Captain America: The First Avenger Review
Like last month’s X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger dives in to the past to deliver its thrills and comes up trumps. About as straightforward and uncomplicated as its title suggests, Joe Johnston’s take on one of Marvel Comics’ oldest heroes is immensely likeable hokum that dishes out WWII sci-fi fantasy action like it’s going out of business. Marvel’s final standalone comic book adaptation before the long-awaited Avengers team-up next year boasts a strong cast, script and some fine action sequences, which easily overcome any concerns about how such an anachronistic all-American hero could be successfully adapted, particularly for non-American audiences. Fans of retro action flicks like Sky Captain and Johnston’s own The Rocketeer will certainly lap it up, as will connoisseurs of action flicks in general.
It’s 1942 and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a man cursed with an incredibly slight physique and various other ailments, is desperate to sign up and join his friends in the fight against the Nazis in Europe, but is repeatedly rejected. Fate intervenes when his unyielding resolve to pass the army’s entrance exam is spotted by a scientist who has developed a serum which drastically boosts the subject’s physical strengths and is looking for a test candidate. The previous subject was Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a high–ranking Nazi in search of an ancient Norse artefact with legendary powers (cue a cute nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark). With Schmidt and his Hydra organisation threatening to overwhelm the rest of the world, the newly super-powered Rogers volunteers to lead a team against him.
Keeping Cap in the conflict that originally spawned him, thus making the film a period piece, was a wise decision. True, it is difficult to conceive of any other way that such an overtly patriotic warrior could be introduced (though it has been tried), but there are other advantages too: it shakes up the usual story formula a bit by combining it with some old-school wartime action, and it also acts as a prequel of sorts to the rest of the Marvel movie universe (hence the appearance here of Tony Stark’s father Howard, ever so slightly shoehorned in as part of the project to develop American super soldiers).
In its mixture of real-world warfare combined with comic-book action and technology, we end up with something akin to The Dirty Dozen crossed with a James Bond movie. There’s the requisite training camp sequence, followed by an ingenious musical montage of the newly minted Captain America being sent on a war bonds propaganda campaign across the States. From there it’s down to the serious business of kicking Nazi butt, as Rogers, fed up with morale-boosting gigs and eager to help out with the real action, goes on a solo mission behind enemy lines to rescue captured Allied troops. The action is fast and furious when it arrives – somehow World War II with laser guns works rather well.
Chris Evans delivers an assured and touching portrayal of the weakling given a chance to prove his mettle, a world away from his cocksure Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films. Though he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, Weaving’s Red Skull villain is an absolute hoot - a demented Werner Herzog with a severe case of sunburn. Also worthy of mention are Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (as devil-may-care as his son), Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Colonel reluctant to give Rogers a chance, Tucci as the serum's inventor, Toby Jones as Weaving’s right-hand man and Hayley Atwell as feisty love interest Peggy Carter; all stock characters but made much more interesting by strong performances and a script that lets them breathe a little.
Captain America became an interesting figure in the 1960s comics after he was resurrected post-WWII, revived in the present day after having been frozen for many years: now a man out of his time, representing old-fashioned values. The film is bookended by present day scenes but doesn’t get a chance to explore this angle on the character - presumably being held back for the inevitable sequel – so it remains to be seen how well the character works in a 21st century context.
Aside from a slight case of SFX overkill, the only real mis-step is an overly abrupt ending which robs the film of the satisfying conclusion it has unquestionably earned (a problem that also undermined Johnston’s otherwise entertaining Jurassic Park III). No doubt this is partly due to the need to set up The Avengers, but having created such an enjoyable scenario ripe with potential, it seems a shame to leave it with undue haste. Then again, as the army entertainment organisers would no doubt have said: always leave ‘em wanting more.