Marvel Films is accomplishing something that I doubted would work: they are transferring the wonder of a shared universe from comic books to film. Captain America: the First Avenger marks what I feel is the first film in the Avengers line to fully develop this. Yes, Nick Fury appears in every film and, yes, many Easter eggs have been dropped into the films, but this one really feels connected to the rest.
The lynchpin to this is Howard Stark, Tony’s father, introduced in Iron Man 2. His role ties much of the universe together and leaves a longer legacy than simply putting Fury in a cameo. You see that he started the Avengers’ work earlier than anyone knew, going back to World War II. Dominic Cooper’s energetic performance makes Stark seem like he could have fathered Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony.
Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull makes an excellent villain, actually ramping up all of the horrific things about Nazi’s into the movie’s new nemesis, Hydra. Think of Hydra as cultist Nazis, even more devoted to a power-hungry madman. Everything about Hydra looks amazing, from their goggled and armored thugs to their tanks to the tentacle-skull logo. They’re deadly and sleek and you want to see them go down.
Also looking the part is Chris Evans as Captain America. Once the movie gets past the odd head-to-big-for-his-body stages, which aren’t as distracting as I had feared, Evans is free to let loose. He takes full advantage of his range of motion, too, running leaping and kicking everything in sight. He carries Steve Rogers with just enough shyness, and no over the top “golly gee” kind of manner, to make the character work as an everyman hero. He seems so solid a person, and conveys much of the goodness that Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine talks of, that he makes the character real and not corny.
If it suffers from moments of convenience, Captain America’s story arc builds up quite well. Steve Rogers does not become Captain America through a series of injections; he becomes Captain America through a series of choices. It makes him a far more compelling hero than, say, Thor of his own movie, who was born to fight. Cap had to earn his opportunity just to do that.
The movie maintains the kind of hopefulness that its era seemed to convey in film. Its lead character should not become Batman, and I praise the filmmakers for knowing this. It’s all too easy to add “edge” to a character for the sake of seeming cool. Captain America is a leader, though, not someone who stalks in shadow. He inspires, not frightens, and Joe Johnston’s film shows this off in a fine way. 4 stars