Captain America: The First Avenger is a cracking superhero yarn which overcomes its formulaic narrative and sits neatly with WW2 action movies. Indeed, the context gives the material a nice spin. The Star-Spangled arse-kicker isn’t really fighting the Nazis either, he’s after an occult leader who has formed a breakaway faction of the Third Reich. Even Hitler hates The Red Skull!
The opening scenes introduce us to a young man named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) attempting – and failing – to enlist in Uncle Sam’s army. When a chance encounter with a scientist (Stanley Tucci) leads to him joining a secret military program, Rogers is turned from try-hard into die hard.
There’s something rather sweet and naïve about Captain America as a superhero. He’s not some jingoistic right-wing vision of perfection, but a man who loathes bullying and wants to take a stand for the greater good. It certainly makes a change from haunted men like Bruce Wayne or skirt chasing drunks like Tony Stark. Captain America is a hero for the working man.
Rogers, when we first see him, is a 90 pound weakling and likely to fly away in a heavy wind. But this little champ possesses the heart of the lion and once he’s doped up good and proper with super-serum, there’s no looking back. Well kind of.
Instead of flying off to Europe to sort out Hitler and his fascist bullyboys, Steve Rogers is instead enlisted in a war bonds campaign, then becomes a movie star (referencing the old Republic serials nicely) and packed off on moral-boosting tours of the front line. In other words, it’s celebrity first and hero second.
This whole segment is well put together and funny. Rogers is coerced into the position and seems ill at ease parading around in a silly costume. He does it because he’s a genuinely nice chap. Especially since he could actually go out there and win the war!
Again this near-humiliation marks him out as different from others of his kind. Captain America was birthed within a WW2 propaganda context and the 21st century revisionist stance is well handled and appealing. Lord knows ‘Captain America’ could have been used as an imperial poster boy for Republican nutjobs. You sense those with an over-active imagination will still level this insult at the picture. He fits in with US interventionist aims of the modern era but does so within a framework of fraternal co-operation. And who wouldn’t want to fraternise with British hottie Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell)? Hello! She’s no push over either. We first meet her on the training ground where she socks a soldier for being a sexist pig.
Given this is very much an origins story with a modern prologue and epilogue linking to next year’s The Avengers (Joss Whedon is directing. Believe), there’s a heck of a lot to cram in. Yet it never flags or fails to entertain. So although Captain America’s celebrity is very much established at home, when he gets to Italy for a USO show he’s laughed at and ridiculed. The soldiers want hot babes singing songs not some dude dressed up in tights mouthing slogans. Rogers feels the need to earn respect and not command it.
So he sets about using his new found abilities to take down The Red Skull and his nefarious plan – which is basically to out-Hitler Hitler. The German swine has discovered the ‘power of the Gods’ and develops some amazing weapons with it. He’s also got a mental red face which he hides behind a human mask looking an awful lot like Hugo Weaving, and he talks like Werner Herzog.
The ‘Star-Spangled Man with a Plan’ first needs to rescue his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and get together a crack team of fellow soldiers. There’s an awful example of tokenism on display which will no doubt infuriate Spike Lee.
A rather unexpected element in the set design and costumes is the steampunk influence. Although, this is a film very much invested in exploring the fantastical sides of technology, in an decade which really was groundbreaking.
Johnston gets the tone right for a comic book adventure movie. He even throws in a nice reference to Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death whilst the last scene bizarrely recalls Goodbye, Lenin! The supporting cast, too, is fun. Toby Jones as the right hand Nazi to Red Skull, Dr. Zola, is suitably sinister and a rather nerdy presence. Tucci (as Dr. Erskine) is a hoot in a small but pivotal part. And Tommy Lee Jones gets to demonstrate his comedy chops as top military brass grouch Col. Chester Phillips.
The tone sits between Fantastic Four and Iron Man, and that’s just about right. The WW2 setting gives the film a nice context in which to plot its course. It’s old-fashioned entertainment (in a positive sense).
The set design, and cinematography by Shelly Johnson, is exquisite stuff. Johnson’s work on The Wolfman was excellent but here he goes for a lush, soft-focus sepia tone. Captain America: The First Avenger is an entertaining summer blockbuster with a hero you’d want to be friends with. Roll on The Avengers!
US Release Date: 22nd July, 2011
UK Release Date: 29th July, 2011