The first issue of Fantastic Four had a cover date of November 1961, making its release almost exactly fifty years ago. Though no one could have ever identified it as such at the time, it was a momentous moment for American comic books, at least those of the superhero variety. The Marvel Age of Comics–as it was deemed by the shameless self-promoter Stan Lee, rascally writer and effervescent impresario of the company’s colossal comics–redefined the way these four-colored adventures worked. As the line grew to encompass additional titles, the resulting stories weren’t exactly interconnected, but they clearly existed on the same plane with characters casually referencing scraps and scrapes that came up in other comics (usually with a handy footnote that directed True Believers how they could trade their hard-earned dimes for a glimpse at the awesome action in question). Previously, comic books were built on single-issue stories and were disposable entertainment, with the vividly drawn heroes effectively starting over almost anew every time a fresh cover was turned aside. Stan Lee and his amazing collaborators–chiefly the endlessly amazing Jack Kirby–did something different: they built and explored an entire world, rendering a bit more of the map with each new issue just as explorers might have expanded their documented knowledge of a frontier after every day’s trek. That mindset defined Marvel Comics from the earliest days of the publishing company that’s long been the dominant force in their strange, geeky subset of the massive media landscape. Understanding that history and the sway it holds over those charged with maintaining the primacy of these particular superhero properties is key to realizing just how Marvel has approached the various film adaptation they’ve overseen since establishing their own significant studio presence a few years ago.
The latest offering from Marvel Studios is Captain America: The First Avenger, the subtitle serving as a not-so-subtle reminder that this will be the last entry in the extended lead-up to assembling a super-team quite unlike anything quite seen before on movie screens. Based on the character created by Kirby along with writer Joe Simon, the movie presents the hero’s origin largely in line with the long-established comic book version. Steve Rogers is a scrawny patriot who tries fruitlessly to enlist in the military as the United States is surging into World War II. Too frail to be accepted, Rogers volunteers for an experimental program that will inject him with Super-Soldier serum. Sort of like steroids on steroids, the serum immediately and permanently transforms a runt into a he-man, a process that works spectacularly well on Rogers but can never be duplicated when a Nazi plan to swipe the concoction winds up destroying it forever.
Some of the other Marvel Comics movies have taken a fair amount of liberties with the characters, updating and modernizing their stories, but Captain America shrewdly sticks with keeping its hero locked into his nineteen-forties setting. Marvel also made arguably their best directorial hire yet, recruiting Joe Johnston, undoubtedly hoping and expecting that he’d replicate some of the period charm of his previous foray into comic book adaptation, 1991’s The Rocketeer. That’s exactly what he does, and Captain America is better than any previous Marvel superhero outing across its first half or so. Johnston absolutely revels in the detail as he creates a forties New York equally informed by comic book vividness and alluring movieland artifice. The screenplay by Narnia adapters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley is brisk, funny and filled with personality (based on some of the lines, I’d wager that Joss Whedon, writer-director of the forthcoming The Avengers, took a turn at giving the script a polish) and Johnston brightly leverages the material into a spirited entertainment. Completing the list of grand benefits boasted by the film, the casting is strong all around with Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci delivering in especially chewy supporting roles and Hugo Weaving’s ferociously florid turn as arch-nemesis The Red Skull adds a further layer of impenetrable laminate to the lifetime all-access Comic-Con pass he earned for the Matrix and Lord of the Rings films. Chris Evans, more at home in these comic book films than anywhere else, is especially strong as the titular hero, importantly never losing sight of the fact that he’s playing a frail man inside in a hulking body.
The film bogs down somewhat in the second half in a manner fairly common to the Marvel Studios output. After a beginning that expertly utilizes the basic, established mechanics of good narrative filmmaking–introducing characters, establishing motivation, developing the conflicts and how the individual characters fit into them–the storytelling grows slack and lazy. Captain America recruits a group of soldiers to be his main fighting unit. Comic geeks will immediately recognize them as a gloss on the war heroes the Howling Commandos but newcomers aren’t even provided names for these characters, at least not until the closing credits when their complete monikers (including nicknames, where relevant) are dutifully listed. They’re basically an inside joke that’s given plentiful screen-time without developing them much past the level of inside joke. That’s an example of how that comic creator mentality come into a play in a way that undercuts the filmmaking. There’s a sense of playing to the wholly converted, consumers who, in the realm of comic book devotion, are therefore almost beholden to buy every book or, in this instance, a ticket to every movie. As with the Harry Potter films, the filmmakers get lazy because they can, knowing that it won’t stop a sizable chunk of their target audience from expressing their adoration for the finished work. So what if the rest of audience can’t figure out the significance of the guy with the reddish mustache and the funny hat.
It doesn’t prevent the movies from being good, but it certainly stops them short of being great,a level some other directors have proven can be reached with a superhero movie. For while, it seemed that Captain America: The First Avenger had the potential to join the sparse company of the very best efforts in the subgenre, those that transcend their event movie status to become works worthy of unqualified admiration. Happily, it comes close enough to that elusive goal to stand as one of the best efforts since Marvel started slapping their logo of flickering comic panel images in front of movies featuring their characters.