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.
This would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a fabulously deranged megalomaniac who's in charge of the Nazis' "deep science" program, hidden away in an Alpine laboratory. Schmidt is a devotee of the occult, and has laid hands on the Tesseract—an all-powerful "cosmic cube" that was "the jewel of Odin's treasure room." Excellent. Aided by this malign artifact, and by his sniveling science stooge, Dr. Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt has devised a new super-bomb with which he plans to flatten several big American cities. (He's going to look good doing it, too: When he peels off his prosthetic face, we see the flame-broiled countenance of that venerable Marvel super-villain, Red Skull.) Things are looking bad. Schmidt is on the very verge of launching his transatlantic assault. If it need be said, there's only one man who can stop him.
Joe Johnston is an ideal director for this broad comic-book material. Johnston already has an Oscar for his visual-effects work on the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and here he neatly situates the movie's many super-doings among its evocative period accoutrements—the requisite vintage cars and clothing—without overbearing emphasis. And his contending military labs—with their "Vita-Ray" machines and black-goggled inhabitants—are stylishly deployed without tipping the story over into complete silliness. Johnston doesn't overload the picture with big-budget CGI, either; and so one of its set-piece sequences—with the Captain and his cohorts zip-lining down from a snowy mountain onto the top of a speeding train—has the effect, not of yet another digital confection, but of a great old-school stunt.
Chris Evans was a good choice for Captain America, too. Already a veteran of the Marvel universe (he was in both of the lamentable Fantastic Four movies), but now portraying a character with no real superpowers, he plays it straight. Even after Steve Rogers' serum-induced transformation, Evans' Captain America remains good-hearted and self-deprecating, his most formidable power an indomitable patriotic bravery. In the movie's frankly old-fashioned worldview, he's simply a stalwart, standup guy, and there's no way to avoid rooting for him.
But the real star of the show, unsurprisingly, is Hugo Weaving's Red Skull. Already an icon of awfulness as Agent Smith in the Matrix movies, Weaving here secures a preeminent place in the annals of demented menace. His char-grilled Nazi is every bit as monumentally loathsome as the story requires; but subtly, without any semaphored winking, the actor manages to make him funny, too. Not that you'd want to tell Mr. Skull that.
The entire cast is well-served by the script, a distillation of 70 years of Captain America lore by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (with Joss Whedon stepping in for a polish to line the story up with his forthcoming Avengers movie). The action is clear, and the dialogue rises to every genre requirement. At one point, on the cusp of a terrible triumph, Red Skull announces, "I have seen the future, Captain!" You know what our hero has to say—and, most gratifyingly, he does: "Not my future!"
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin's Press.