Captain America may be the first Avenger, but he’s also the penultimate test of a cinematic experiment that culminates in next year’s superhero ensemble film, “The Avengers.” Thus far, Marvel Studios’ plan has been a success, with Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor all managing to establish themselves with mainstream audiences individually, then transforming that success into anticipation for their return in “Avengers.”
However, after watching “Captain America: The First Avenger,” it makes sense that the studio would position star-spangled superhero Steve Rogers as the last character to make his solo debut before the big “Avengers” reunion. In many ways, the film feels more like a preamble to something bigger than a self-contained story – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
At a time when every film is envisioned as one chapter of a 12-part franchise, it’s not always a deal-breaker to lean on what’s come before and what the audience knows will follow. The recently concluded “Harry Potter” franchise was proof of that, and “Captain America” taps into a similar self-awareness of its role in a larger story arc that will be appreciated by comic book fans without alienating mainstream audiences.
Still, that’s not to say that “Captain America” is devoid of problems. Despite some ambitious use of effects, the scrawny, pre-superhero Steve Rogers created by digitally grafting star Chris Evans’ head onto another actor’s body never seems quite human, and the addition of Evans’ voice to the final product makes the entire character seem like an overdubbed mess. This is especially unfortunate, because it’s clear the screenwriters did a good job of showing you why he was a hero long before he gained all of that extra muscle. Sadly, the weird, mismatched visual distracts from their work and makes it difficult to connect with the character.
On the flip side, “Captain America” overcomes the obstacle everyone saw in its path: finding a way to realistically portray a muscle-bound supersoldier in bright red, white, and blue spandex hurling his color-coordinated shield at a crimson, skull-faced villain. To its credit, the film explains why its soldier-turned-superhero’s uniform makes perfect sense in the context of his adventures, and the Red Skull – while a bit more cartoonish than necessary – manages to seem right at home in the tale’s WWII setting.
What also came as a surprise in “The First Avenger” was how similar the film felt to director Joe Johnston’s first comic book movie, 1991’s “The Rocketeer.” The two comics-influenced period pieces share a similar tone, presenting their characters’ adventures through a more innocent, Disney-fied version of reality and tapping into the nostalgic fun of comics’ Silver Age heroes.
But even though the Walt Disney Company now owns Marvel, it’s worth noting that “Captain America” definitely isn’t just another “Rocketeer.” This Marvel film is a darker, more violent adventure than Johnston’s first foray into the comic book world (there’s one scene in particular that echoes Indiana Jones’ messy tarmac brawl in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), and it harkens back to the character’s original, gun-toting adventures that often left more than a few enemy soldiers dead in his wake.
Viewed as the explosion-a-minute, simple action film that it’s intended to be, “Captain America” delivers on what it needs to do: introduce the character to mainstream audiences while not offending longtime fans, and prime the public for “The Avengers.” Unlike prior Marvel movies, however, the film falls short in its effort to develop a character you’ll gladly see more of without his superhero teammates.
Fortunately for Steve Rogers, that won’t be an issue, as he’ll get another chance to win audiences over next year when “Avengers” finally bows on the big screen. When that time comes around, though, he’ll have to wrest the spotlight away from Iron Man, Thor, and the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
It’s no small feat, but then again, he is “The First Avenger.”