nazi spy sabotages the operation, so that Erskine is killed, leaving Steve as his only ‘creation’.
At this point, you need to suspend your disbelief. Is it credible that a government-sponsored scientist would have no assistants and keep no notes? Not really, but if he had done we’d have a different film, with more than one Captain America.
The new-look Steve is no longer invisible to attractive women, and a relationship builds up between him and a red-lipped English rose (Hayley Atwell), who not only looks pretty good in uniform but is also handy in a fight. She also comes close to having a personality very nearly a first for a female in comic-strip movies. The villain of the piece is super-Nazi Johann Schmidt Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who has his own private army within the Third Reich and has plans for world domination that make Hitler’s look modest. But the newly buff Steve isn’t allowed to take him on. A senator uses Captain America as a poster-boy for U.S. war bonds, which does not exactly endear Steve to those U.S. troops who are having to do real fighting. Needless to say, Steve finds a more direct way to help the war effort, and ends up recruiting a crack squad of commandos to assist him. They embark on a World War II action adventure, along the lines of “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Guns Of Navarone”. Benjamin Button-style special effects work extremely effectively to render Chris Evans both smaller and larger than life. But Evans brings warmth and dignity to a role that could easily have been camped up. He’s much more impressive here than he was in the “Fantastic Four” franchise. However, the idea of a Nazi bent on world domination is more than a little yawn-worthy, and not even Hugo Weaving can give this villain much that’s fresh. His performance is too one-note, and Toby Jones makes more of an impression as his shifty sidekick.
Of course, there are the massive shoot-outs and huge explosions demanded in this kind of blockbuster, and at these points sensitive souls may find themselves checking their watches. Once again, ropey 3D has been added as an afterthought and does little more than darken the picture. Most likeably of all, the film has charm. That’s because Johnston has obvious affection for 40s design and World War II movies. Running through the piece is quite a sweet romance, with more than one nod to the Powell-Pressburger classic “A Matter Of Life And Death”. Johnston is never likely to be hailed by critics as an auteur, but he’s more than a Hollywood hack. He makes us care about the characters, and ensures that this blockbuster remembers the importance of fun.