Note: The following review will contain several spoilers, including massive ones about the film’s ending. If you’re familiar with Captain America as a character, there’s really no need to fear. But if you’re new to the Marvel universe, or if you want to go in completely fresh, come back and read this whole review after seeing the movie. Before you leave, I will say this: I love the heck out of The Dark Knight. It is, honest to god, one of my favorite movies. If given the choice between watching The Dark Knight and Captain America, I’d watch Captain America. It is that good. Plus, there’s a show stopping musical number! So it’s got that going for it too.
It isn’t a total surprise that director Joe Johnston got this right, but I’d be lying if I claimed to have not been at least a little worried when he was announced to direct this. Johnston has directed two truly superb films, The Rocketeer and October Sky, but his recent output of Jurassic Park 3 and The Wolfman have been less than inspiring. With Rocketeer and October Sky, Johnston showed an ability to handle good ol’ fashioned Americana with elegance and dignity, and thankfully he brings that talent to Captain America and the World War II backdrop. Johnston brings some humanity to a world that a lesser director would just shoot through a Norman Rockwell lens, and Captain America gets him a lifetime pass from me. I will see anything he does now. Guaranteed.
But Johnston is just one of three elements that propel Captain America beyond his Marvel brethren, and the second is the Cap himself, Chris Evans. Steve Rogers isn’t the brooding hero like Daredevil or the Hulk, nor is he a snarky post-modern cool guy like Thor or Iron Man. Steve is just a regular guy. A good guy. He sees men all over the country signing up to fight, and women doing what they can to help the cause. Steve’s been a weakling all his life, picked on by bullies of all shapes and sizes, and the Nazis are the biggest bullies in recent memory. We all love stories where you can root for the little guy, and heroes who stand up for him. With the super solider serum, Steve becomes a little guy who gets to stand up for himself. It’s hard to avoid the pitfall of Steve coming off as a nothing more than bland, unbuttered toast, but Evans nails it.
The third crucial element that puts Captain America on top is Hayley Atwell as Peggy, and the tragic love story she and the Cap share. A lot of people spoke about the chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster, but let’s be honest: in Thor, I could buy that the two leads wanted to get physical. I never for a second bought that they loved each other. In Captain America, it’s a whole different dynamic. The story doesn’t just capture a weekend in Steve’s life, it captures years. These two grow to care for each other while fighting a war but they put it on hold since their countries need them. There’s no time for late night shenanigans when there are important missions the next morning. The chemistry between Evans and Atwell is palpable, but it isn’t overbearing. It’s a slow burn, like all great romances are, and only in the end do they share a pure romantic moment, and that’s only because Steve is heading towards probable doom. He promises to take her dancing. She confirms, it’s a date. And when that date never comes about, you feel it. We wanted these two to be together.
I’ll get to Steve’s doom in a moment, but I just want to take a quick paragraph to applaud Hugo Weaving’s performance as the Red Skull, and the whole production design of Hydra. It’s established fairly early on that the Red Skull and his cronies are more dangerous then Hitler could ever be. Hitler uses lies of a thousand year reign and glory to inspire his troops. The Red Skull actually believes them. And with the Cosmic Cube–a trinket stolen from Odin’s trophy room–at his disposal, the world really is in danger. Nothing is more horrifying than a lunatic with power beyond his control. Who better to portray this madness than Weaving?
I’m making this all sound like a gloom and doom, tragic romance/war movie, but I must stress that this movie is FUN. It’s perfect summer entertainment, with a ton of laughs, charismatic actors, great effects, a solid, witty screenplay, and memorable action set pieces. It’s paced perfectly, and if it weren’t for the god damn awful ending, it’d be a perfect movie.
So let’s talk about that awful ending. It follows the Captain America mythos, with Steve going down with Red Skull’s Doomsday Ship and freezing and the Antarctic. Peggy cries but moves on. Howard Stark looks for him tirelessly. Children run in the streets with a trash can lid made up to look like Captain America’s iconic shield. It’s clear that he’ll become a hero, an American icon remembered for generations.
And then we cut to Steve waking up in SHIELD headquarters. He busts out and runs into Times Square, spinning, overwhelmed with the 2011 world. Samuel L Jackson shows up as Nick Fury, letting him know just how long he’s been out of commission. And then, the terrible kicker: Steve says: “I had a date.” And it’s played for laughs. It’s brought on too quick, it’s confusing, and it doesn’t fit the tone of the entire film that preceded it. And before you can mentally recover from how awkward it is, the credits role, leaving the audience disoriented. The post credit teaser for The Avengers doesn’t make up for it. It’s just horrendous.
I did some digging, and apparently the final sequence was filmed without Johnston’s consent by Marvel as a way to help shoehorn Captain America into the Avengers, and it’s glaringly obvious. It doesn’t sync up well, the shooting style is different, everything just feels off. The Avengers better be damn good, because they’ve consistently marred the individual hero movies with poorly placed set up for their big team up movie. Just as SHIELD mucked up Iron Man 2 and Thor, this coda damages Captain America. And it’s a real shame.
But enough of that. I intend to end this review on a high note, so here it goes: There’s been a lot of talk lately of how our country has lost its way. The government can’t seem to get anything done. The media is only concerned with earning an extra ratings point rather than actually informing the public. The presidential nominees for 2012, be it Obama, Bachmann, Gingrich, they’re all just cartoon characters. People are broke, unemployed, and hungry. Not just for food, but for a country to give a damn about. Captain America is about a time when we had something worth fighting for, and (to borrow from Friday Night Lights) with clear eyes and full hearts we couldn’t lose. I assure you, this isn’t some nostalgia-based movie wagging its finger from 70 years ago and telling us how we screwed it all up. No. Captain America is a solid reminder of everything our country once was, and might be again.