This is the final film in the lead up to The Avengers, and I must say, I'm very happy to report that this one really delivers, and is possibly my favorite in the Marvel film canon so far.
It's kinda funny too, considering how as a kid I was never blown away by Captain America, and how during my cynical phase of my teenage years I rolled my eyes at the overload of patriotism and propaganda the character represented. I've matured though, and have learned to put things in their proper context. Yes, Captain America was definitely a product of the times during WWII, and yes, he was undeniably used as a tool (He punches Hitler on the cover of his very first issue, so yeah.) However, since then, the writer's seem to have done a good job of updating the character to fit the times, and have tweaked the patriotism and propaganda aspects accordingly.
Thankfully, Joe Johnston was able to surprise me with his directorial skills (the man has a very up and down track record), and he does an excellent job of handling the various facets of the character. It's all about context and tone, two very important things, and not just for filmmaking.
Steve Rogers starts out as a scrawny 90 pound asthmatic weakling, but, thanks to a special experimental government program, he's injected with a serum that turns him into an all American badass ready to do the bidding of the government, which, in the film, primarily concerns dealing with HYDRA, a radical, science based offshoot of the Nazis, and their leader Johann Schmidt, AKA the Red Skull, a twisted psycho hell bent on global domination.
The first half of this film is just top notch near brilliance. It handles all the backstory and "origin" elements with the perfect touch on all fronts. The montages where Captain America is used as a promotional propaganda tool/USO type of figure are just wonderful, and an absolute joy to watch, When the typical comic book type plot kicks in during the second half the film loses some steam, and isn't quite as fun, but it doesn't quite stumble enough to knock the film down totally. The actions scenes are good, and they are fun to watch, but the film feels more on auto pilot. That, and they way they handle the ending, particularly the last line, really sticks out to me, and not in a good way. But, the post credits teaser is good, so that makes up for it a bit.
As far as the production values go, this film is great. The period stuff looks really good, and blends with the futuristic, sci-fi comic elements better than I expected (again, Johnston has a mixed body of work). In a lot of ways, this felt like a slicker, stronger, and less hokey version of Johhnston's earlier film The Rocketeer, but still in the same ball park. The cinematography is quite good, the score (especially the musical numbers) is terrific, and the special effects, namely how they made Evans look like a weakling is unbelievably amazing. How they handled the look of the Red Skull is okay, but somewhat silly looking.
Now onto the casting and performances: I dug 'em. Chris Evans makes for a wonderful Steve Rogers, and his work here makes up for Fantastic Four. I used to not give him much credit as a performer, but somewhere along the line, something happened, and he managed to prove himself as someone with capability and talent. Hugo Weaving is okay, though unsurprising as the Red Skull. Tommy Lee Jones is in full Tommy Lee Jones mode, but he's still entertaining and has some of the more entertaining lines. Hayley Atwell manages to make something more out of what is usually an underused type of role, and that makes me happy. The film manages to make a genuine emotional connection work towards the end, and you actually care about her since they show her as more than eye candy. Stanley Tucci is great in his supporting role as the man who makes it all happen for Steve. Toby Jones is also nice as Schmidt's nerdy science lackey.
The only part of the casting that bugs me is how they handled the Howling Commandos- Cap's squad of soldiers. The casting is good, especially Neal McDonough as 'Dum Dum' Dugan (complete with trademark mustache and bowler), but they could have used more scenes and development, especially given the diversity of the group (including a token African American and a Japanese American). Yeah it's fun to see them kick ass, but in this day and age, it's harder to get by this sort of thing without an explanation. That's mostly just the intellectual in me complaining, but seriously, there's some great stuff there they could have addressed while still keeping the film a fun comic book movie.
All in all, this is a rip roaring, exciting, and super fun film filled with a good story, a great mix of humor, pathos, and action, and even a tad bit of substance. The film does start to lose some of its magic in the second half, but as someone who is a little leery when he's sees Johnston's name on a film, I was exceedingly happy and quite surprised with how well this turned out. There just may be hope for him as a director, yet.