Most of Captain America takes place in the 1940's, but it opens in the present day. The film begins in the Arctic where a mysterious ship has been revealed beneath the shifting snow. Within this ship, a group of explorers discover an iconic item – Captain America's distinctive circular shield – and so we know that our hero will, by the end of the picture, arrive in the 21st century, where he will be ready to line up alongside his fellow Avengers. Of course, we knew this before we walked into the cinema; after all, the Avengers movie is just around the corner and all of these films exist to draw together the disparate characters from Marvel's comic universe in time for that unprecedented superhero jamboree. But such foreknowledge hurts Captain America, because we know, from the moment that he steps onto that ship, that he will be landing in the arctic, and such an air of inevitability immediately saps some tension from the climax.
Compare it to the climactic scenes of Thor, the summer's other – and more successful – Avengers prequel, and the deficiencies of Captain America's weak finale become all too clear. Thor's central conflict was built around a carefully developed and powerfully acted father/son/brother relationship that gave its story a vital dramatic weight. In sharp contrast, Captain America's villain is thinly sketched; a stereotypical insane Nazi with vague dreams of world domination. He is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, channelling Werner Herzog), and having gotten his hands on a glowing cube that I think has come from Thor's universe, he and his loyal scientist sidekick (Toby Jones) have created sophisticated weaponry far beyond the Allies' reach and a rapidly growing army with which Schmidt plans to win the war.
Meanwhile, in America, another German scientist (Stanley Tucci) is seeking a subject for his prototypical 'super soldier' serum when he stumbles across Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). He's weedy, insecure and timid, but Steve is desperate to enlist and fight for his country, refusing to give up despite having been rejected on every occasion. But Steve has something invaluable – inner strength, honesty, bottomless courage – and Tucci's Erskine sees beyond the brittle exterior to the potential hero that lies within; and by the time a taller, faster and stronger Rogers had emerged from Erskine's contraption, Captain America had me enthralled. It was just getting everything right. The tone – sincere, smart, witty – was being nailed in every single scene, and director Joe Johnston (a Spielberg protégé) was bringing a dazzling, old-fashioned gusto to his work.
The scene in which Rogers first tests the limits of his new abilities (a key one in any origin story) is indicative of the film's strengths. It's well-staged and exciting, with Rogers pursuing an enemy spy through the streets, but it's laced with moments of humour, like a great gag involving a boy thrown into the river or the sight of Rogers clumsily crashing through a shop window as he misjudges his newfound speed. That same spirit is behind Rogers' eventual evolution into Captain America, with the authorities deciding he'd be better employed as a super piece of propaganda than a super soldier. This is a smart method of introducing the character's costume and segueing into his first action sequence, and the screenplay does a neat job of developing Rogers' relationship with British Agent Peggy Carter, played by a terrific Hayley Atwell, who really sells her key scenes and has a fun, antagonistic rapport with Tommy Lee Jones' amusingly grouchy Colonel Phillips.
At some point, however, it all just falls away. Everything that Captain America delivered on in its opening hour disappears in the second, as the film collapses into a series of interchangeable action sequences (including a poorly judged montage of said sequences) and the charming wartime adventure that we had been watching suddenly turns into a loud movie in which people fire lasers at each other endlessly. Evans displays a deft comic touch as the goofy young wannabe, but as the muscular and morally unequivocal hero he struggles to bring much shade to a character who is essentially virtuousness personified. In short, he's a bit of a dud as a protagonist, and the more the film focuses on his battle with the equally uninteresting Red Skull, the more that weakness is exposed. The climactic encounter between the pair feels meaningless, because we know exactly where it's leading and why. The Avengers is looming on the horizon and the glib manner in which the closing scenes of Captain America are tossed away sums up how much of a hurry the filmmakers appear to be in to get this one out of the way so they can move on to the main event. Putting together this whole series has been an ambitious feat and it must have been something of a logistical nightmare, but Marvel was always running the risk of short-changing some of the individual movies themselves. Captain America is a stunted film but it could have been a great one, if only it had been developed as a real standalone movie and not simply an extended introduction.