Anyone who grew up reading comic books from decades past will surely recall the ubiquitous “Hey Skinny!” ads for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program. They featured a pigeon-chested weakling named Joe who gets humiliated in front of his girlfriend by a beefy bully; after trying the Atlas program, Joe gets ripped, clocks the bully and wins back his girl, who exclaims: “Oh, Joe! You are a real he-man after all.”
I don’t know how many comic-book readers actually wound up looking like bodybuilders with busty bikini babes on their arms, but I’ll bet you good money the ones who did no longer read comic books. Either way, though, you have to hand it to Mr. Atlas; he certainly knew the superhero fanboy demographic.
No comic book character captured the readership’s body-anxiety better than Captain America. The Captain was once a bullied wimp himself, an asthmatic 4-F draft reject during World War II, which was enough to render any man dateless. But thanks to an injection of secret super-steroids, skinny Steve Rogers sprouted muscles that would make Sly Stallone Hulk-green with envy. A beefy body without any exercise — that’s kind of the boys’ equivalent of the girls’ Cinderella fantasy.
As part of the Marvel universe of superheroes, it was inevitable that the good Captain would get his own film, following in the footsteps of — deep breath — Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Elektra, The Fantastic Four, Blade, the X-Men and (lest we forget, though we may try) The Punisher. As is implied by the subtitle, “The First Avenger,” all of this is leading up to next years “Avengers” film, which features what looks to be the dream team of caped crusaders.
Some might say we’re hitting the point of overkill — especially the producers of underperforming films such as “Green Lantern” or “The Green Hornet.” Certainly “Captain America,” with its story line of geek-turned-hero fighting an evil crazy who wants to rule the planet, won’t win any points for originality. With great power comes great responsibility, and all that, so poststeroids Steve (Chris Evans) decides to stop being a pinup boy selling war bonds and takes the initiative to free some buddies from a Nazi POW camp in occupied France. Soon, though, he will have to deal with his super-powered foe on the other side, an occult-obsessed S.S. major (Hugo Weaving) known as The Red Skull.
Director Joe Johnston does a pretty good job of conjuring up some pulpy 1940s retro-ambience — having done this before with “The Rocketeer” — and he certainly captures Captain America’s trademark use of his shield as a frisbee-like weapon, but for the most part this is the kind of bland action adventure you’d expect from a journeyman who made his name on stuff like “Jurassic Park III” and the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” TV series.
Johnston builds the film nicely for the first hour, but once Steve becomes Captain America, you’ll find that all the best action bits from the trailer are contained in one 60-second montage. The final showdown with The Red Skull is underwhelming, and one gets the feeling that Marvel just wanted to dump the origin story out there in time for Cappy to appear in the “Avengers” movie.
One problem with the film is that Steve, in the origin story at least, is such a one-dimensional character: just a stand-up, do-the-right-thing kind of guy. His complexity only comes later, when he wakes up (out of deep freeze) decades into the future, and becomes a man out of his own time and the symbol of a nation that he’s not always comfortable representing. (At one point in the comic books, he even abandoned his Captain America identity to become The Nomad after witnessing Watergate-like corruption in the White House.)
But let’s face it, the whole notion of such a nationalistic, hegemonistic character is rather embarrassing in this day and age. Americans would laugh with scorn at the North Korean superhero Great General Mighty Wing, who leads his workers’ collective against the imperialist wasps and spiders, but, well, look in the mirror, dudes. The dollar’s at historic lows, the U.S. economy remains in the toilet, both political parties appear to be bought and paid for by Wall Street, two inconclusive wars continue to drag on, and Hollywood rolls out “Captain America” to save the world. It’s telling that the film has to reach all the way back to World War II to find the confidence and vigor so lacking in 21st-century America.