Captain America: The First Avenger is a mildly enjoyable period romp where some staid action and the tawdry whiff of prequel is just about held together by a decent script and likeable characters. Very much a popcorn film; you might enjoy it at the time but you’re probably not going to reminisce about it later.
Perhaps the best part of the film is the first third, when Steve Rogers is a scrawny, feeble man who nonetheless doesn’t take any shit from anyone, sort of like a miniature Dachshund. While it takes a bit of mental squinting to forget that this is a digitally-reduced, pigeon-chested Chris Evans, it’s hard not to root for the little fella as he’s repeatedly shat upon by society at large.
When he buffs up — weirdly looking even more like a CGI creation then than in his emaciated state — he remains a likeable underdog who just wants to fight but is instead turned into a literal comic book character as a promotional war bond gimmick. It’s hard not to enjoy these moments with Rogers in a cheap superhero outfit appearing in propaganda films and stage shows, all accompanied by dancing girls and That Star-Spangled Man.
Unfortunately for an action film, while the action is solid it’s also unimaginative. There’s nothing like the plane sequence in Superman Returns or the train sequence in Spider-Man 2 — sequences in which not only are the heroes pushed to their limit but the potential human cost of failure ramps up the tension. A decent superhero film needs a scene like this, in which we can see how the hero is capable of acts above and beyond mere mortals.
Instead of a single heroic set piece, the middle of the film is taken up by a montage of Rogers and his posse storming several Hydra strongholds; it feels like nothing more than an extended trailer. If you went back and digitally replaced Rogers with a regular dumb action hero — Jason Statham, perhaps — the action sequences wouldn’t need much tweaking.
Sometimes Rogers is drawn against fire, sometimes against ice, and while it’s enjoyable enough at the time it’s forgettable stuff, a series of placeholders for a campaign against the Red Skull that’s apparently drawn out over several years. Hydra foot soldiers are dispatched with such ease — not just by Rogers but by everyone — and Rogers first lumpen foray into enemy territory succeeds with such little effort that it’s difficult to ever see Hydra as a credible threat.
So, while there’s a charm that stems from the film’s WWII period setting, the contemporary scenes that bookend proceedings and some unclear references to other films only serve to undermine Captain America, making the film feel more like an extended prequel to The Avengers than the start of a series in its own right. This isn’t a bad film, simply an unremarkable one.