Then, along came Captain America: The First Avenger, and my faith was restored.
Even without knowing this was leading to this year's forthcoming super-team film, The Avengers, I was stoked to see this film. Captain America may not be one of my absolute favorite superheroes, but he's certainly one of the most iconic, and has potentially the most interesting origin story for a modern-day superhero. When I got wind that they'd be going all the way back to his World War II roots and exploring his development in his "home" time period in the 1940s, I got really excited at the possibilities for characterization, plot, and continuity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe they were creating with this slew of films.
Comic book fans will no doubt be familiar with the plot of the film, which starts with Captain America's humble beginnings. Steve Rogers is a skinny, medically frail young man with a laundry list of maladies and conditions that disqualifies him from enrollment in the Army to fight in World War II. Despite this, he attempts multiple times to enlist, eventually catching the attention of a scientist on the verge of a medical breakthrough with a serum that could create the perfect soldier. When he asks Rogers's reasons for enlisting, the young man replies simply, "I don't like bullies. I don't care where they're from."
After the serum is administered, Rogers uses his newfound strength and fame to help out in the war effort any way he can, first as a civilian entertainer, then to rescue a group of captured comrades in Italy. During this rescue, he comes face to face with Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, who will be his arch-nemesis. Rogers's efforts are met with enthusiasm, and he forms a team to take down the Red Skull and thwart his use of a mythical object called the tesseract to create weapons of untold power that would destroy the world.
I have to hand it to Joe Johnston: he has a flair for creating visually appealing epic scenarios and bringing a fun, vibrant nostalgia for Americana to the screen. The experience he got in films like The Rocketeer, October Sky and Jumanji has been refined and applied to magnificent effect in this film that serves as a period piece as much as a comic book film. He uses it to stage a World War II that is similar but noticeably different from the historical one, in that it's stylized to fit the lore of the Marvel Universe, and I feel he carries this convincingly and to the delight of audiences willing to suspend that smallish piece of disbelief.
The characters are well portrayed in this film. Chris Evans is a spot-on Steve Rogers/Captain America, and really drives home the humanity and basic good that truly makes him a hero. Hugo Weaving makes an eerily delightful Red Skull, whose ambitions for power and control account for his garish appearance and ultimate (?) demise. Other noteworthy performances include Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter; Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, Cap's eventual sidekick; Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips; Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, father to the man who will eventually become Iron Man; Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola; and Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the scientist who developed Captain America's Super Soldier Serum.
This film was one of the highlights of 2011 for me in the comics world. It was fun, action-packed, and made me feel transported to its fictitious universe in a way that most of the other MCU films haven't done. Captain America fans, comic book enthusiasts, and standard moviegoers alike should all enjoy this one, if not for the plot and characters, then the action and pacing. Definitely a worthy addition to anyone's movie collection. Highly recommended.