The Marvel cavalcade surges towards the unveiling next year of The Avengers with another introduction to one of the illustrious members of Nick Fury's team of superheroes. The First Avenger, no less … symbol of US pride and honour and tireless champion of democracy, Captain America, and they create what is possibly the most faithful-to-its-source big screen adaptation to have blasted out of their colourful stable to date.
Starting off with the modern-day wraparound story that bookends the film and ensures that it will slot directly into The Avengers, you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd stumbled into an early screening of the prequel to The Thing (entitled, erm, The Thing). A discovery in the ice heralds the reawakening of patriotic figurehead and war-winning poster-boy, Captain America, from almost seventy years of frozen slumber. An awakening that will see him assuming leadership of Nick Fury's super-powered team of heroes, The Avengers. But that, as they say folks, is another story. The focus of this flamboyant and action-packed romp is to flesh-out the origins of how a spindly kid from Brooklyn is transformed during a top secret experiment from wimp to warrior, and how the propaganda spearhead of Captain America is born.
Geeky Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) longs to join the Forces and go off to fight for his country. “Do you want to kill Nazis?” he is asked at yet another recruiting office. “I don't want to kill anyone,” he replies, “I just don't like bullies.” This remark, as well as his amazing tenacity and utter refusal to give-in no matter what the odds are that are stacked against him, are what convinces Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to give the most unlikely candidate you could imagine a shot at the title – that of becoming the prized test subject in his new Super-Soldier program. Drafted-in to a special unit headed-up by Tommy Lee Jones' Colonel Chester Phillips and English Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), he undergoes some basic training – in which the stick-insect naturally founders whilst the more traditional bullet-brained jocks excel – but his selfless resolve and integrity eventually sees that he is the one that gets injected with the super-serum that will transform him, Wolverine-style, into a muscular hero with the body of a god whilst retaining that essential heart of “a good man”.
At the same time as Rogers is being groomed for supreme action, over in battle-ruined Europe, a new threat has risen that is potentially far greater than Hitler, himself. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), commander of the ghastly Hydra unit of shock-troops, has been searching for the powerful energy source, the Tesseract, which has something to do with those horny-helmeted fellows up in Asgard, in the hopes that it will give him the means to elbow the Fuhrer to one side and assume – yes, you've got it – world domination. Schmidt has already dabbled in forces beyond the understanding of most mortals and paid a price. He is also the fearsome Red Skull – and that's not an unfounded nickname, folks. He knows that his old advisor, Dr. Erskine, has fled to the United States, and is, even now, conducting experiments that the Allies hope will provide them with a weapon that will end the war – namely the Super Soldier program – and he aims to steal the secret and utilise it, himself.
And, no sooner has human pin-cushion Steve Rogers stepped out of the laboratory sarcophagus one hundred pounds heavier and a couple of feet taller, than the Red Skull's plans explode into action.
With the battle-lines drawn, the two enemies go head-to-skull as Joe Johnston gives us a heightened variation on the well-worn tropes of the war movie. Once Captain America has broken his duck, and the vendetta has become personal, he meets each of the Red Skull's moves with a heavy salvo of good old American justice, chalking-up Hydra kills quicker than his iconic image can sell War-bonds. Proving his skills to the initially dubious troops, he even manages to form a close-knit squad of fellow commandos, prepared to follow him into the jaws of death as they pursue Schmidt and his fiendish legions.
One thing that Marvel has never neglected throughout their tenure in charge of their own productions, and even before, with their deep-rooted creative control over their universe, is the fascination with the character beneath the costume. The second half of Captain America may be devoted to action, but the first is determined that we get to know our hero's inner workings. This lengthy act, in which skinny Steve struggles to make an impression on the world around him, is actually very enjoyable. More importantly, we can still that this is the same guy, emotionally and psychologically, once he's gone from prawn to brawn.
We know that Chris Evans was digitally shrunken for the early sections of the film as the puny Steve Rogers, but the effect is simply staggering to behold. As good as Gollum was, as convincing as Kong was, this body-morphing offers possibly the best, most eye-deceiving example of visual trickery that we've had. I've seen the film a couple of times now and I still find myself looking for evidence of the CG sorcery that has been worked upon the actor's body and face. No gimmicks, no flash-in-the-pan – this isn't in the least bit creepy or odd, unlike the age-shedding Benjamin Button, say. You completely and utterly believe that Chris Evans is a weed who is barely five feet tall. For much of the time, it is his shrunken head that has been composited onto the body of a diminutive stand-in and although there are maybe one or two shots in which his squeezed noggin appears slightly too narrow, as though he has been caught between the doors of a cartoon elevator, the spell is virtually unbroken. It almost seems as though it is the bulked-up form of Evans as he steps from the sarcophagus post-serum-injection that is the fake one. Other effects are extremely good, but there are times when the CG pixie-dust has begun to run out and things don't look quite as polished. I suppose you've got to expect that, though. By and large, however, Captain America looks amazing.
Full of two-fisted mayhem, the film feels old school but, like its titular character, it has been given a super-steroidal shot-in-the-arm that crashes, smashes and pulverises with modern blockbuster pizazz. It plays with an enormous amount of clichés, as befits a film that is doffing its cap very conspicuously to the cliffhanger serials that the era gave life to, perfectly recreating the rough 'n' tumble charm of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or The Rocketeer, to which this is very akin. Johnson made The Rocketeer twenty years before and it remains one of the best of the vintage capers that has come along. With Captain America: The First Avenger, he reworks the theme with the giddy momentum of the superhero mythos, yet is able to keep things rewardingly human at the same time as being sublimely comic-book. There is humour, though none of it is forced or contrived.
There are plenty of people who don't rate Chris Evans. Personally, I find it hard to argue with some of their complaints, although he was the only person that I could relate to in Fantastic 4 – and he was just a ball of flame for much of the time. When his name was first associated with this project, I can't have been alone in wondering just what Marvel had been putting in their coffee. But he does the role justice, easily meeting the requirements of a man driven by a quest to stand up for the underdog, a man who lives quite literally in the shadow of others and then suddenly finds that he has the power and the responsibility to win a war. Evans is able to convey the heart and soul of a hero who is as much an idealogical symbol as he is a warrior. He brings a humbleness to his fledgling Avenger that I think comes across well. Just because he gains a physique that would make Achilles green with envy does not mean that he suddenly finds the confidence to get the girl as well. Thus, the cockiness that Evans has extolled in previous ventures is largely eradicated here, leaving him a titan with confidence issues.
And his fighting is beyond reproach too.
Under the tutelage of Simon Waterson, who got Daniel Craig into bruising shape for Bond, Evans' beefed-up body leaps over ten-foot railings, crashes through plate-glass windows, dives with Olympian finesse into the depths, and is able to pummel, batter, sokk!, thwapp! and krang! all comers with adrenaline-fuelling machismo. And he can do all of this whilst flinging that bullseye shield (made out of the great sounding but purely fictional “vibranium”) around Nazi encampments with boomerang-like agility and precision – so you can add a delightful klonnnggg!!! to that list of sound effects. There's no mistaking his commitment to the cause as he leads from the front and wades in to Hydra's hordes of ghoulishly masked stormtroopers without fear. I had my doubts about the costume – the colours, the big red boots, the A-mask and those ludicrous little helmet wings – but Johnston and producer Kevin Feige save that ignominy for the brilliant scenes of poor Captain America's lowly first missions as nothing more than a stage-based winner of hearts and minds, strutting about in front of a line of chorus girls and punching-out a Hitler lookalike to encourage the masses to do their bit for the war effort. Once he's allowed out to fight, big-time, Cap customises his padded costume with GI webbing, aviator's goggles and combat boots. Roaring around on a bulky old Harley Davidson and leaping from one exploding tank to another, he does, I'm surprised to admit, look extremely cool.
And surrounding him is a great cast, amply proving that Marvel is still attracting big names as well as impressive newcomers.
Hugo Weaving is always very watchable. He'll never shrug off his Agent Smith (“Me, me, me … Me, too.”) credentials but fine work in The Lord Of The Rings (despite that embarrassing tear he sheds as his daughter gets hitched to Aragorn) and in V For Vendetta and The Wolfman (in which he actually stole the otherwise ridiculous show with some wonderful line delivery) have established him as one of the most quirkily charismatic of performers. And much of this is down to that incredible voice. Softly spoken yet cunningly articulate, his speech can either disarm, reassure or intimidate, but no matter what his character's intentions may be, he will always mesmerise with his impeccable diction. No stranger to emoting from behind a mask, it is still something of a shame that Weaving has to don his Red Skull head at the half-way mark. As good as the livid Bo-Selecta noggin is, and as remarkably faithful to its origins too, we miss that quizzical eyebrow and that ever-sighing, ever-resigned expression of remorseless pragmatism. Inevitably he devolves into little more than a bizarrity once the real face is revealed, his unique persona shunted into immobile tyranny and simple bogeyman looming. The Red Skull was always a marvellous creation, the demon whispering in the Führer's ear, the real seat of power in the more Satanic reaches of the Third Reich. After a very Hellboy-esque introduction, the film then shows us some of his exploits in a weird montage, charting his rise to infamy. His casual dismissal (and despatching) of a group of Hitler's officials with his new “toy” shows him at his most indifferent towards obstacles, but his seething rage whenever his schemes are thwarted by Captain America is countered by a sort of endless supply of Plan B's that make him a most frustrating foe. Tooling around in a 25-foot black coupé, with chrome Hydra insignia, and taking the controls of a simply immense Stealth-type bomber, he is also a most competent adversary too. He doesn't just shout orders to his minions – he's extremely proactive when it comes to putting on the hurt.
One of the wonderful discoveries in the movie is in the delectable form of Hayley Atwell, who is the voluptuous side of Allied covert operations. Bringing that classic forties style to bear with inordinate allure, Atwell makes the swingshift from one type of literary costume drama, Julian Jarrold's take on Brideshead Revisited, to another, the superhero actioner. And she takes a role in the ensuing devastation too. Yet Atwell plays Carter with a splendid assuredness, sabotaging the inherent officiousness of the role with a likeably tough outer shell that only cracks when she meets Steve … and the terrific thing is that it is the little Steve that does the cracking. Johnston provides Atwell with some proper vintage glamour during her spellbinding entrance to the pub that Cap and his chums frequent. With lips that could be seen from Mars and a reassuringly fuller figure, she could certainly inspire me to go to war. She gets some stick from Tommy Lee Jones' beautifully sarcastic Colonel before being able to strike out on her own, but she is playing someone who has already fought long and hard to get to where she is, thus the screenplay is able to put across the theme of feminism and equal rights, but the way that Atwell delivers such material is not nearly as contrived as you might think. And, for his part, Jones has fun with the stereotypical top brass that he plays. There's plenty of his trademark patter, but some of his put-downs and retorts are priceless. “If you've got something to say, now would be a good time to keep it to yourself!” Toby (son of Freddie) Jones brings something a little different to the formulaic role of villain's advisor, Dr. Arnim Zola. Seen making a pistol-packing stand as a valiant grocery clerk in Frank Darabont's The Mist, Jones provides a veiled attitude that probably wasn't there in the script. Michael Brandon pops up in the first half as a smarmy entrepreneurial suit who knows how to exploit a dude in a costume. And the undisputed master of such skills, the great Stan Lee, himself, isn't too hard to spot in his customary cameo. I wish they'd give him better lines, though.
Stanley Tucci is brilliant as the good scientist who is striving to create the ultimate human fighting machine. There is an eccentricity here that is not the conventional type associated with these “doorway” characters. We hear snippets about his former life working for the Axis powers which don't seem cloyed or contrived. Someone like him would have been targeted by the Nazis and, crucially, the power-hungry Schmidt. And it is also highly credible that he would have turned his back and escaped to the other side when the opportunity presented itself. His clear affection for skinny Steve is very touching, turning what is yet another over-exposed genre character into someone with genuine feelings and humanity, and he is also engagingly amusing at the same time – allowing his character to understand the innate blend of seriousness and insanity of his project. Weaving, Tucci and Jones have to fabricate the villainy favourite of the German accent, and they all do so with amazing realism. There was ample room for those caricatured Teutonic tones so beloved in sitcoms like 'Allo, 'Allo, but these guys actually manage to pull off the clipped clichés with warmth, detail and a surprisingly natural quality. Honestly, I had prepared myself to cringe throughout much of the film at such panto voices, but this is not the case at all. There's no “Vot iss dass?”, “Gott in Himmel!”or “Mein Gott!” being bandied-about, and even Weaving's diabolical Schmidt is softly spoken and yet highly articulate.
However, Sebastian Stan doesn't fare all that well as Bucky Barnes, the character that nobody really wanted in the story in the first place. A steadfast ingredient of the comics, plucky Bucky was the big guy's teenage sidekick. He was actually quite resilient and courageous, and definitely got stuck in with taking out the Huns, but like we didn't want a Robin in Bale's trilogy of Bat-tales, the very mention of his name was enough to elicit a shudder in all but the most devout fanboy. Here, Johnston and McFeely have the sense to age him a little bit and to ground the relationship between the friends a lot more. But the character has “hanger-on” written all over him … which is apt, I suppose, considering what happens in one major sequence. Intriguingly, space has been made in which to accommodate Howard Stark, Iron Man Tony's dad. This addition works quite well. Not only does the character fit in with the setting and the whole concept of rampant new technology, but he is an obvious strand of connective tissue to the overall picture, the umbrella arc of The Avengers. Dominic Cooper plays this game-changing whiz-kid with the same brash superego that would become his son's hallmark. His two obsessions, science and women, neatly addressed without sidetracking the story. But sadly the production conspires to make Cooper look like a lady in male drag. Honestly, with his little face, rakish stuck-on 'tache and brylcreamed bouffant he kept reminding me of a cross between Sean Young and Angelina Jolie's Salt in a man-mask. It is not a pleasant sight.
Richard Armitage (getting busier all the time these days) appears as one of the Skull's henchman in the barnstorming sequence that awakens Steve Rogers to the alarming physical capabilities that his new body possesses. In a neat twist, it will be he who has to undergo a shrinking process of his own when he journeys through Peter Jackson's Middle-earth in The Hobbit as Dwarf chieftain, Thorin Oakenshield. His big scene here, a rollicking chase through the streets of Brooklyn, actually culminates in a great pay-off that was filmed in Liverpool's Stanley (or Heritage) Dock Market. I love suddenly spotting stuff like this. Londoners and New Yorkers won't even notice places and buildings that they see every day in real life when they are featured in movies, so common such scenes must be to them. But to us up here in the Northwest of England, such familiar imagery lashed into a motion picture is like gold-dust, really bringing some of that real cinematic magic back to see such a locale up there on the big screen … especially if it is actually pretending to be somewhere else! Wow, I've been there loads of times! And you nudge the person next to you and keenly inform them “that's just down the road from here!!!” The location was also used extensively in Sherlock Holmes, as it is one of the few impressively large genuine Victorian docks left standing. I'm made up. Now I can run around there pretending to be Captain America … and not just that big-brained boy from Baker Street.
Captain America is possibly one of the riskiest heroes to adapt into a lavish, big budget production in today's ever-cynical world of anti-jingoism. Such a resolutely sabre-rattling righter-of-wrongs could be misconstrued as being racist and inflammatory. With American foreign policies always meeting with resentment, Cap's thunderous crusade could be seen as the idealised campaign of global law enforcement that is being worked even now. But this was how the character had to be. There is even a moment when the Red Skull tells the Star-Spangled Super that he has seen the future and there are “no flags”, to which Cap replies, “Not in my future.” Despite the Jerry-bashing and wartime patriotism, this is the most telling and quietly defiant statement of all, and the writers have slipped it in under the radar and almost gotten away with it too. Rogers is wearing the American flag, himself, and fighting for truth, justice and apple-pie, but no-one is ever going to have a problem with the film's depiction of the propaganda and the attitudes of the period. And this is precisely why we should be thankful that Marvel didn't muck about and jettison this all-vital origin story in favour of a modern-day update. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the still-looming threat of Al-Qaeda (which could easily be an Islamic offshoot of Hydra), it could have been tempting to go all contemporary … which would have completely isolated the movie and polarised the character and his home-country. The way it stands right now, it is a historical fantasy and, as such, pretty much untouchable.
Another strength the character has that sets him apart from the rest of the muscle-bound crew is that he is still only human. People often cite the fish-out-of-water aspect of Steve Rogers in his incarnation in the present and working for Nick Fury, but this isn't anything new for a Marvel superhero, is it? They are all outsiders in one way or another, all socially disconnected and cast emotionally adrift. All still searching not just for somewhere to belong, but for an understanding of exactly who they are and what they stand for. This is what makes them so accessible for the average comic-book reader and film-lover. I will say that, if done right in The Avengers, the character of Captain America could be the emotional linchpin that makes it all work.
So, whilst they get this crucial element right, they botch another.
Captain America gains himself a special team of battle-hardened commandos (including a criminally underused Neal McDonough sporting what looks like half a sheep on his face), but in the spirit of unity and tolerance, this tries to incorporate the ethnic demographic. We have a black guy and an Asian on the squad. And why not, you ask? They fought in the war as well. But this racial emplacement isn't so easy to simply pass-off in such a manner. Clearly, this has been done to please the masses in a token gesture of ethnic appeal. It doesn't work, and these guys stick out like big sore thumbs, dumbing-down the atmosphere that is so well rendered elsewhere. And whilst we are on the subject of obvious annoyances … I have to confess that I am sick and tired of seeing Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. I couldn't care less about the actor's uber-cool cult credentials. For me, he is one-note, predictable and irritating. This will obviously be a problem for me when The Avengers finally comes out, but I simply cannot stand the guy any more. I used to rate him quite highly, but in a similar way to what befell Jack Nicholson for a great many years, he just plays exactly the same person over and over again – himself. It's infuryating! I wish he had nothing to do with these films.
We need good rousing music to accompany any superhero as he or she goes about the business of saving the world. Johnson turned to a seasoned genre movie pro in the great and hugely reliable Alan Silvestri. And yet, as good and as thrilling as this score can be, you aren't going to come away from it humming any themes … unless, in a vicious irony, it is the comical Captain America fanfare, Star Spangled Man, that was written by Alan Menken and David Zippel for those propaganda shows. Only a few months before, Patrick Doyle crafted a wonderful and inspiring score for the son of Odin's crash to Earth. Henry Jackman then delivered a fabulous and thoroughly exciting piece of work for X-Men: First Class. But then James Newton Howard failed to bring anything of worth to the resoundingly lacklustre Green Lantern. So with the musical ball dropped there, hopes were understandably given a boost with the prospect of another pugilistic score from one of action cinema's most consistent voices. But Silvestri, perhaps very cleverly, refuses to give us a memorable march for the valiant battler in red, white and blue. What he does do, however, is create a full on symphonic score that evokes the period and the setting, roars along with the plentiful skirmishes, rises to the emotional aspects of Steve's odyssey and the burgeoning romance that ensnares him and Agent Peggy Carter, and rides along on the crest of the hero's nobility.
Don't go expecting great things from Captain America in the three-dimensional department. Whilst everything is nice and clear and the process has not hindered the action in any way, this is not a genuine 3D experience, the image does not intend to reach out and grab you. There is, naturally, a shot of the shield flying right towards us – but this would look just as good in 2D. Another nice moment comes when we zoom down a street and butt our noses up against the business end of Miss Carter's Browning 9mm. I would say that this benefits more from the additional depth than Thor did. Thor wasn't as messy as some post-added 3D efforts, but it gained absolutely nothing from it. Sound-wise, there should be some profoundly enjoyable things to look forward to on Blu-ray. The battles are suitably bludgeoning, of course, but listen out for the SF-mixed whup-whup-whupping of the propellers on the Skull's bombers and, best of all, the scintillating air-rush and bouncing echo-impact of Cap's shield as he hurls it in a diagonal strike against the side of a tank. I've been trying to mimic this ever since. Only Rolf Harris could ever do it justice, though.
I've heard some complaints about how the conflict between Cap and his arch-nemesis is resolved, and it does become something of an anticlimax after all the breakneck stuntage that has gone before. But it is important to note that this is Steve Rogers' story and not the Red Skull's. Whilst there was certainly scope for making this adventure even more epic to fully do justice to the war of wills between the two devout enemies, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that Marvel's campaign, for a long time now, has been to get The Avengers off the ground. And this meant that they would have lay the foundation stones first. I would have preferred just to have a whole series of films for each of these characters, rather than this occasionally rushed and narratively awkward assemblage of “beginnings” designed purely to segue into The Avengers. Oh, you should stick around till after the end credits. We don't get another teasing feed-in for The Avengers this time … we get a trailer for it. To be honest, I wasn't overly excited by the footage shown, but at least sitting through the credits is rewarded with something.
Be this studio campaign as it may, the movie is a great throwback yarn that manages to juggle several balls in the air at once. Packed with hardware and pyrotechnics, this is a reminder of Johnson's own The Rocketeer, with the retro-tech-industrial slant of The League Of Extraordinary Men and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.Far better than I had initially thought, and infinitely superior to Green Lantern, either Fantastic 4 outing or Iron Man 2 (which was indescribably boring until Scarlett Johansen donned the skin-tight combat catsuit and took on a corridor full of goons as Black Widow), I would place Captain America possibly just behind the first Iron Man but ahead of Thor – and I loved Thor. Critics are claiming that the pace is muffed once the action starts, and that some of the battle scenes are clumsily handled. Not so in my book. The film covers a lot of ground and boasts some blistering fight scenes. That Raiders vibe is authentic - we even see a Nazi get minced through some propellers - and very welcome. The period angle is fabulously refreshing, cementing the good work that was done on X-Men: First Class which successfully evoked the sixties. And Chris Evans does extremely well as the big poster-boy in the silly costume, convincing us of his earnest dignity as much as his athletic prowess.
Captain America: The First Avenger gets a big recommendation from me. If you are a fan then you're sure to enjoy this. You know what you want from the film … and both Joe Johnston and Chris Evans understand what's required – and deliver it in spades.
Whilst the jury is still out on whether this super soldier can “live off the land … and eat things that'd make a billie-goat puke”, Captain America has more than earned his little wings with this gutsy, high-calibre showing. Joe Johnston has grappled with the behemoth that is Marvel and produced a rousing adventure that is happily nostalgic, gloriously comic-book and, most importantly, true to the spirit of its war-torn source. Old School both in flavour and mood, the movie boasts some wonderful effects and set-pieces and some winning performances. The little commando squad that blazes away in the shadow of the First Avenger are, sadly, an ethnic misstep that smacks horribly of audience demographic pandering, and an utter squandering of the likes of Neal McDonough. The Asgardian taint to the plot also seems a touch too deliberate but, overall, the film does more than enough to compensate. More than enough that is right.
I had a ball with it. The World War II ambience is very nicely presented and the propaganda-cum-heraldic exploits of the big guy are marvellously rousing. It's pure comic-book stuff, and you can't ask for more.
I still have problems with the live-action prospect of The Avengers – such massed ensembles work well in the comics and in animated films, but I can imagine all too easily the movie bulging at the seams and simply coming apart with too many super-egos all flung together and jostling for screen-time – but Captain America, which alongside Thor, was one of the more “difficult” ones to pull off convincingly, helps to allay my fears. And the fact that Kenneth Branagh succeeded with the son of Odin and now Johnston has come up smelling of star-spangled roses with Cap's origin story at least shows that things are heading in precisely the right direction.
Now all the preamble is out of the way, it is down to Marvel to prove that they can handle their biggest and most highly anticipated production to date. Everyone's in place … so there's only one thing left to say, isn't there? Avengers assemble!!!!
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