It’s the cliché Charles Atlas ad writ large: scrawny weakling becomes muscular giant, but with a heart of gold. In the highly entertaining original film ‘Captain America: The First Avenger,’ the 98-pound weakling is a digitally altered skinny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, try as he might, can’t get anyone in the armed services to let him sign up. It’s the mid 1940s and World War II is front and center: only rejects aren’t fighting overseas.
After coming to the attention of kindly German-American scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Rogers joins a special military force and struggles through the training, complete with grizzled Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) making wisecracks at his expense. Erskine, we learn, has developed an enhancing serum that when combined with the Vita-Ray, can create super soldiers. His previous test subject was while he was still in Germany working for the Nazis: Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Unfortunately, the first attempt created an egomaniacal monster and Schmidt is also secretly the Red Skull, the arch nemesis of Rogers and freedom lovers everywhere.
The film spends about half its time in a very enjoyable back story, showing Rogers desire to help with the war effort and his training and transformation into the hulking Captain America. The second half has Cap running down Nazis, tossing bad guys around, rescuing kids, and helping America win the war.
I’m a big fan of Weaving, but will complain that he doesn’t bring much energy to the Red Skull. I wanted a larger than life bad guy to really challenge Rogers, not this pushover who seems quite easy to defeat. I was surprised by Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his short time on screen. My recollection was that he was the faithful partner throughout the adventures. And then there’s the beautiful love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) who could also have done with a bit more personality, as their relationship seemed lukewarm at best…
Still, even with those shortcomings, the visual effects are good, the weakling-to-hero story arc of Rogers, including a surprise mid-film sequence where he’s more of a shill for War Bonds than anything else, was enjoyable, and the film overall is great fun and it’s one of the best comic book films I’ve seen in years.