The Star Spangled Man – Revisiting Captain America: The First Avenger

Marvel’s roots come to the screen in this period superhero blast. Does Cap’s first adventure still cut it?

Now this is what I’m talking about! Awesome and rousing, Captain America: The First Avenger is a home run of a blockbuster, arriving late in the summer 2011 derby and putting most of its cinematic competition to shame. After Thor a few months prior, Captain America was that year’s second Marvel-produced action picture to provide an origin tale as well as function as a precursor to The Avengers. Fortunately, the film doesn’t feel like an extended trailer or an expensive advertisement for Joss Whedon’s epic. Rather, it feels like a wholesome, enjoyable action flick that tells a good story and introduces a Marvel icon in satisfying fashion.

A ninety-pound asthmatic burdened by health problems and physical ailments, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is determined to join the army during WWII to serve his country, but is always rejected. Steve’s valiant nature and determination is soon recognised by a German doctor (Stanley Tucci), who chooses the puny would-be soldier to participate in a military program designed to create super soldiers. Following the experiment, Steve is transformed into a muscular, physically sound specimen with superhuman abilities. Alas, he is kept away from the battlefield to perform in shows and films, and to act as America’s golden boy to provide morale boosts. However, he is eventually compelled into duty when villainous Nazi officer Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) takes possession of an energy source powerful enough to change the course of the war… and control the world. With agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) on his side, and with Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) providing him with the technology to kick some ass, Steve begins to live up to the name Captain America.

While Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk took place in present day, and Thor bounced between present-day Earth and fantastical worlds, Captain America: The First Avenger is a through-and-through period piece which takes place during World War II. And this is precisely what makes the film so refreshing. After all, introductory superhero pictures often adhere to the same origins formula, with the mould staying the same whilst the characters and settings are changed. With Captain America occurring during the war, the competent script is an intimate character piece, an origin story and a sprawling WWII epic spanning several years. More commendably, a compelling plot emerges beyond Steve’s development, and neither storyline feels underdone. Also, the old-fashioned world domination scheme cooked up by the Red Skull is slightly reminiscent of classic James Bond adventures, making for a narrative of unadulterated fun.

Once director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) begins focusing on the side of the titular character that everyone wants to see, Captain America is a blast. While a few action beats are somewhat awkward in their staging, the spectacle is otherwise highly satisfying. The 2011 summer season was mostly concerned with superheroes, their mutant abilities and giant robots pounding on one another, so it was refreshing to watch a patriotic action hero take down the bad guys in a more old-school fashion. It’s also quite amazing just how much violence the filmmakers were able to get away with in a PG-13 comic book flick (the gunshot wounds are notably bloody). As to be expected from a superhero action movie, though, Captain America is a bit dumb – the baddies can’t shoot straight, the good guy casualties are unrealistically low, and the technology being showcased is absurdly advanced for the 1940s.

Unsurprisingly, Captain America‘s special effects are constantly phenomenal. The crowning achievement is the depiction of “skinny” Steve Rogers, which is both an amazing CGI feat and an immaculate use of seamless digital effects to serve storytelling. When the set-pieces grow more ostentatious late in the picture, the special effects do become a tad cartoonish, however. On a more positive note, the criminally-underrated Alan Silvestri delivers a spectacular score, whilst the production design is gorgeous. The detail is to be commended, with the 1940s being effortlessly recreated by Johnston’s creative team. Captain America, like all prior Marvel movies, contains perceptive nods to set-up The Avengers. Yet, these necessities do not get in the way of creating a solid self-contained movie unlike Iron Man 2.

The character of Captain America was created back in the early 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby sensed eventual American involvement in WWII and set out to create a jingoistic superhero. Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely changed virtually no facets of the character’s origins, and retained the Captain’s fervid patriotism. Luckily, it works. And in the title role, the former Human Torch Evans is excellent – he competently conveys the character’s coyness and kindness. And with his buff physique, Evans genuinely looks the part. In the supporting cast, Weaving exudes menace as the Red Skull, and he’s close to being the best thing about the movie. He played the role as a mix of Col. Hans Landa (from Inglourious Basterds) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s interpretation of Mr. Freeze (from Batman & Robin), and topped off the mix with a Herzogian accent. Also making an impression is Jones, who’s a whole lot of fun as Col. Phillips. Jones has a gift for comedy, and the script gave him plenty of leeway to exploit it. Meanwhile, the sizzling Atwell did everything she needed to do as the token love interest who has become a fixture of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and Tucci adopted a completely believable accent playing the doomed German doctor.

With Christopher Nolan’s trademark dark, gritty approach to superheroes being adopted by the mainstream, something like Captain America: The First Avenger is a breath of fresh air. The film reminds us that dark and brooding does not automatically mean a movie is a masterpiece, and that a well-crafted, retro comic book action blockbuster can be just as much fun (and arguably better).

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)

  • This is the fifth live-action adaptation of the superhero. The first was the serial Captain America; the second was the TV movie Captain America and its sequel Captain America II: Death Too Soon; and the fourth was the theatrical film Captain America released in 1990.
  • Jon Favreau was originally chosen by Marvel Studios to direct this film (which he intended to make as a buddy comedy), but he chose to direct Iron Man. Nick Cassavetes, was also considered to direct this film, and had been set as a director for Iron Man in December 2004.
  • Joe Johnston was chosen as the film’s director because of his previous work on the period films Rocketeer (like Captain America, also an adventure movie) and October Sky.
  • Tommy Lee Jones also appeared as Two-Face/Harvey Dent in Batman Forever. Both Captain America and Batman faced off in the Marvel vs. DC crossover in 1996.
  • The Captain America comic book shown in the movies bears the cover of the actual Captain America #1 released in 1941.
  • Captain America’s special forces unit he assembles and leads is an amalgamation of the characters of Marvel Comics’ World War II period titles. These are the 1960s war title, “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos” about an elite special forces infantry unit and the 1970s “The Invaders,” about a superhero team operating during the war under the command of Captain America. The contributions of the former title include most of the soldier characters, while the latter includes Captain America, Bucky and James Montgomery Falsworth, who appears in the comic book as the British superhero, Union Jack.
  • The final Paramount Pictures film produced with Marvel Studios. Disney bought the rights to Avengers Assemble and Iron Man 3.

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