These are the things that Captain America doesn’t have. A plot, compelling characters or any reason to care about what’s happening on screen. But what it does have is charm. Director Joe Johnston brings the same retro sensibility to Captain America that he did to the Rocketeer, but he can’t being a semblance of order to a script that lacks momentum and a movie that exists just to promote The Avengers.
Johnston tries and when skinny Steve walks up to the desk and stares fiercely at the doctor, defying him to reject him, it almost seems as if he succeeded. But Steve Rogers’ drive to be a little man who contributes to the war is the only thing the movie has going for it. And once Steve gets his wish, Chris Evans reverts to his usual blandness and the movie dies even as it’s just supposed to be taking off.
It’s not really Evans’ fault, by then he’s been upstaged by a rush of action scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but have no impact, by a hastily introduced band of commandos that we didn’t really need to see, by raids that don’t matter and a relationship with the abrasive and irritating Agent Carter who has no chemistry with him.
Movies are often defined by their villains and Captain America has a generic villain with a generically pointless plan to blow up the world. The Red Skull is only briefly interesting once he belatedly pulls off his face and not even then. Johnston does a good enough job of grounding Captain America in a nostalgic period haze that the portrayal of a ridiculous Hydra Nazi splinter group just looks silly and spoils the balancing act between the real war and the comic book version.
Until its second half, it still almost seems as if Captain America might recover, but that’s when the script drops Captain America as a character and rushes into a hyperactive storm of attacks and action scenes that kill it as anything but a bunch of video game cutscenes. There’s barely any order to them and no real reason to watch.
Captain America works best when it sticks to the atmosphere of a 1940’s New York (the one that can only be found in England), the World’s Fair, the bond drives and the movie theaters. It’s where Joe Johnston is strongest, joyfully coaxing period life out of the streets and scenery. But it’s weakest once Captain America is running around in costume punching a long line of men in motorcycle helmets.
It’s hard to say who gets the blame for this mess. Bringing in the Narnia writing team was probably a bad idea. This is not a very good script, though it has a few good ideas. But the overall scrambled feeling can probably be blamed on Marvel’s insistence on wrecking Iron Man 2 and Captain America to set up Joss Whedon’s Avengers. But Johnston has to take some of the blame. The second half of the movie is just a mess and Hayley Atwell needed better direction. He wasn’t in a strong enough position to walk away from the franchise, like Jon Favreau did, but it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t have done anything to make it a bit more watchable.