Cast: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Attwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper ~ Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely ~ Director: Joe Johnston
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
The Lowdown: A likeable dose of old-school pulp adventure, Captain America – The First Avenger takes us back to the 1940s for an introduction to one of Marvel Comics’ biggest characters. The End Result? Action, fights, romance, and a blockbuster that’s simultaneously great fun and a little too lightweight for its own good.
What’s it About?: It’s 1942, and while Nazi-sponsored supervillain Johann Schmidt – aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – has uncovered an ancient artefact that could grant him unlimited power, wannabe US soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still unable to go and fight for his country thanks to his puny frame and weak constitution. But Rogers’ determination leads to him becoming an experimental subject for a Super Soldier serum, and soon the transformed Rogers is becoming the patriotic hero Captain America…
The Story: (Spoiler Alert – it’s extremely difficult to talk about Captain America – The First Avenger without discussing its ending, and how it fits into the wider Marvel Studios shared universe. As a result, if you don’t want to learn details of the ending, consider yourselves warned…)
It’s weirdly refreshing to see a blockbuster that’s so old-school in its approach as Captain America – The First Avenger. Favouring a gentler visual style and a sense of heart and sincerity, this is a long way from the brash swagger of the original Iron Man – but then, Captain America is a long-lived comic character created in a simpler, more optimistic age. In this case, he first appeared as a contemporary wartime comic-book hero written by Joe Simon and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby back in 1941, and was then revived in the Sixties (thanks to the classic ‘frozen-in-a-block-of-ice’ plot device). The ‘man out of time’ aspect has gone on to become a key part of the character, especially in the acclaimed run written by Ed Brubaker, as well as the character’s appearences in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates (which has ended up as the blueprint for much of Marvel’s celluloid ambitions), but Marvel have surprisingly only given this subplot the minimum amount of screentime here.
Instead, what we get is a full-scale origin story for Steve Rogers that harks back to the original Captain America 40s comics (with a certain amount of the Brubaker run), a broad wartime adventure romp of heroic, handsome men battling dastardly villains that also acts as a direct prologue to The Avengers. It’s given a reliably workmanlike and professional handling from director Joe Johnston, a journeyman filmmaker who graduated from special effects work on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars Trilogy. Johnston isn’t the most exciting director in the world, but he has trodden the pulp road before in the well-remembered adventure romp The Rocketeer (even if he also perpetuated the pretty damn bad Jurassic Park III), and it serves him in good stead here.
At its best, Captain America captures the fun of good old-fashioned boy’s own adventures, and Johnson’s fun Xeroxed-Spielberg approach is lively and enjoyable (especially in the hugely entertaining montage showing Steve Rogers’ life as a daftly-dressed fund-raising figurehead for the USO), while he handles the demands of a superhero blockbuster far more confidently than Martin Campbell did on Green Lantern. Most important of all, Johnston knows when to give the cast room to act, and coaxes fine performances out of everyone involved, most notably Chris Evans as the all-important title character.
More than most superhero films, Captain America was going to live or die on its casting. It’d be incredibly easy to play such an old-school example of clean-cut, wholesome heroism with a post-modern wink, and some fans were probably expecting exactly that when Evans was cast, considering he’d been previously been best known for his great turn as the wisecracking Johnny Storm in the otherwise lacklustre Fantastic Four movies. It’s to Evans’ credit, then, that he avoids that temptation completely, instead playing the role admirably straight. Where Robert Downey Jr. got a comparitively easy ride as the brash Tony Stark, Evans goes for determined and wholesome beefcake heroism and pulls it off without a hint of mockery or camp (even in the pre-transformation sequences where some not-always-exceptional CGI renders him as a short, spindly weakling).
It’s this mix of earnestness and heart that makes Steve Rogers’s journey from heroic weakling to good-hearted superhuman into a genuinely effective one, aided by efficient action storytelling and strong casting. From Tommy Lee Jones’ streotypically gruff General to Stanley Tucci as the mild-mannered scientist who gives Rogers his chance at heroism, there’s barely a weak link – and there’s also finally a Marvel heroine who’s a strong character in her own right, with Hayley Atwell kicking impressive amounts of arse as Peggy Carter as well as proving to be a thoroughly engaging romantic interest (something which Thor was seriously lacking).
Of course, the down-side of Captain America’s relatively simple, subtext-free origin is that there’s not an awful lot going on here beyond the well-mounted, energetic action sequences. As seems to always happen with wartime-set pulp adventures, there are major echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (especially in the mirroring of Steve Rogers and the Red Skull, as different sides of the same superhero coin) but the Raiders comparisons aren’t always deserved, even in terms of the stuntwork, and there are a few too many times when the film’s happy to be a lightweight diversion and absolutely nothing else. Plus, we once again have a Marvel Studios film that’s oddly tentative about its genre – it happened with Thor, which went a bit too far out of its way to tone down the more mythic elements and present Asgard as ‘advanced technology’, and it happens here in a particularly bizarre way.
In short, just over halfway through a film about a World War 2 hero who’s best known for beating up Nazis, Captain America – The First Avenger essentially stops being a WW2 film. The Red Skull’s organisation Hydra is quickly distanced from the Nazi threat (with Schmidt intending on wiping out Hitler along with everyone else) and played more like generic Bond villains (complete with faceless henchmen) than the genuine evil of the Nazis; while, thanks to the Red Skull’s access to advanced Asgardian technology, the 1940s-set story is soon awash with laser cannons, disintegrations, and the kind of modern brushed-steel interior sets you’d normally get in recent blockbusters like G.I. Joe. It all climaxes with a expansive battle Bond-style final battle that owes a serious visual debt to The Spy Who Loved Me (and a brief one to Goldeneye), and the end result is a a film that spends half its time adoring 1940s style and storytelling, and the rest of it shrieking “We’re not making a period film! Honest!”
This is especially weird considering the end of the story, where Steve sacrifices himself to save America from destruction – an act that should represent the whole generation who were willing to sacrifice themselves to fight the Nazi threat, but doesn’t carry the power it should simply because the film’s been distancing itself from World War 2 with such determination. There’s also the simple problem that, stripped of the man-out-of-time aspect (which is being saved for The Avengers, and the planned Captain America sequels), we once again get a superhero origin story where the character’s emotional journey is essentially finished 2/3rds of the way through the movie. Thor wasn’t as consistent in terms of pacing, scale and execution, but it was far more engaging in terms of its central character’s emotional journey throughout the film, as well as in its fascinating multi-layered villain. Here, Hugo Weaving does everything he can to make the ludicrously evil Red Skull a charismatic (if two-dimensional) villain, but the conflict between the two characters isn’t strong enough to drive the remainder of the film, and eventually resolves with a head-spinningly bizarre sequence that’s as blatant a piece of “Well, we’ll be seeing him again” storytelling that Marvel have yet pulled off.
By the climax, everything’s in place and Steve Rogers is awake in the 21st Century, but it’s pulled off in a strangely paced sequence that feels more like the opening of the next Captain America story than the climax to this one. It leaves Captain America: The First Avenger feeling a little too much like a prologue, and not enough of a film in its own right, while it’s another Marvel film that once again has the whiff of corporate product about it – it’d certainly be interesting to see Marvel Studios take a couple of steps back and maybe allow a couple of their films more creative freedom rather than micro-managing projects to death. It’s a pity that the flaws in Captain America – The First Avenger mean it doesn’t quite stick in the memory, as it’s got a sense of fun and a lightness of touch that puts it well ahead of the grimmer recent superhero output, and trashes the hell out of misfires like Green Lantern. One thing, however, is for sure – after this nonsensical amount of build-up, Marvel had better have something really special with The Avengers, or there’s going to be trouble…
(A quick note about the much-vaunted post-credit teaser for The Avengers – it’s short. Really, really short. And so quickly edited that it’s mostly impossible to make out. I understand the importance of the slow reveal, but making people wait through the credits for a micro-tease like this isn’t the best intro to actual Avengers footage they could have done…)
The Verdict: Undemanding, lively and fun, Captain America – The First Avenger is a little too lightweight for a WW2-set superhero film, but charming performances and a fun visual style hold it together despite some weird storytelling choices and an uninteresting bad guy. Evans makes an excellent Marvel hero, though, and once The Avengers ride is over, a proper self-contained Captain America movie could be an enticing proposition…