Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in 1941, Captain America was among the first American comic books intended as an explicit work of patriotic, political propaganda: The cover of the first edition, available a year before Pearl Harbor, famously featured the titular costume hero punching out Adolf Hitler.
A nod to that classic beatdown has been worked into a retro-styled poster for Captain America: The First Avenger, but the film, directed by George Lucas protégé Joe Johnston (whose credits span Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Wolfman), seems itself concerned with a more timely fight: It’s the latest, and last, Marvel Universe prequel to superhero supergroup flick The Avengers, finally due out next summer after half a decade of buildup encompassing two Iron Man films, two actors cast as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, and the establishment of the de rigueur post-credit teaser scene. (Spoiler alert: Captain America doesn’t have one).
The film concerns the transformation of one Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), “a 90-pound asthmatic” repeatedly declared unfit to fight in World War II, whose persistence impresses Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, heavily vamping), a German scientist working for the U.S. military alongside billionaire inventor/future Iron Man progenitor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Steve is soon chosen for a top-secret military experiment, for which he’ll be injected with a serum that, as Colonel Tommy Lee Jones intones, will turn him from a weakling into “a new breed of super-soldier” assigned to “personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of hell.” Not that Hitler—or anything else ripped from real history or recognizable life—is really on the radar of this hokey, hacky, two-hour-plus exercise in franchise transition/price gouging, complete with utterly unnecessary post-converted 3-D.
Shortly after Steve (who is played in both supersize and diminutive form by Evans via still-creepily uncanny head-replacement effects) emerges from the experiment as an enlarged, greased-up Ken doll, a spy kills Erskine. Without his champion, this human-engineered living weapon is relegated to what an opportunist politician claims is “the most important battlefield of the war”—the media offensive. Touring the country fronting a live propaganda show designed to sell war bonds, star of his own comics and short subjects, Captain America becomes a folk hero for the folks left at home. But on the frontlines, he’s a joke. Then, with no apparent combat training but a roadshow-bred sense of showmanship, he mobilizes a rescue mission to liberate his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), and incidentally frees 400 Allied soldiers for good measure. Steve gets some vague support (and the film gets a spark of much-needed swagger) from his ostensible love interest, Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a tough-broad British soldier who has some kind of role in the operation that’s neither specified nor apparently anything that would muss her lipstick.
The lead villain here is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a/k/a the Red Skull, a Nazi whose obsession with the occult is a bit much even for Hitler to take. Having almost cheerfully “left humanity behind,” Schmidt has assembled a splinter cult called HYDRA, through which he operates labor camps focused on harvesting energy from the Tesseract—a glowing cube thingy that Schmidt pillaged from Norway—and funneling that energy into weapons. It’s never clear what this power force actually is, but somehow it’s transferred to laser guns, which shoot streams of something or other to vaporize their victims on contact.
That putting such a corpse-obliterating weapon in the hands of everyday Nazi soldiers would have been something of a Holocaust game changer is one of a number of potentially rich parallel-historical details that the film doesn’t care to grapple with. Captain America assembles a ragtag multi-ethnic band of soldiers to help carry out his elite missions, but there’s not so much as a single mention of the ideological divides that plagued the times—and, subsequently, spawned the original anti-Fascist Captain America comics. So what is Captain America fighting for? Apparently nothing more or less than screen time in The Avengers.