Sorry to say so, but it’s the Summer of Sucky Superhero Movies.
On the heels of the so-so “X-Men: First Class” and the downright dopey “Thor” and “Green Lantern,” now comes “Captain America: The First Avenger,” another labored effort to bring a popular comic book icon to the big screen.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: It’s about an average guy who gains superpowers, uses them for the good of humanity, and faces off with a seemingly unvanquishable foe while the fate of Earth itself hangs in the balance.
Stop yawning, this is very important stuff. If you won’t sit still and watch the boring prequels, there can’t be an awesome “Avengers” movie full of these same dullards.
Yes, obviously, there are only seven basic stories to be told, and superhero movies generally focus on just one of those seven, but “Captain America: The First Avenger” only sporadically stands out as something special — when déja vù strikes, linger at the soda refill station, maybe look at a lobby poster or two — while mostly wallowing in the been-there-done-that.
The good stuff first: Director Joe Johnston uses so-good-they’re-invisible special effects to turn our hero, short and scrawny (but brave and good-hearted) Steve Rogers into buff, handsome Captain America. The transformation occurs thanks to Rogers’ participation in the army’s top-secret Super Soldier program in the early days of World War II, and Johnston digitally files down the body of buff, handsome movie star Chris Evans into a slighter version of himself.
It’s a close cousin to how David Fincher turned actor Armie Hammer into two Winkelvosses in “The Social Network,” and Johnston’s use of this snazzy effect, like Fincher’s, feels like a smart way to establish character and not, like so much digital trickery these days, merely showing off.
Also entertaining is how Captain America, before becoming a combat hero, gets shipped around by the government as a war bonds pitchman, pretend-punching a Hitler impersonator in front of a row of chorus girls in city after city — director Johnston previously made “The Rocketeer,” a movie in love with the gloss and shimmer of the 1940s, and the USO dance numbers call to mind that earlier film’s nostalgia for the shinier side of the war years.
And then there’s Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones as the Nazi villains; Weaving’s Red Skull creeps us out both visually (“Red Skull” isn’t just a nickname, he’s got a giant, excellently gross red skull) and aurally (his accent makes him sound like an even more diabolical Werner Herzog) while Jones shows that “Third Reich flunky” was second behind “Truman Capote” on the list of roles he was born to play.
The details in “Captain America” deliver, but the big moments fall flat — you can tell that we’re intended to cheer here, to weep there, but the scenes that try hardest to elicit emotions just feel deflated, like when your windbag uncle screws up the punchline of the joke he’s spent the last five minutes telling you.
The movie’s attempt at a heart-tugging climax fails doubly if you’ve seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film “Stairway to Heaven,” a.k.a. “A Matter of Life and Death” — that classic’s opening scene is lifted and repurposed for this movie's big finish.
Part of the problem is Captain America himself — yes, he’s been one of the archetypal figures of the Marvel Comics universe for some seven decades, but he tends to be kind of a stiff if he’s not being handled by talented writers. He’s a character almost completely lacking in irony, or self-doubt, or even self-analysis — they don’t come more square-jawed, four-square, or all-around-square than Cap.
And screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don’t know how to make this boy scout into an interesting character. (Evans certainly isn’t actor enough to give us anything beneath the surface of this red, white, and blue icon.) We don’t need a demon-plagued Batman here, just a human being with something in addition to patriotism and organic whole milk running through his veins.
And while some visual bits pop — those star-spangled dancing girls, the Red Skull’s mammoth warplane, an ersatz World’s Fair featuring the inventions of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, wearing one of the phoniest screen mustaches since Leonardo DiCaprio’s in “The Aviator”) — other scenes are surprisingly sloppy.
A car chase through 1942 Brooklyn feels particularly fakey, and seeing the film in 3D renders everything dark and mustard-colored. Points to this movie for at least having the hero toss his mighty shield at the camera once or twice, particularly since the makers of “Thor” never bothered to heave the thunder god’s hammer into audiences’ faces.
The Comic-Con crowd will thrill to the inside jokes that only they get — WWII Marvel characters like the Howlin’ Commandos and the original Human Torch turn up — but for most audiences, “Captain America” will feel like a movie they’ve already seen and didn’t love all that much the first time.