Ever feel as if this is a Marvel Cinematic Universe and we're just living in it? If you've sought out comic-book-action thrills at the multiplex over the past few years, then you know what I'm talking about. And you also already know that Captain America: The First Avenger, for all its nostalgia-hued fun, is essentially just a set-up.
DC Comics has achieved reboot glory via Christopher Nolan's Batman pics (the third due next summer), and may find a speeding bullet in a planned Superman remake in 2012 called Man of Steel. But various one-off flicks like this summer's dim Green Lantern reveal a lack of strategic cinema planning.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Tinseltown, Marvel has been meting out an ambitious cinematic vision. The company knows it's not enough these days for a guy to strap on reactor-powered armour or get blasted with gamma rays or regain ancient godly powers, or, in the case of 98-pound-weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in Captain America, have his patriotism and muscle mass enhanced by the injection of top-secret serum. Superhero movies will be stronger if they work together - and that's exactly what's been happening through Robert Downey's Iron Man flicks, Edward Norton's 2008 redo of The Incredible Hulk, and this spring's winning hammer toss, Thor.
The goal is Marvel Studios' The Avengers, the superhero smackdown written and directed by Joss Whedon and scheduled for 3-D release next May. Captain America is the fourth and final Marvel comics original story required before the superdudes can avenge together on screen. But there are challenges, not the least of which is that Captain America was "born" in the 1940s, and his future superpals are modern characters.
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the team best known for writing the three recent Narnia films, whip up a Captain America story that often feels like its only purpose is to deliver Steve Rogers into the 21st century. The many montages, story leaps and abundance of flat, functional characters (the wonderful Dominic Cooper is wasted in the thin role of inventor-industrialist Howard Stark, future father of Tony "Iron Man" Stark) lend a "let's just get through this" vibe.
Nevertheless, the film contains many fun visual and action flourishes from director Joe Johnston (director of cult fave The Rocketeer), whose pop-up book approach to 3-D and limited colour palette make Captain America's overall look kind of like Sky Captain meets Indiana Jones, with a touch of steampunk.
In the opening scenes, Evans, who played the Human Torch in two Fantastic Four movies and is a solid choice for the straight-arrow Captain America, is eerily scrawny thanks to digital magic and camera angles. But his physique expands when Steve Rogers becomes the Strategic Scientific Reserve's candidate to test an experimental super-soldier serum. It works. Instead of being shipped off to fight bullies (as the former 98-pound-weakling refers to Nazis), he's sent out to sell war bonds - depicted in a fun musical montage that also introduces the iconic Captain America costume in an ironic way.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, the evil Nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, with a perfect German accent), aka Red Skull, has tapped into a source of Teutonic mythological power and is working closely with a mousey sidekick scientist to harness this for his world-domination project.
Is there any doubt Evans' Captain America will do exactly what the character created 70 years ago by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby did in the comics - kick Nazi butt? The real surprise will come next year, when we get to see how the super-square Captain adapts to 21st-century life.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Captain America: The First Avenger
- Directed by Joe Johnston
- Screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
- Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper and Stanley Tucci.
- Classification: PG