Sunday, August 07, 2011

Film Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

"Why someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power..."
In 1942, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a 90-pound asthmatic weakling, has his application to enroll in the Army rejected for the fourth time. Unwilling to let this setback deter him, Rogers visits an enrollment booth at a grand exhibition intended to showcase the work of millionaire playboy and maverick inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), where he is spotted by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German ex-pat who has been working to help the American war effort. Impressed by Rogers' heart and courage in the face of constant rejection and humiliation, Erskine enrolls Rogers so he can take part in an experiment to create the first of a new breed of "super soldiers" who will hopefully be able to turn the tide of the war. Despite the skepticism of the other people behind the scheme, which include Stark, Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Rogers is chosen as the first subject, and is transformed, via a special serum, from a weakling into a towering mass of muscle.

One of the many pleasantly surprising aspects of Captain America is the willingness of director Joe Johnston and his writers to delay the sort of wham-bam heroics that we have come to expect from summer superhero flicks in favour of building up the characters. Contrasted against its fellow Marvel stablemate Thor, which opens with a massive battle featuring thousands of Gods and Ice Giants battling for domination, Captain America is positively sedate in comparison. After swifting establishing Rogers as one of life's great underdogs through a mix of some seriously impressive CGI and Evans' downtrodden performance as, essentially, a floating head attached to another person's body, then turning him into a super soldier, the film takes an interesting detour before placing him on the battlefields of Europe. After tragedy prevents the Army from creating more super soldiers, Rogers is deemed too valuable to be sent to do the thing he was created for - to fight - and is instead used as a propaganda tool to convince people to buy war bonds.

What follows is a delightfully kitschy sequence in which Rogers is shown taking part in a national (and later international) stage show where he is christened Captain America, dressed up in the familiarly garish traditional outfit of the character and acts out a pantomime in which he knocks out Hitler every night. The montage has a real nostalgic glow to it, suggesting that Johnston and his team sat down and really studied the propaganda films of the period to get the feel just right. Unlike such indifferently realised films as Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class, a lot of care and attention seems to have gone into the realisation of the film's retro-futurist aesthetic, which creates a version of the past if technology had advanced that little bit quicker.

It's a visual style that the film shares with Johnston's earlier film The Rocketeer, but more importantly Captain America has inherited from that film a similar dewy-eyed earnestness that suggests that Johnston has a real reverence for the ideas of the source material. He avoids taking the film down the ra-ra jingoistic path that it could have easily followed, instead grounding Rogers' reason for wanting to fight in a general dislike of bullies, regardless of their nationality or ideology. He wants to fight because it is the right thing to do, rather than because the right thing to do is the American thing to do. It's a simplistic viewpoint, but also a pure one, and it's hard not to root for the little guy who got beat up in every alley in his neighbourhood to come good and beat the bad guys, which he eventually does once he takes the fight to them.

Once Cap gets to Europe, the film kicks things up a gear with action sequence after action sequence detailing how he sets about dismantling the Nazi war machine with just his strength, his shield and a small group of hand-picked specialists. The fights aren't especially audacious or spectacular, but they display a basic level of craft that is increasingly rare in most blockbusters. You can tell who is who, what is going on and what the stakes are, all without feeling the effects of motion sickness or that you are being treated like an unthinking sack of meat. It doesn't ascend to the heights of truly great blockbuster cinema in that regard, but it also doesn't set its sights so low that it can't possibly miss.

As with any superhero movie worth its salt, the strength of the film lies in its villains, and you can't go wrong with Nazis. And if you have someone who even the Nazis don't like much, well, even better. That's just what the film has in the form of Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a failed early experiment of Erskine's whose megalomania goes beyond Fascism to an all-consuming personal desire for power. With some creepy-looking prosthetics and a Werner Herzog accent, Weaving is a supremely satisfying villain, one full of menace and exuberant theatricality. He makes for a great contrast with the restrained-bordering-on-bland performance of Chris Evans, who can't bring his usual self-aware charm to such a straight-laced role. Weaving is ably supported by Toby Jones as his sidekick, Dr. Armin Zola, a scientist who begins to question his loyalties the more he is exposed to Schmidt's lunacy. He clearly didn't join the Nazi Party to follow a maniac with delusions of grandeur hellbent on world domination.

Despite being part of Marvel's multi-film Avengers project, Captain America feels largely self-contained - barring a moody prologue and an awkward epilogue that firmly hammers home its connection to that story - and that's probably its greatest strength. It's a willfully nostalgic throwback to a different time and a different style of blockbuster film-making that is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg (there is a lot of Raiders of The Lost Ark to its tone, the fact that there is a mysterious artifact driving the central action, and there's even a throwaway line referencing that great film) that doesn't have the baggage of Thor or Iron Man because it takes place 60 years before the events of those films. It's a movie concerned solely with delivering an exciting slice of escapism, and it succeeds with flying colours. Red, white and blue colours.

Grade: B

Excited to see The Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor in action? Catch up on all of The Avengers' origin stories at ''