1 August 2011


Each of this summer's comic book movies have stood out from one another by dipping into different genres from one another. Thor is a full-blooded fantasy film, X-Men: First Class is a stylish spy thriller, and Green Lantern is pretty drab and mediocre, but with ambitions towards being a sci-fi space opera. Captain America: The First Avenger is a war movie, and it's the best of the bunch because it's completely successful in everything it's trying to be.

Set after America's entry into World War II, Steve Rogers is a skinny, runty looking kid from Brooklyn who is possessed by a heart of gold and an entirely earnest desire to serve his country. He's enrolled in a super-soldier experiment and effectively transformed into the world's greatest athlete. An accident leaves him as the first and only super-soldier at America's disposal, and Steve struggles to prove his worth in combat, on his way to a confrontation with ex-Nazi bastard, Red Skull.

So much of what this film gets right can be summed up by how they wrote Steve Rogers, and how Chris Evans plays him. His character arc is physical, not intellectual- he begins and ends the movie as a damn good guy. This makes his origin story considerably easier than those of heroes like Iron Man or Thor, but Marvel's arc between those movies and now this one really shows that they're learning their lessons on the way to The Avengers. By making a film about a good-hearted man who's bequeathed a good body to match, the origin sits with the action much better than before.

The crossover between this and First Class comes in the alternative history angle. Like Matthew Vaughn's film, Captain America: The First Avenger introduces actual superpowers into a conflict between more international superpowers. What puts it on a much grander scale is in how it picks up and develops what we saw in that film- how superpowered individuals on both sides of the conflict actually make it more complicated, and not quicker to finish. And so this one's set over several years, and the attention to detail entailed in that is what stands this film apart.

We get to know Steve by following Evans' likeable performance through this story, and that allows director Joe Johnston to focus on other things. Johnston previously directed a superhero in a WW2 setting with Rocketeer, a great film to which this one owes something of a thematic debt. But with Hugo Weaving's Red Skull hunting down artefacts of Odin's treasure room, it also has shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which pretty much made me fan-gasm. And yet we can still take it seriously. It's balanced so well, we can have an excellent Busby Berkeley-style musical number in the middle, and the film doesn't derail for it.

And nor do the obligatory references to SHIELD slow up the film. As a period piece, the division of the army we're seeing here is probably SHIELD in its infancy, to which end we get a thoroughly decent performance from Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark. If anything, it's the film's place as an immediate predecessor to next summer's team-up film that keeps the plot free of entanglements. The Norse McGuffin at stake here was explained by Thor, and the Nazi's laser guns sound an awful lot like Iron Man's repulsor rays, technology we've already seen in the alt-present day established in other films. It improves the film, rather than distracting.

If anything, the film gets stronger and better as it goes along. What was the last comic book film you could honestly say that about? The last film, full stop? The strong cast of supporting characters are part of what gives it that power throughout. Weaving, abetted by Toby Jones as a Nazi scientist, refuses to camp it up and his presence is felt even when he's not on-screen, like Hitler in most other WW2 "men on a mission" movies. On the side of good, Tommy Lee Jones plays Tommy Lee Jones as a craggy colonel, but he's always fun to watch.

And after many complained about Natalie Portman's swooning in Thor, this one has a properly compelling love interest. Hayley Atwell's performance as Agent Peggy Carter comes from the Marion Ravenwood school of bad-assery and yet even Marion was occasionally a damsel in distress- Peggy can look out for herself. And naturally, she's hot as hell to boot. By the time the film gets to homaging a certain Powell and Pressburger film I happen to love as well, you're invested enough in her relationship with Steve that it's worthy of the reference.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a very charismatic adaptation of a character that could easily have appeared either garish or quaint. Either that, or a character who blasts into battle to the tune of "America, Fuck Yeah". It's because it's neither a Batman and Robin, nor a Batman Begins, that it works so well. I actually struggle to think of anything wrong with it, except for quibbles and trifles. It's one of those rare films that can genuinely be described as rip-roaring, and it's romantic, exciting and tons of fun to boot. That's my heartfelt salute to the best film of the summer, and one of the best, most on-point comic book movies I've ever seen.

Captain America: The First Avenger is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Captain America: The First Avenger, why not share your comments below? Are you looking forward to May, now that the Avengers are fully assembled in the filmgoing consciousness?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

The Jester said...

Love the review. Here is mine and one of my associates review of the same film.