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Non-Review Review: Captain America – The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t have the heart of X-Men: First Class or the wit of Thor, but the story of Marvel’s star-spangled superhero does have its own charms. Part of it reflects its lead, little Steve Rogers, an appealing and sincere earnestness in dealing with material that it would be too easy to cynically dismiss. The First Avenger embraces the cheesiness at its core, and offers a rather stunning version of THE great American myth. Zack Snyder would do well to play close attention when bringing that other America fable to the big screen.

Patriot games...

At its heart, and where it works most successfully, Captain America is about a central American mythology. The hook of the story, and one the script wisely sinks its teeth into, is the cornerstone of the American Dream: the idea that fate and circumstance are not confined by birth or caste. Away from the rigid class system of the Old World, America promised complete social mobility to those seeking welcome. “What makes you so special?” the Red Skull asks of the hero. Steve responds, “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” And that is what makes him special.

There’s a reason the story focuses on New York as the central target of the Red Skull’s terrorist strike, and not just one of geographical convenience. “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.” It’s hard not to imagine that the poor and tired Steve Rogers ionly a generation or two off the boat – and already his family has given so much to this new country, both parents lost in the war. America is the place where poor asthmatic Steve Rogers can make the best of himself, turning from a humble victim of schoolyard bullies into a super-soldier.

I'm sure it takes some skull to operate...

If Captain America is a new American myth, a shiny ideal of the sheer flexibility of human potential in a world free of the idea of the trappings of birth, the film cleverly positions his adversary as a champion of the old, redundant mythology. Johann Schmidt is immortalised on canvas, the art of countless generations of European royalty; Steve Rogers is captured on film, the medium of the twentieth century. Rogers’ cultural diet is baseball games and cinema tickets, Johann works to the sound of Wagner, and wallows in the tombs of gods who have long departed this world.

It’s clever that Johann, a German, should be so fixated on archiving and collecting trinkets that aren’t even Tuetonic, seeking to be a god of an ancient pantheon, while Steve Rogers becomes something new. (Well, new at the time.) World War II was, in many ways, the moment at which the torch was passed from the old world to the new, and the film captures this, when it’s at its very best. Superheroes are American mythology, and there’s something refreshing about how direct the movie is with that, rather than deconstructing or picking it apart.

Future agent of SHIELD...

Here’s the thing. Captain America predates pretty much the entire Stan Lee canon, from Thor to Spider-Man to Iron Man. He’s much closer to DC’s Superman, in that he’s an icon, more than a character. It’s a big gambit to put him on-screen in front of audiences used to complex psychologies like Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark or Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne. Steve Rogers isn’t a complex character. He’s a little guy who is so desperate to enlist that he fakes all sorts of paperwork in order to apply multiple times – only to be shot down repeatedly.

To his credit, Chris Evans recognises he’s playing a straight-laced one-dimension cultural icon rather than a multifaceted character, calling to mind the same sort of charm that Christopher Reeves brought to Richard Donner’s Superman. In fact, that film might be the closest point of comparison to this effort. Evans gives us hints of depth, but doesn’t try to make him especially relatable or complex. Steve Rogers isn’t flawed like Tony Stark. He doesn’t need to be humbled like Thor. He’s more a representation of an ideal human than a portrait of a flawed one.

Jonesing for a superhero film?

The script was reportedly worked on by Joss Whedon, and you can feel it. Particularly in the way that the movie cheekily plays with certain set-ups and clichés, like a Nazi agent trying to impose a sadistic choice on our hero. There’s also something charming in the way that the movie acknowledges all manner of old-fashioned tropes and clichés. There are countless references to good old summer blockbusters, like Tommy Lee Jones in a car with a big red button, through to playing with the old “knock on the door, punch out guard” routine, or even “the rumbling underneath canvas before the bad guy is ejected” bit.

There’s a rather strong debt owed to Raiders of the Lost Ark, right down to certain similar shots as our villain opens a box containing an artifact of untold religious power. “And the Fuhrer is off in the desert digging for trinkets,” the Red Skull dismisses his boss’ activities as he skulks around Norway digging up items tied to Norse mythology. It’s nice that Johnson and his team are acknowledging the movie’s debts, and there are far worse choices to model your historical adventure around.

This wasn't what she meant when she said she'd see him "out of uniform"...

However there are moments when the film does go a little bit too far into the realm of cheesiness. In particular, some of the make-up used to bring the Red Skull to life (especially the cheekbones) are just a little bit too much. The Stormtrooper-inspired HYDRA agents come across as almost a parody of faceless goons, like something out of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. There are a whole host of crazy sci-fi laser guns and techno-weapons, which are cute and seem like something out of fifties pulp fiction.Yet, there are some moments which push it a little too far, like insanely large tanks and spiral rocket ships.

There’s also a rather strange plot point where the Red Skull and his cult of followers seem to declare war on both the Allies and the Axis, which seems a bit more complicated than it needs to be – implying a vastly alternate World War II faught between three sides, but with little practical distinction between the Skull and the Nazis. When the Skull wages all-out war with the Allies, is he doing the same with his former master? Because he seems to move quite freely in German territory. Has he overthrown Hitler? Is Hitler suddenly cool with his embarrassment conducting fairly open warfare? Did anybody miss those Nazi overseers Schmidt offered a demo of his work to? None of these are major problems, but I wouldn’t have minded a line or two to clarify them.

Unfortunately, he never utters the line, "Mis-ter Rogers..."

The film does feel a little bit too long. Part of the problem is that Johnson structures the film like an entire trilogy crammed into one. There’s a lovely superhero origin that works really well, explaining what makes Steve Rogers so special, and then a nice little plot about how Rogers spends the war… and finally an actual big-budget superhero movie with a gigantic final confrontation. Each of these three sections works quite well on their own, but Johnson seems to have a bit of difficulty transitioning between the story elements. Which is a shame, because the first of those two plots are handled remarkably well.

The CGI is a little bit cheesy in places, especially during an otherwise impressive action sequence across Brooklyn, where Rogers looks like a video game character pulling several impossible stunts. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed with the movie’s 3D. Like Branagh’s Thor, the movie was shot on 2D film, and converted to 3D in post-production. However, the movie appears to use a lot more physical sets and set pieces than Marvel’s Norse god, which was saturated in CGI, which tends to convert better. In fact, the best 3D sequence in the entire film is an animated end credits sequence.

War hero...

Still, these are relatively minor quibbles. I have to admit that I really like Marvel’s decision to round out the casts with veteran performers. In fact, Stanley Tucci does great work here as a character who might as well have a giant bullseye tattooed on his head. Oh wait, that’s another Marvel character. Tommy Lee Jones is great as a sarcastic general, and Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones enjoy playing the two bad guys.

The film is peppered with countless little in-jokes and references to Marvel’s vast universe. Unlike Iron Man 2 or even Thor, they don’t all exist to hint at upcoming films (though some do tie the films together, like Dominic Cooper as the father of a certain other comic book hero). They seem to exist out of genuine affection for the source material, like a quick glimpse at a certain Horton experiment at the World Fair, or a sly reference to Armin Zola’s famous comic appearance or even sequences lifted from The Ultimates or Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run. The don’t overwhelm the film, which can be enjoyed on its own merits.

Guess he got Carter...

The movie does go to great lengths to get all Marvel’s ducks in a row for the upcoming adaptation of The Avengers, particularly in the final minutes. Be sure to stay after the credits for a sneak peak of Joss Whedon’s upcoming superhero epic. Is it 2012 already? However, what the movie does best is offering a solid basis for all these iconic characters and the notion of the superhero in American pop culture. Captain America is almost as old as Superman, and it’s fitting that Marvel returns to their earlier creation with a genuine and honest affection before jumping into the big-screen modern adventure.

Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t a superhero masterpiece. It might not even the best superhero film of the summer, but – like its plucky young hero – there’s a charm and basic honesty to the film that can’t help but sway even the most cynical detractors.

8 Responses

  1. Hugely enjoyable and superbly written, this is a thrilling action-adventure that gets just about everything right, especially the casting of Evans as Captain America. Good Review!

  2. Great review. Can’t wait to see this one.

  3. I preferred both Thor and X-Men First Class to this. While it’s not a bad movie, I thought it was underwhelming and a bit dull, just another generic, formula-based factory-stamped production from Marvel. I guess comic book movies are becoming akin to romantic comedies for guys.

    • That’s a good point. reminds me of what James Berardinelli said about this – there was a time when superhero filsm were so rare they were greated with open arms. They’re perhaps far too common these days. Still, I enjoyed it for what it was, and admired it for its earnestness.

      I agree, not as good as Thor, or X-Men.

  4. Excellent write up. If nothing else, “Cap” has us all ready for next summer.

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