'Captain America' is unafraid to embrace its retro ethos

August 1, 2011

It seems from the opening weekend of $65 million, filmgoers still have not suffered superhero bloat (aka Adam West-itis). And this summer, Marvel studios launched two of its riskiest additions to the canon.

"Thor" may have been the largest leap - a Norse god who travels a rainbow bridge to the modern-day U.S., but "Captain America: The First Avenger" had to overcome a backstory cornier than a drive through Nebraska. After all, Steve Rogers, aka the Man Who Becomes Captain America, makes Clark Kent look like Charlie Sheen.

And as witnessed by the most popular heroes right now, we like our caped crusaders to shoulder mountains of angst, flaws, past horrors, mental anguish, and the like.
What’s Steve Rogers got to brood about? He’s a scrawny twerp who gets a widdle sand kicked in his face like some Charles Atlas “before” picture. Someone call a whaaaa-ambulance!

Director Joe Johnson realizes that this is perhaps not the most riveting origin, and instead of trying to update the tale to make it relevant to modern crowds, he dives headfirst into the squareness without poking fun at it. The resulting picture is one that is old-fashioned fun quite similar to the director’s sophomore effort, “The Rocketeer.”

And while the first half of the film might not ignite the theater with fireworks, its measured pace allows viewers to soak in two of the film’s strongest points: lead Chris Evans and the subtly phenomenal use of CGI to sculpt the studly star into a puny half-pint with barely enough strength to lift his own spirits.

As Johnny Storm, Evans was perhaps the only light in the atrocious “Fantastic Four” films and demonstrated his ability to fortify his good looks with a current of comic humility. Subsequent performances in “The Losers” and “Scott Pilgrim Saves the World” only further proved this.

Director Johnson is certainly no stranger to special effects (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Jumanji,” and the underrated “Jurassic Park 3”), but unlike the belch of computer animation that clogged the screen of “The Green Lantern,” Johnson uses it in crafty ways to create a truly retro feel in the World War II-era picture, including the aforementioned grafting of muscle mass from his lead.

In perhaps the film’s most fun and inventive stretches, Steve is injected with the secret serum that inflates him to a super soldier, but still fails to bring an end to his humiliation. For he is still deemed unworthy for battle by the crusty Col. Phillips (played by Tommy Lee Jones), so Steve is relegated to humiliating USO tours of duty, shilling war bonds with showgirls. His suit is a cheap version of what will eventually become his iconic outfit, but it’s just a fraction above a department-store Halloween getup.

When Cap’s enemy, Red Skull (played by Hugo Weaving), decides the Nazis are just not evil enough, the action swings into the kind of summer superhero antics that we expect, but filtered through a sweetly nostalgic (rose-colored?) lens.

It also succeeds in weaving itself into the framework of the forthcoming “Avengers” film, dropping bits of mythology and storylines that tie it to “Thor,” and “Iron Man” (and, as always, stay past the end credits for more).

More than anything, “Captain America” is unafraid to embrace its retro ethos and gives us perhaps the most relatable superhero in all of the “Avengers” arsenal. It takes what could be a gaudy, chest-thumping Toby Keith song of faux patriotism and turns it into a personable ode to the little guy - even making us believe that someone as genetically gifted as Chris Evans could ever be considered “the little guy.”

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