Captain America: Been There, Saved That

Approach Captain America: The First Avenger with caution. It could leave you super-pooped and quite possibly super-duped

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Paramount Pictures

Chris Evans stars in a scene from Captain America: The First Avenger

Friend, are you feeling low-down, run-down, downright puny? Do the bigger kids at school slam you into your locker when you quote lines from fantasy-action films? Does that girl you secretly adore refuse your offer to take her to the umpteenth Marvel comics movie? Well, friend, you may be suffering from Superhero Overload. Seeing all those epics about the overmuscled macho dudes from the Marvel universe — Spider-Man and the Hulk and Iron Man and Thor and endless X-Men — has drained your fevered brain. So approach Captain America: The First Avenger with caution. It could leave you super-pooped and quite possibly super-duped.

(Read about the 70th anniversary of the Captain America series)

Movie genres, no less than great civilizations, have their periods of ascent and descent. Musicals, Westerns and the dead-serious romance have all flourished, then nearly perished. Now the superhero format looks close to being spent. In the late 1930s and early ’40s the paradigm was born, as a babysitter for Saturday-matinee kids, in the form of B-minus serials in 12 to 15 weekly chapters; Captain America was one such chapter play, the first Marvel character to make it to the big screen. Comic-book heroes didn’t graduate to “A” movies until the 1978 Superman; then the 2002 Spider-Man opened the floodgates. Now every summer boasts a platoon of steel-jawed planet-savers. This one already had Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern, with new segments of Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers adding to the genre glut, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Conan the Barbariancoming in August. Can you wonder that connoisseurs sag from ennui?

On its own, Captain America is a modestly engaging little-big movie in the median range: well below the first Iron Man, somewhat north of X-Men: First Class. It approaches one of Marvel’s earliest good guys, created in 1941 by writer Joe Simon and illustrator Jack Kirby, with the utmost reverence. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, who wrote the Narnia films and You Kill Me, have faithfully adapted the origins story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a little guy, beset by bullies, who’s gung-ho to go to war and is enlisted in a secret Army project that transforms him from a 90-pound weakling into a Charles Atlas figure who can outrun a speeding taxi and battle Hitler’s most potent mad scientist. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, in a sneering-villain guise with the bone structure of Kevin Bacon (First Class‘ main meanie) and the Teutonic vocal timbre of Werner Herzog. Director Joe Johnson choreographs some cool chases, and the production team provides a loving reimagining of New York in the ’40s.

(MORE: Read Corliss’s review of X-Men: First Class)

The only problem is that we’ve been there — been nearly everywhere Captain America goes — in countless previous movies. The undergrown underdog could be Peter Parker before he became Spider-Man. Steve’s skill set isn’t so special, since it’s served a dozen or more superheroes. The infiltration of a fantasy story into historical events was used in X-Men: First Class, where Charles Xavier and his mutant gang averted the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, for that matter, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another chimerical rewrite of U.S. soldiers’ efforts to bring down Nazi Germany. We get it: G.I. Joe killed Hitler — though, really, it was the Soviet Army that exhausted his troops, and Hitler killed himself.

(MORE: Read a Corliss review of Inglourious Basterds)

Other films’ handprints are all over Captain America. The remarkable visual effects that make the early runty Steve eerily realistic (by superimposing Evans’ thinned-out face on a much smaller actor’s body) are a refinement on the techniques used to turn Brad Pitt into an old man, a boy and a baby in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Even the movies this movie steals from have been widely and recently filched. Captain America uses Raiders of the Lost Ark as a template; but the makers of Green Lantern already filched the Ark of the Covenant as MacGuffin. They called it the Parallax; here it’s the Tesseract — though we grant that Marvel introduced that particular cosmic cube back in 1966, 15 years before Raiders.

(MORE: Corliss’s review of Green Lantern)

To get a sense of the superhero in his raw, cheap0 prime, check out the 1943 Captain America serial — where our hero sports a disguise that would fool even the Red Skull. In the Republic version, Army volunteer Steve Rogers has morphed into fearless District Attorney Grant Gardner. Played by the not-at-all-ripped Dick Purcell (who, shortly after filming ended, played a round of golf and collapsed dead of a heart attack at 35), Gardner does occasionally dress up in star-spangled drag but without the comic-book hero’s trusty discus-boomerang shield; he just packs a gun. And instead of pulverizing Nazis, he pursues American archaeologist Dr. Cyrus Maldor (Lionel Atwill), a standard-issue archfiend with the nom de crime the Scarab, whose “purple-death poison” clouds his rivals’ minds and forces them to commit suicide.

For four hours and through 15 episodes, Gardner and Maldor wrangle over such fanciful inventions as the Life-Restoring Machine, the instant-mummifying device, the Portable Electronic Fire Bolt and its antidote, the Fire Bolt Locator and, best of all, the Thermo-dynamic Vibration Engine. This last weapon, also known as the Dynamic Vibrator, has the power of 100 million volts, “a force that would shatter a 20-story building like an eggshell.” Most of the cliffhanger episodes climax with a furious fight between Gardner and Maldor’s henchmen, intercut with shots of a needle on one of the weapons’ dials shakily rising to the inevitable moment when everything will go boom.

Directed by John English and Elmer Clifton, this Captain America doesn’t have the vigor of the terrific Republic serials (Spy Smasher, Drums of Fu Manchu and Dick Tracy Returns) that English had turned out with William Witney in a few weeks and for about $100,000. But its artless rendering of what were then new clichés of wish-fulfillment — the dream that pure and stalwart guys could defeat real-life villains — makes it fresher and more fun than the $100-million mastodons parading through today’s multiplexes. Find one of these old serials, friend. They’re a tonic for the debilitating malady of Superhero Overload.