It seems so long ago (2008) that Robert Downey, Jr. revitalized his career with Iron Man, a movie that kicked the superhero genre in the ass. Iron Man was a throat-testicle blockbuster, the reales Abkommen, cinematic engorgia, a movie that left us gleefully priapistic. But after a slew of superhero movies — both Marvel and not — our engorged cinematic members have lost some blood. It’s not that the Marvel movies since have been bad (with the exception of Iron Man 2), it’s that it’s all felt very missionary. Our torrid backseat hate fuck with Iron Man has turned into a routine Friday night date under the sheets with the lights off.
It feels mechanical, and now Marvel Studios feels like another Hollywood industrial machine spitting out product. The good news is that, with Thor and now Captain America, Marvel has perfected the assembly-line process. Captain America is well-oiled cinematic vroom, a shiny new toy that’s fun to play with for a couple of hours but that will soon end up forgotten in the back of our memories’ toy boxes underneath the Incredible Hulk and Thor merchandise.
Indeed, Captain America looks and feels like the perfect movie for a 14-year-old boy; it’s earnest and inoffensive, all Red, White, Blue and Gee Willikers. If there’s an instruction manual for how to make a Captain America movie, Joe Johnston followed it to the letter. The problem, unfortunately, is that it looks made from a “How to Make a Captain America Movie” Kit. I’ve never read a page of the comic books and knew next to nothing about the character, but the movie is exactly as I pictured it would be.
Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park) was, in a way, the perfect choice, the Christopher Columbus of action movies, a man that can assemble without injecting his personality. He’s done a flawless job with Captain America, but in doing so, he’s taken away the unexpected. For all his many faults as a director, at least with Michael Bay you can marvel at how bat-shit over-the-top he can be. That motherfucker swings for the fences, even if he does end up falling on his ass most of the time. With Johnston, you get a .300 hitter who knocks a lot of singles to the opposite field. Captain America is good, but it’s like winning the game by scoring the go-ahead run on a sac fly in the top of sixth inning. It gets the job done, but without a lot of flair.
Set in 1942, Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a 90-pound weakling who has been turned away from several army recruitment centers. All he wants to do is what his parents did: Serve his country. That opportunity arises when he meets a German scientists, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who — along with the help of Tony’s dad, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) — injects him full of a serum that instantly erases his meek CGI frame and replaces it with the broad shoulders and massive pecs of Chris Evans. But instead of going to the front line, the army puts Rogers in Captain America tights and parades him around the country to raise money for the war effort.
That goodwill tour eventually takes him to Germany, where he discovers that his best friend has disappeared behind enemy lines along with several other members of a unit led by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Against the wishes of Phillips, Rogers goes on a mission to save those troops with the assistance of Howard Stark and the movie’s love interest, a female British soldier, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). What he discovers is that Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) — who was Dr. Erskine’s failed first test case with the serum — has abducted those troops, splintered away from the Nazis, and with the power of a Marvel MacGuffin — a magical Tesseract — built a lot of spectacularly powerful laser-type weapons that dematerialize the enemy. Red Skull, who leans toward the insane side, has his sights set on world destruction (naturally), and there’s only one man that can stop him.
Chris Evans is more than serviceable in the role of Captain America, a man of modesty and few words who knows how to handle a steel-vibranium alloy shield and throw a punch. The character unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of personality, which is shame because Evans proved in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that he can be more than a superhero vessel. Tommy Lee Jones does an amazing impression of Tommy Lee Jones, while Tucci is equally adept at playing a German version of Stanley Tucci. Hugo Weaving, as Red Skull, should’ve been the villainous life force behind the movie, but he’s mostly reduced to an over-the-top mug, a cartoon caricature of a Nazi mad scientist. Dominic Cooper does a decent Howard Stark, but he lacks the bigger-than-life presence of the man who plays his son. Atwell likewise does an admirable job of channeling a certain stoic British charm, but she’s mostly a stock character.
Nothing in Captain America really jumps out at you, but I did appreciate the tone and coloration. It’s set in the 1940s and there’s something comfortable about the throwback vibe, something that suggests the kind of film that Michael Curtiz might have made if he had $150 million budget and access to today’s modern technology. It might’ve been improved by a couple of musical numbers, in fact.
Still, there’s a fine line between a groove and a rut, and with Captain America, it’s hard to tell which Marvel has fallen into. It’s repeating itself, but it’s doing it really well. That is to say, it’s not a bad movie, folks. In fact, it’s enjoyable. It’s just very plain. It doesn’t burst with excitement. There’s no hair pulling or ass slapping. It’s exactly what you expect, no more and no less. For better or worse, it’s a really competent, conservative superhero movie. But it’s never going to be anyone’s favorite. In fact, in The Avengers teaser that follows the end credits, there’s more electricity in that single quarter-second shot of Robert Downey, Jr. than there is in all of Captain America, and that 45-second teaser sums up the entire Marvel Universe at the moment: It’s RDJ’s show, and everyone else is just the supporting acts.