Captain America: The First Avenger

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Reviewed by 12-Sep-11

I’ve spent a good few years being quite cynical about Marvel’s ambitious plans for their superhero franchise in the cinema. Even if they did get made, they wouldn’t be any good. What is very pleasing about Captain America: The First Avenger is that none of these fears are realised.

Captain America: The First Avenger

“I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY”

directed by Joe Johnston, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; Paramount/Marvel.

Sometimes you’re wrong.

I’ve spent a good few years being quite cynical about Marvel’s ambitious plans for their superhero franchise in the cinema. When, in the wake of the success of X-Men  and Spider-Man, rumours abounded about Iron Man, The Sub-Mariner and Doctor Strange, I didn’t seriously expect that those movies would ever actually be made. True enough, Prince Namor and the Master of the Mystic Arts have yet to trouble the multiplex. But Iron Man did come along, and was quite a success.

Then, when Marvel unveiled their masterplan of a series of movies featuring Shellhead, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America, leading into The Avengers, I seriously doubted that this would actually happen. It was a nice idea, but the logic of Hollywood is such that, should one of the movies flop (in the way that DC’s Green Lantern has), the whole project would stall.

Yet here we are, with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger all out, and The Avengers slated for May of next year.

My last line of cynicism was that even if they did get made, they wouldn’t be any good. I mean, there’s such a history of terrible superhero movies (Daredevil, anyone?), and it’s clear that the good ones are the exceptions. This isn’t surprising – the whole Hollywood system has so many people involved who have the right to interfere that it’s a wonder that it produces anything remotely watchable at all. Well, I’ve only seen Iron Man, but that’s good, and even if reports are that Iron Man 2 isn’t, the buzz on Thor is reasonably favourable.

I was most worried about Captain America. After all, there had been attempts to make Cap movies back in 1979 and 1990, and none of them are any good at all. In the current political climate, it would be so easy to do a flag-wearing super-soldier as a right-leaning tool of imperialism (as Mark Millar presented him in The Ultimates), which, as I argue elsewhere on this site, isn’t really what Cap is, or at least not what he was in the beginning.

What is very pleasing about Captain America: The First Avenger to long-term Cap fans is that none of these fears are realised. Oh yes, Cap is patriotic, and wants to serve his country. But he’s no bully – indeed, Steve Rogers is selected for the Super-Soldier serum precisely because he doesn’t throw his weight around. There’s nothing here to make liberal Cap fans feel soiled.

In FF: Rise of the Silver Surfer he's got chest hair!

And it’s certainly not awful; far from it, in fact. The plot, to be honest, is pretty perfunctory, and serves as a means of linking the action scenes. Cap is put up against the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving delivering exactly the right level of evil camp) and a pre-face-on-a-robot-chest Arnim Zola (Toby Jones).  Steve Rogers is failed for military service as 4F, and then gets selected for the Super-Soldier project, meeting Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) along the way.  The moment he is transformed, Nazi saboteurs destroy the lab and kill the scientist in charge, making the experiment unrepeatable. We then get Cap’s war service, in the course of which Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is killed, leading to a final moment in the Arctic (already signalled by the movie’s framing sequence), before Cap is revived nearly seventy years later. There’s little here that anyone familiar with Cap’s backstory will be surprised about, apart from a section where Cap becomes a stage and screen star to promote the war effort. That could make you cringe, but in fact it’s handled quite well, and does explain in a way that’s acceptable in a movie where the costume comes from. There are also a couple of retcons from later Marvel history, such as bringing in Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper); these add to the richness of the narrative rather than appearing unnecessary.

"Say, you guys wouldn't be HYDRA, would you?"

The action scenes are pretty enjoyable, with lots of shield-slinging, and avoid the ‘two CGI robots hitting each other’ effect that marred the end of Iron Man.  Chris Evans is perfectly fine as Rogers – though his previous role as the Human Torch presumably nixes any Avengers/FF crossover.  (Jason Solomons, on a recent Guardian Film Weekly podcast, whilst discussing Conan The Barbarian, noted that both Thor and Captain America had been launched without big names in the leads.  This is presumably to avoid The Avengers being over-loaded with stars, since they’re already committed to Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlett Johanssen as the Black Widow.)  The special effects for the smaller pre-super-soldier Rogers are well done, and rarely does one suspect that there is any trickery going on at all.  Tommy Lee Jones as general Chester Phillips gets all the best lines, and once again shows how he can raise the tone of most genre pictures just by his presence (we’ll overlook Batman Forever).

There are niggles – for instance, the US Army in November 1943 wasn’t nearly far enough north in Italy to make walking back from Austria at all practical. And I am sorry that Cap’s origin has been relocated to after Pearl Harbor rather than before, though I can understand the motivation, and it’s not an uncommon retcon.  In any case, worse crimes have been committed by allegedly more serious movies. All in all, for a general audience, this is a perfectly sound, entertaining superhero action movie, which doesn’t insult the intelligence (or at least, not as much as many modern comics). It’s also a war movie, and it manages the blend surprisingly well.

What made it a delight for me, and, I suspect, other Cap fans, are the little touches. These begin with the Cosmic Cube (called the ‘Tesseract’ and linked to Odin, but plainly it is the Cosmic Cube) and continue with Professor Horton’s original Human Torch at the Future Fair.  There’s the use of the cover of Captain America Comics #1, and Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo.  Cap’s commando unit is never named, but it obviously is the Howling Commandos (now divorced from Nick Fury by the changes to Fury’s backstory), complete with ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan (perfectly played by Neal McDonough), Gabe Jones, and new entrant Montgomery Falsworth (originally the first Union Jack, here pretty much reconfigured as David Niven’s character from The Guns of Navarone).  Cap’s final uniform is pretty much the Bryan Hitch version from The Ultimates, for which Hitch gets an acknowledgement in the final credits (though this, as I say, is not Mark Millar’s Cap, but, if anything, Ed Brubaker’s).  And the credits remember that Cap is the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, not Stan Lee.

This isn’t just a bunch of Hollywood journeymen making the next superhero movie in the pipeline.  Captain America: The First Avenger is the work of creators who know and love Cap, and what he stands for, and are determined to do right by him.

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

 

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2 Responses to “Captain America: The First Avenger”

  1. [...] Today’s Republicans have hijacked patriotism as if they are the only party in America with a claim to it (as the Conservatives did in the United Kingdom). Extreme texts in the US label all Democrats as traitors. But this does not seem to me to be Captain America’s patriotism. He honours his country, and respects the American flag, but for the values they represent, not for any intrinsic sacrosanctity they possess. I like to believe that Captain America would abhor those Americans who believe in “My Country Right And Wrong”, who believe dissent is anti-American, and who pursue agendas of narrow self-interest whilst paying only lip service to the values America is supposed to represent. After all, Cap spent five years fighting exactly that sort of blind patriotism. This is why I think it’s important to remember that Cap went into action against the Nazis in March 1941, eight months before the US officially went to war (even if in practice the Roosevelt administration was doing everything it could short of an actual declaration of war) – this is something that I miss in Joe Johnston’s otherwise excellent (from a Cap fan’s point of view) movie. [...]

  2. [...] Somehow they found the perfect blend. They’d know when to stick to the original storylines, and when to update them. They’d throw in enough “in” references to feed the fans, but without bothering general audiences. They’d sprinkle on just enough humour to sweeten the dish, but without swamping it and making the whole thing seem campy. But mostly, in a Marvel tradition we haven’t seen for some time, they knew how to tell a thumping good story. The two most recent instalments, Thor and Captain America were spoken of favourably on this very site. (Check here and here.) [...]

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