‘Teenage boy gets ultimate wish fulfilment when entered into a top secret military program that transforms the plucky waif from a scrawny bag of bones into an unstoppable super soldier, and then fights a villain called the Red Skull who is basically a monster version of Hitler… and also has a red skull for a face.’
Yep. We’re in superhero film territory folks (read that opening again in Stan Lee’s voice if still unconvinced).
Captain America: The First Avenger was Marvel Studios’ final release prior to this year’s The Avengers, and it couldn’t have worked out any better for them. Overall, the individual origin stories for each character they’ve been weaving together have been sort of a mixed bag, despite the series beginning impressively with Iron Man, so it bodes well that their last ‘prequel’ felt like their all-round most successful effort to date.
As a character, Cap is a hard sell to the cynical modern audience; he traditionally has the same sort of good-guy earnestness as Superman, which makes him a little hard to relate to, being a bit of a Dudley-Do Right. As this is his origin – the story of how young string-bean Steve Rodgers becomes the mighty Captain America – it takes place mostly during the World War 2 era, and is shot with a sense of nostalgia that harkens back to classic adventure serials. With my view based largely on the underwhelming trailer, I questioned whether the younger fans of modern superhero movies would be interested, but I was happy to be proven wrong when the film was a hit.
As a standalone film it has a bold and interesting story that’s told very well, it links into the universe set up in their previous films almost seamlessly, and has a cast that is just up-and-down awesomeness. As the casting of the lead in any movie is always crucial, it takes a particular balance of actor to pull off Captain America. As soon as the role was cast and the subsequent story broke, straight away I just said “Fuck yeah”. I knew that Chris Evans was their guy. And on this point, I think was proved quite right.
The film begins with a bookend scene that Director Joe Johnston clumsily uses (spoiler warning!) to get Cap into present day by the end of the film. While this was admittedly only a minor issie I had with the film (I felt the whole intro was too similar to that of Thor) it’s not long before we’re whisked back to 1942 to begin the adventure proper, where we’re introduced to the villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, clearly having the time of his life), leader of the Nazi faction Hydra, and his search for an object he believes will give him the ability to wield ‘the power of the gods’. Soon thereafter, we meet the least-powerful guy in the universe; the story’s hero, Steve Rogers (Evans).
I think it’s absolutely crucial to the success of the film that it plays out this way; we’re introduced to a skinny, awkward nice-guy, being repeatedly turned down by the Army, unable to fulfil his ambition to fight for his country because of his limited physical abilities. We’re rooting for this underdog straight away, and what makes it kind of special is the way Evans is able to sell the character while acting under special effects, which vastly diminish his size. He brings the exact balance of heart, earnestness and determination, and as Evans is fairly built himself, it’s a bold and well-executed set-up that allows the rest of the movie to just play. His eventual enlistment into the program, following a chance meeting with Dr. Abraham Erskine (a brilliantly understated Stanley Tucci) puts him under the not-unpleasant-looking-eyes of one Peggy Carter (Hayley Attwell) and into a rigorous training regime headed by Colonel Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones). Philips is, in short, exactly the sort of world-weary grizzled badass character you’d expect from someone called ‘Colonel Chester Philips’, but this is a very, very good thing. He’s sardonic and kind of a dick to everyone, and one of the best things in the film.
Those of you with a modicum of savvy will know exactly where the story is heading. Of course, Steve gets his shot of the super-serum, and a hero is born; the lab is immediately destroyed leaving him a one-of-a-kind outcast, a military misfire looking for a rug to be swept under. While all this is a reasonable basic set-up, nobody wanted to watch a 2 hour movie about Little Steve getting his wings – they want to see Captain America and some ass being kicked. I won’t spoil the diversion the story takes to get there, as I found it to be one of the best surprises in the film, but it’s a neat little segment and a great way to set Steve up for actually earning his stripes. By the time he finally gets to the front line, the audience is completely onside with the kid. Joe Johnston delivers on the action front with aplomb and manages to squeeze a fair amount of violence out of his 12-A (or PG-13) rating, with at least one set piece up there with the very best of the Marvel movies. Johnston undercuts the third act with a real sense of threat as the Red Skull puts his Big Villainous Scheme into play, and with lines like “Hey everyone, these boys are worse than Nazi’s” you get a real kick out of it when Cap and his squad put boot-to-ass
If I praised Evans earlier for his work as Steve Rogers, he nails Captain America to the roof. By grounding him in humour, it makes for a more relatable super-guy, and works well with his “Awww, shucks” charm. While I’ve liked all of Evans’ performances to date (especially as movie-star megadouche Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), this is truly his star-making turn. The cast are uniformly excellent and seem pretty in-tune with the tone of the movie.
While Captain America does have its fair share of impressive action set-pieces, there are dozens of little moments littered throughout the whole thing that just made me smile; dialogue exchanges, character set-ups, or its final note of poignancy. I particularly enjoyed the too-brief appearances of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony’s father, in another neat fusion of the Marvel cinematic landscape. I think some of the Marvel films have been guilty of shoe-horning in S.H.I.E.L.D. references and appearances, but here it works much more organically.
I can understand why some didn’t get it. In terms of tone, both this and Thor sort of flew in the face of the gritty realism that the earth-conquering Dark Knight has established and popularised, and some find it cheesy when it should be nostalgic, or trite when it tries to be as earnest as it’s hero. But in terms of an action-adventure, I was completely absorbed by the story’s charm, and the charm in its telling; a wonderful ensemble doing great work. If Joss Whedon can get as much chemistry out of his all-star team as Captain America did, we’re going to have something really special on our hands.
This review was originally published on rustyshark.com