Considering how fundamentally 'safe' the superhero action film has become in terms of box office and reasonable standards of entertainment, selling Captain America, age-old icon of American propaganda on cinema screens in cynical and economically unstable times could hardly have been a more difficult endeavor – tellingly, the film was marketed simply as The First Avenger in Russia, the Ukraine and South Korea. Indeed, skepticism and uncertainty have riddled the development of the project, which was first pitched as a Jon Favreau "action comedy" and later as a brutal, gritty, self-critical postmodern war epic. Such tonal fluctuation mirroring the social/political climate demonstrated that having a successful film with such a politically entwined protagonist, was anything but 'safe' – it's hard to imagine Peter Parker being subjected to the scrutiny of "military propaganda" or "patriotic cheese" that beset Steve Rogers.
With this in mind, all the more credit can be given to Spielberg-cohort Joe Johnson for delivering what is ultimately the first comic book film that properly feels like a cartoon brought to life. Pitching strictly for nostalgia, Johnson bravely girds his film with the unabashed gee-wiz charm and heart of a 1940s Saturday morning adventure serial. In the process, without consistently tripping over political correctness, Johnson neatly circumvents concerns of propagandistic exploitation by delivering a film too bombastic, too colourful, too cheerily old-fashioned to be taken seriously enough as any kind of coy ideological manipulation. It's hard to imagine any contemporary audiences, cine-literate or not, being swayed to join the army by witnessing Captain America's hilariously cringe-worthy war bonds tour, arguably the film's strongest and most self-aware sequence. Even a couple of brazenly Spielbergian montages - conflating Captain America's early triumphs or the Red Skull's past crimes into a series of dramatic snapshots - somehow function as endearing and in keeping with the boldly cheerful feel, as Johnson keeps the pace whipping along with an engaging sprightly bounce, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's soaringly heroic musical score.
Indeed, Captain America comes across as more of a vintage science-fiction adventure than war film, as Johnson channels the sort of deliriously cartoonish aesthetic, weapons and technology of 1940s serials, including lavish set design that would do any James Bond evil mastermind proud. Curiously, Johnson's film works in some surprisingly intense action, (including one of the more unexpectedly gruesome deaths in a comic book film), exploring Captain America's comparatively 'grounded' superhuman abilities to the effect of some of the most gripping fight scenes in recent memory, alternating tightly choreographed beat downs while adding the intriguing new dimension of his ricocheting shield to keep the action nuanced. Between the tidily doled out combat (including unique, visually dynamic showdowns between Nazi-scientist sect Hydra and the US army) and the film's encompassing virtually every form of chase scene (car, foot, submarine, motorcycle, train, helicopter, airplane and even zip-lining), there is ample material to appease any expectations for summer spectacle.
Nonetheless, Johnson's film is not, despite its glossy cartoon finish, without its faults. Despite the thundering action, the film may prove too over-the-top for those disinclined to filter through a haze of charming nostalgia. Similarly, throwback cartoonish fun and self-aware irony aside, some viewers may still find it impossible to shake the notion of watching a distasteful two hour army recruitment video. Additionally, like predecessor Thor, the film does lose its footing somewhat as it approaches the climax, and its juggling the emotional demands of a stand-alone narrative while still bridging the transition towards the upcoming superhero epic The Avengers may prove unsettling for non-comic fans. Nonetheless, Johnson admirably reconciles the two, grinding the whiz-bang cheerfulness of his film to a halt with a jarring, quietly tragic ending that, miraculously, proves oddly appropriate in spite of its discordance. Either way, if ever there were a film this year worth sitting out the ending credits, this would be the one.
Chris Evans as the iconic "star-spangled man with the plan" proves the film's greatest boon. Muting his customary swagger without sacrificing his overflowing charisma, Evans concocts an effortless blend between earnestness and underhanded humour, that makes his transition from good-hearted scrawny loser to unexpected patriotic icon somehow feel incredibly believable, sympathetic and appealing, thus selling the whole film. The fact that Evans can tackle moments such as a "this is why we fight" speech, saddled with a nearly absurd CGI- shrunken body, with a straight face and without a false note, and transition to asking his best buddy "Are you ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of hell?" with a perfect a quiver of world-weary, witty, self-mockery in his voice, demonstrates a masterfully conscious and nuanced performer delivering his most assured work yet.
However, Johnson wisely surrounds Evans with a truly impressive supporting cast, each inhabiting their cheerfully one-note characters with enthusiasm to spare. Hugo Weaving masticates scenery with appropriate preening oiliness as the dastardly Red Skull, and Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan inhabit love interest Peggy Carter and best buddy Bucky Barnes with laudable presence and credibility. Tommy Lee Jones has a ball wryly clashing with the film around him as Rogers' military superior, and scene-stealer Stanley Tucci infuses the film with warmth and wit as the scientist behind Rogers' super soldier transformation. Dominic Cooper triumphantly bubbles over with charisma, charm and quirky humour worthy of his superheroic son as master inventor Howard Stark, while Toby Jones slithers with welcome relish as the Red Skull's chief scientist Arnim Zola.
While the true make-or-break of the character will depend on his exploration in a contemporary context by Joss Whedon in The Avengers, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate or enjoyable character introduction. Consider Captain America as Indiana Jones' square-jawed uncle – bold enough to demonstrate, by example, the role and function of a national icon, yet retrospectively wise enough to stick to its guns and striving for pure entertainment. Such an unabashed dash of fun is worthy of 'recruiting' viewers everywhere.