On the wrongheaded side of bad comes Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie that does five things wrong for every one thing it does right. The film’s missteps aren’t huge or overt, but rather are a bunch of tiny blunders that sneak up on you. I was about halfway through the film before I realized, “Hey, wait a second, this might actually not be very good.” Unfortunately, I was right, since the movie slowly unravels as the reels pile up, as its collection of poor aesthetic choices and confusing technical choices become more and more offputting.
The film is the latest in Marvel Comics build-up to their great big orgiastic Avengers movie that’s slated to come out next year, and follows down the same wisecracking paths as Jon Favreau’s Iron Man flicks and this year’s Thor. But where those films have a definitive—and workable—palette to paint from (Iron Man is centered around modern-day technology; Thor is based around magic), Captain America can’t quite figure out a proper tone, mostly due to being set in World War II. This should be a plus, since comic-book movies aren’t normally set in period (it already worked once this year for Marvel in X-Men: First Class), but war-torn Europe is a much grittier backdrop than the 1960s. Even here, the front isn’t depicted as all that much fun, which means when we get the laser-gun wielding, gimp-suit-sporting henchmen, none of it fits together all that well.
Actually, the film starts running off the rails before all that. The first sign of trouble is when we meet our protagonist, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a “90-pound asthmatic”—or rather some scrawny actor with Evans’ head CGI’ed on him, making him look a lot like Martin Short in the long forgotten Clifford (1994). Luckily, we don’t have to deal with our bobbleheaded hero for too long, since the U.S. government is kind enough to ‘roid him up, turning him into a buff, tanned-and-waxed superhuman soldier patriotically dubbed Captain America.
The next section of the film works better, showing Rogers being used more as a symbol and a means of selling war bonds than as a superhero, which contrasts nicely with the relatively stark image of war-torn Europe. This doesn’t last long, however, as the film tries to shove all matter of goofy sci-fi into the mix. Most of this comes in the form of the occult-obsessed leader of the aforementioned leather-clad henchmen, Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull (played by Hugo Weaving in enough red make-up to make him look like a failed experiment at Yankee Candle). The idea is likely Johnston’s attempt at recreating the pulp-era fun of Indiana Jones, but the screwier aspects of the plot don’t line up with the real-world feel the film is going for. It’s never quite playful enough to be pure dumb fun, but it’s also too lighthearted and wonky to work on the level of a more serious sci-fi film. Since a good bit of the action—usually consisting of Cap either running into or kicking bad guys—is shown via montage, there’s also a severe lack of cinematic excitement or innovation.
Taking that into account, the entire film comes off as inept. This is true even down to the technical aspects, like its grainy digital-video look—$140 million and they couldn’t hire someone to properly light the sets?—plus all the phony-looking CGI. There’s also a wealth of bizarre editing choices, with short scenes being snuck in that have zero purpose in the film. (This is compounded with the requisite tag scene at the end, with Samuel L. Jackson setting up the Avengers next summer, followed by yet another post-credits tag scene. And then—after that—a trailer for The Avengers.) Sure, this is a movie with a beginning, a middle and an end. But it’s also a movie that’s an advertisement for another movie—one which isn’t due until next year—and which has Captain America‘s plot completely at its mercy. The production-design choices that are tied into The Avengers—the “Cosmic Cube” business and Red Skull’s sci-fi technology—are exactly what doesn’t quite fit inside the film. Add it all up and Captain America becomes a pretty extraneous piece of filmmaking. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.