(by Dustin Putman
"Captain America: The First Avenger" is the final piece of the puzzle in preparation for May 2012's much-anticipated release of "The Avengers," which will find many of the past Marvel superheroes (including those from 2008's "Iron Man" and 2010's "Iron Man 2," 2008's "The Incredible Hulk," and 2010's "Thor") joining forces for what hopes to be an epic cinematic blow-out. It serves its purpose as a bridge to that picture, but does it have any stand-alone value? As it turns out, not very much. Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Thor are modern-day blokes, but weakling-turned-star-spangled-war-savior Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is very specifically from another time (to be more precise, 1940s-era WWII). A wraparound segment explains away how he is transplanted to the twenty-first century, but it also puts the kibosh on any possibility for him to ever return to his own time and place in subsequent movies. Thus, all that occurs in "Captain America: The First Avenger" is readily pointless outside of serving as a mundane origin tale, and all the relationships he builds are for naught since the other characters are likely deceased when he finds himself seventy years in the future. Article continues below
Steve Rogers is a 90-lb. asthmatic who dreams of enlisting in the Army and serving his country in World War II, but his physical ailments and diminutive size keep him from being accepted. A twist of fate arrives when he meets Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who believes he's found a valiant, brave, upstanding soldier to test out his latest experiment. Before long, Steve has transformed into a taller, buffer, stronger version of himself, all the better to venture into enemy territory and save a platoon of U.S. military men—including best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)—being held captive. Out of this comes a more daunting mission: to overthrow a Nazi-like organization called HYDRA led by the tyrannical Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Schmidt has located an energy source powerful enough to change the war and the world, though what he really hopes to accomplish remains rather sketchy. The point is, he's batshit crazy—like Hitler, only worse. With tough, unsuspectingly sensual military agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and commanding officer Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) on his side, Steve Rogers becomes Captain America and swings into action.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" sounds better based on the above synopsis than the film itself actually is. Either because the project was rushed into production to meet a release date or because the PG-13 rating and a strict adherence to safe, mainstream popcorn-movie formula was required, director Joe Johnston (2010's "The Wolfman") and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (2010's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader") trample so lightly upon historical details involving the war that they might as well have just fictionalized it completely. An anarchic spirit was needed in its revisionist treatment of WWII—think Quentin Tarantino's 2009 masterwork "Inglourious Basterds"—but here it's simply rendered vague and flavorless. As for the hope that Captain America will whoop some Hitler ass (as he famously did on the comic's very first cover), think again. This film isn't a quarter as brave as its source material.
Chris Evans (2010's "The Losers"), who bulked up considerably for the role and has his head CGI'ed onto a beanpole body double in the early scenes, is amiable enough, but woefully bland. The script may be the biggest offender here, since it provides so little insight into Steve Rogers' background, family, etc. All that is learned is that he's from Brooklyn and doesn't let his slight build get in the way of his courage. Once he becomes, for all intents and purposes, Captain America, the film doesn't bother to show what Steve thinks of his new body and special abilities (the specifics of which are frustratingly never divulged outside of an increase in strength). The other characters are even more empty and two-dimensional, with Bucky (and his ultimate fate) treated as an afterthought and Bucky's squad members (made up of good actors like Neal McDonough and Derek Luke) getting no more than a couple lines apiece. Tommy Lee Jones (2007's "No Country for Old Men") gets to look stoic as Col. Chester Phillips, Stanley Tucci (2010's "Burlesque") brings flair to Dr. Erskine before exiting the proceedings too quickly, and Hayley Atwell (2008's "Cassandra's Dream") is asked only to play Peggy Carter as strong-willed and ahead of her time. Her romance with Steve is so poorly handled that it barely registers—a shame since she and Evans could, with better material, cook up some nice chemistry. Finally, the deliciously maniacal Hugo Weaving (2006's "V for Vendetta") is squandered after some indelible early introductory scenes as bad guy Johann Schmidt/Red Skull. The film doesn't know what to do with him by the halfway point and loses interest as he drifts into the background and mostly just barks orders. As for what his deeper motives are and what he hopes to accomplish in the war, the film doesn't dare touch those loaded questions with a ten-foot pole.
In a summer that seemingly has seen a new comic book adaptation every other week, it's a toss-up whether "Captain America: The First Avenger" or "Green Lantern" is the weakest of the bunch. The former has slicker, more impressive production values (that's about all it has going for it), but the garish latter had a better villain in the monstrous, ectoplasmic Parallax. Both, however, fail on all the fundamental levels one expects from a big-budget sci-fi/action picture. Committing a cardinal sin by becoming increasingly boring, "Captain America: The First Avenger" is unevenly paced, starved for development, and not once exciting or intense. The action scenes consist mostly of running and shooting in buildings, and the others (one set on a speeding train barrelling through the snow-covered Alps and another involving a high-flying fighter plane) lack momentum and inspiration outside of pure aesthetics. Indeed, the film looks great (in 2-D, that is; the 3-D theatrical presentation is so clunky and ineffective that it can be watched for minutes at a time without the glasses and no image blurring takes place—a sure sign that it's an awful conversion). Cinematography by Shelly Johnson (2008's "The House Bunny") is sure to make a bold impression when the picture comes to high-def Blu-ray, marrying the 1940s with futuristic flourishes; an early sequence set at the World Exposition of Tomorrow is like an unforgettable trip to Epcot. Take away the visual flash, though, and there's nothing left to care about, to think about, or to grab hold of. It's but a means to an end in setting up "The Avengers," and let's hope they put more care into that screenplay than they did into this one.