Few things in real life are more heinous than Nazis. And yet in the realm of fantasy adventure, few things are more useful. As shorthand for unbounded evil, a Nazi is hard to beat. Tack on a frothing obsession with supernatural whatnot, and you have the makings of a great pulp yarn, as was memorably demonstrated by the Indiana Jones movies.
Captain America: The First Avenger is in some ways the best of the Marvel Comics preludes leading up to next year’s superhero jamboree, The Avengers. Like the Indy films, it’s set in the dark years of Hitler’s rise toward world conquest (the mid-1930s in the Jones pictures, the war years of the early ’40s here). In this rich period setting, so unlike our own morally nuanced age, the story’s uncomplicated good-versus-evil structure is unusually stirring.
The movie’s protagonist, unpromising at first, is a classic 98-pound weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, digitally diminished–an eerie effect). Steve longs to join the army and battle the Huns, but he’s repeatedly rebuffed–this is a kid who was born to be 4F. Then he comes to the attention of a government scientist named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who selects him for an experiment involving a top-secret new serum that–in the words of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the “Strategic Scientific Service”–will create “a new breed of cyber soldiers” who will “personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of Hell.” Yes!
The serum works, and the suddenly godlike Steve–he’s not only hyper-buff now, but taller, too–is promptly dubbed Captain America. At first, though, he’s stupidly misused, dispatched in a tacky mask-and-tights outfit to front the country’s war-bond drives, with showgirls cavorting around him on a stage. Before long, however, he’s moved up to bigger things, encouraged by a pretty military liaison named Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and equipped with an impermeable shield of “vibranium”–“the rarest metal on earth,” according to the man who fashioned it, wealthy weapons contractor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, playing the father of the Robert Downey Jr. character we’ve already met in the Iron Man movies). Thus armed, Steve is now ready to meet the enemy.
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