As is always the case when dealing with a superhero film I feel that one’s personal history with a character is an important factor to consider when discussing the film, at the very least so I can relay to you my frame of reference. In the crop of superhero films released this year Captain America is likely the property I had the least amount of history with, which if you think about it is an advantage to the film. For as much as I talk about disengaging expectation built by other media from a film the reason I write on it so much is that it’s a fight against human nature to more purely and accurately judge a film.
So Captain America, to me, is free of the restraint of expectations but does it take advantage of this advantage? Not fully, no. The film sets its character up well enough: Steve Rogers is a kind, disciplined, brave young man who yearns to serve his country in the hour of its greatest need but is repeatedly rejected due to his build and health problems. This film, especially the opening, runs the risk of being overly overt propaganda, however, it focuses on character enough, at the beginning at least, such that it narrowly avoids that.
Another manner in which it dodges the P-word is in the turn the film takes immediately following the experiment that gives Steve his abilities. The trajectory from everyman to super-being isn’t a straight ascent because at first the only responsibility he’s given is that of pitchman. He has to fight the power and be a little rebellious to truly fulfill his destiny so that makes it a bit interesting.
Another strength that the film has to fall back on is the strength of its cast, the supporting cast mainly. Not to discredit Chris Evans, he does a fine job and is believable as Steve at both stages though he’s not as dynamic as he was in Star Trek and it seems like he was always waiting for the transition- that CG job making him skinny is quite impressive.
First and foremost among the supporting cast is Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter and the love interest in this film and is not only a strong, intelligent woman but makes the love interest in a superhero film vital for the first time in some time. If you think about it many of the recent crop have had love interests as either an afterthought or not at all. The relationship between her and Steve gives this film the little extra it needs to get by.
Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving each do rather well in their respective required roles: Jones as the disbelieving Colonel and Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, replete with an authentic-sounding accent in a film with too much foreign intrigue to dabble in foreign tongues like others have recently. Also quite enjoyable is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine who takes Steve under his wing.
This isn’t the only recent superhero film of late to deal with actual historical events in a fictionalized context, see the recent X-Men film, what that film did though that this failed to do (and it was the major failing of it) is that it made its tale as high stakes and intriguing as the historical incident in which it wrapped itself up. It also re-wrote history in a major way this film decided instead to write a subplot so to an extent you’re watching the undercard of World War II as Captain America and co. go after Red Skull and his rogue band of occultist Nazis and Hitler and the majority get second billing and no play. When an actual man who wanted to take over the world takes a backseat to a fictional creation who does, it’s a monumental task to make that notion as scary regardless of how likely it is in the world of the story.
Thus, in Captain America his initial battle as a hero, which in the end is more climactic, is also more effective.
When it’s all said and done Captain America is an effective and enjoyable film with obvious flaws that could’ve been handled and addressed better than it is.