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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
Chris Evans embodies Captain America in all of his patriotic, Nazi-crushing glory.
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Captain America: The First Avenger

Directed by Joe Johnston

Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, and Hayley Atwell

Rated PG-13

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When you’re writing a script, conventional movie wisdom tells us that you can’t go wrong with Nazi villains — everybody hates them. And if you make your protagonist Captain America, then you’re practically set … right?

Captain America: The First Avenger opens with present-day scientists uncovering a frozen red, white, and blue shield somewhere in the Arctic. It belongs to the titular hero, who we learn has been frozen underground for over 70 years. He started out as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a diminutive and sickly young Brooklynite who desperately wanted to enlist in the army and fight in World War II. After facing repeated rejections from recruitment centers, he catches the attention of army doctor Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who recognizes Steve’s courage, dedication, and all-American wholesomeness. Dr. Erskine places Steve in the government’s “Super Soldier” program and performs a procedure that transforms the five-foot-tall, 90-pound weakling into a paragon of masculinity. Meanwhile, the Nazis are also on the search for this super-soldier technology. One Nazi scientist, Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), has performed an imperfect version of the procedure on himself, transforming into a red-skinned, superpowered baddie.

The film is meant to be lighthearted Nazi-fighting fun, more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than the moody X-Men: First Class. (In fact, one of the opening scenes featuring Schmidt/Red Skull feels like a missing clip from Raiders.) The nostalgic trip is great — for the first 20 minutes or so. It’s refreshing to see a superhero movie set so firmly in the WWII era, but after a while the vintage-style visuals and sepia-toned color palette lose their charm. Once that novelty wears off, no amount of period-piece eye candy can make up for a lackluster script.

Part of the problem lies within the constraints of the source material. Marvel Entertainment must make a stand-alone origin story to introduce Captain America before next year’s Avengers film. With his dogged patriotism, Captain America lacks dimension in the black-and-white WWII setting; it wouldn’t have been a problem, though, if the audience were emotionally invested in all the characters. But we already know that the Captain must be frozen by the end of the movie to be unfrozen in 2011 — as a result, the screenwriters have treated the Cap’s wartime friends as disposable. If they’re all gonna die by The Avengers anyway, why bother making the audience care about them?

That’s the film’s true weakness: lazy storytelling. Characters remain underdeveloped across the board, despite the potential of their back stories. For example, Captain America’s love interest Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) manages to kick ass in high heels, but barely gets any dialogue past flat one-liners; she only makes brief references to her underdog status in the male-dominated military world. When combined with Atwell’s slightly awkward chemistry with her costar, the romance storyline falls flat. Another promising supporting character, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), faces the same treatment. He’s the future father of Tony Stark/Iron Man, but appears here only as a poor facsimile of Robert Downey Jr.’s devilishly charming playboy genius.

Worst of all, Captain America suffers from a boring — and sometimes even silly — villain. Red Skull doesn’t do much other than pace menacingly and talk about his plans for world domination. Not even Hugo Weaving, whose brilliance was on full display as V in V for Vendetta, can inject the necessary venom and gravitas into his character’s weak dialogue; at the screening I attended, Red Skull’s utterances elicited more giggles than fear from the audience. It doesn’t help that the character resembles, as Jon Stewart glibly put it, a “sunburned James Carville.”

Perhaps the filmmakers were worried that any actually interesting characters would have stolen the show. As a character, the Cap is at his best in the present day, when his patriotism and morality conflict. Despite the film’s flaws, though, a darker iteration (say, Vietnam-era) would be too ponderous for a summer blockbuster. Other than next year’s The Avengers, Chris Evans is contracted to play Captain America in four more films; hopefully some of them will tackle the character in a more nuanced fashion. For now, indulge in the fluffy escapism that is Captain America: The First Avenger. At least it’s better than hearing about the debt ceiling.