Boy, they sure knew how to do patriotism in the 1940s. I’m proud to be an American, but I cringe at many of today’s ghastly red-white-and-blue flag-and-eagle displays, and am deeply pained anytime I’m forced to listen to Lee Greenwood’s execrable “God Bless the USA.” However, I was ready to buy war bonds after hearing Captain America’s sales pitch.
The movie is a terrific piece of summer entertainment. It reminded me that blockbusters needn’t turn the volume up to 11 on the action; my ear drums are thankful. Plus the beautiful World War II era costumes and art direction are thrilling to the eye. And the story — while as simplistic as its comic-book origins — manages to deliver a surprisingly moving arc for its hero. I hadn’t expected to walk out of a popcorn flick thinking about the passengers of United 93, but there I was.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is Captain America, in case you didn’t know. He didn’t start out a superhero. He was a 90-pound weakling of a man, but (as the movie makes over-abundantly clear) he had a lot of heart. It’s 1942 and Steve wants badly to join up to fight the Nazis, whom he equates with the bullies that have long tortured him. The Army rejects his enlistment repeatedly, citing his small size and poor health, but Rogers keeps trying.
It’s that determination that catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, borrowing the accent of Professor Ludwig Von Drake). Erskine invites Rogers to participate in a secret government program to develop super-soldiers. Using a mysterious serum, Erskine makes him taller, stronger, and faster. He becomes the nearly indestructible “Captain America.” After foiling the attempt of a spy to steal Erskine’s work, he becomes a national hero.
Meanwhile a group of rogue Nazi scientists, led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, borrowing the accent of Werner Herzog), discover an energy source believed to harness the power of the Norse gods. Their shadowy organization, known as Hydra, plans to use it to build a collection of giant death-ray lasers to destroy both the Allied and Axis powers and claim the world for themselves.
Of course, they aren’t counting on Captain America. Steve Rogers now has a big body to go along with his big heart, which is plainly pleasing to the beautiful Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). When the government decides to send Captain America on a fund-raising tour, rather than to the warfront, it’s Carter who helps Steve see that he’s not living up to the potential that Erskine’s serum gave him. Against the orders of Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), they hatch a plan to rescue soldiers being held prisoner at a Hydra base. Their first success leads to another and another and eventually a climactic battle against the arch-villain known as Red Skull.
If you don’t think too much about the laser weapons carried by the Hydra foot soldiers, Captain America feels much more like a World War II drama than a comic-book movie. That could have a lot to do with why I liked it so much, despite the absence of any truly stellar action sequences. It’s just the story of a regular guy from Brooklyn who meets a girl and helps save the world. When it’s done with this kind of style, that’s enough.