Notes On A Film – Captain America: The First Avenger

It may not be news to you, but I didn’t know that Joe Johnston was won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his work as part of the team on Raiders of the Lost Ark. This fact certainly explains a lot about the feel of this origin story for Captain America: a serial adventure with a period setting but a modern sensibility. It doesn’t achieve the heights of Raiders, but it’s a lot of fun with the right tone needed for the translation of Marvel’s sensibility towards World War II from comic book to screen.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I have trouble accepting the character of Captain America, but he’s never really worked for me (with the exception of Ed Brubaker’s run, but I’ve always felt that the book deals with Steve Rogers, not Captain America per se). Part of it is the time-specific nature of the concept – the ones set during the war seem to make the most sense. This could be one of the reasons why this film works: it’s Captain America in a time where he fits. The classic origin tale is told: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a puny individual who is unfit to join the army, which doesn’t stop him from trying five different times (illegally using different towns in each application), until he’s noticed by German scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who thinks he would be the perfect candidate for his experiment – creating a super soldier using his scientific serum and vita rays (as supplied by Howard Stark, Marvel doing what it does best by creating a coherent universe with characters popping up in different films but maintaining consistency). The experiment is a success, and Rogers is turned into the hyper-muscled version we know; however, the film takes a nice twist with the origin story and turns him into a PR tool for selling war bonds, which allows for the slightly original costume to be introduced and the badge-shaped shield. They even have the comic book with Captain America punching Hitler on the cover as propaganda for the kids, which was a nice touch.

This section of the film flows well: Evans is really good as both the weakling (the CGI to make him look like so puny is really impressive, with only a few sections where it looks a bit ropey) and the pumped-up hero; he was good fun as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four films, but he plays this character completely differently and does a very good job of selling the person of Steve Rogers. There is good support from Tommy Lee Jones as the Colonel in charge of the operation, Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter and Tucci as Erskine. This section also nicely sets up the idea that Rogers is the right guy to become Captain America because he’s a genuinely heroic and decent person: he never gives up, he does the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and he’s self-sacrificing (throwing himself on a dummy grenade to protect others in the pre-serum sequence). It is summed up perfectly in the response to the question from Erskine, ‘Do you want to kill Nazis?’ – Steve replies, ‘I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.’ It should also be pointed out that the film is rather funny – there are some good lines that reminded me of the humour in Raiders – and this adds to the enjoyment of the film.

The other section of the film is the bad guy: the Red Skull. A fanatical German, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is head of Hydra, the research and technology department of the Nazi war effort, who underwent an imperfect version of Erskine’s super soldier formula, making him strong but also giving him his red skull. He obtains the Tesseract (last seen in the film Thor) to power his weapons, with which he is going to take on the world – he has Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Young) creating advanced tech for him, so there is the comic book mix of futuristic design in the middle of the 1940s. If you’ve read any of the comic books, you can handle this fantastical version of World War II as portrayed in Marvel comics – the stories are set in the horror of the actual war but don’t dishonour the events by basing these superhero adventures in the exact same details, hence fighting Hydra, who are more Nazi than the Nazis. Again, the tone of the film gets this balance right so that you can go with it instead of wondering about the incongruity of laser guns and laser tanks in World War II. It’s also helped by Weaving’s performance as the Red Skull; I swear that he sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger at times, which probably helped.

There are a lot of things that Marvel has done right in this film in adapting from the comics. Bucky is no longer the 16-year-old sidekick in a uniform, but a friend of Steve’s from Brooklyn who enlisted and was subsequently saved by Steve and then became a member of Steve’s team (effectively Sgt Fury’s Howling Commandos, from the comics but with some changes: Dum Dum Dugan [the moustached one], Gabriel Jones [the African American], Jim Morita [the Japanese American] and Jacques Dernier [the French resistance one] are there, but the British one is now James Montgomery Falsworth, who was Union Jack in the comic books and wasn’t part of the Commandos). The fate of Bucky is also kept (I guess the cinema universe isn’t ready for the Winter Soldier) but not as part of the final battle with the Red Skull as in the comics. There is also a nice Easter egg for fans in the form of the Golden Age Human Torch, seen encased in a glass cylinder in the World’s Fair where Steve encounters Erskine, with the name of Prof. Phineas Horton above. The development of the linking thread of the Tesseract from Thor through this film (I presume it’s going to be the MacGuffin for the Avengers film) and the setting up of Hydra as a serious and continuous threat in the Marvel universe are handled well. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was the post-script to the film: after Steve has sacrificed himself at the end of the film (if you consider that a spoiler, can I ask what are you doing reading this blog?), we get a footnote showing Steve waking up and discovering he’s in the future (and introduced to Nick Fury) – the scene just sits there as an unnecessary addendum after the moving climax. It felt like the beginning of The Avengers movie instead of the end of the Captain America film; the post-credits sequence didn’t click the way the other Marvel post-credits sequences have – it’s more of an actual teaser trailer, instead of the usual (and subtler) connecting scene.

Overall, I enjoyed Captain America: it’s a good film but it doesn’t have that X-factor that makes it special (such as the first Iron Man). The action sequences suffer occasionally from CGI imperfections, perhaps due to the 3D – I saw it in 2D, naturally, so that might have had an effect – but they are competently handled and enjoyable, which overcame my minor niggles. In some respects, this was the easier proposition of a Captain America adventure in World War II – Joss Whedon will have the tougher job in The Avengers when he has to make the character work in the present day. In the scale of this summer’s superhero blockbusters, it is miles better than Green Lantern, slightly better than X-Men: First Class, and not quite as good as Thor.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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