365 Days, 100 Films #54 – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011.

Directed by Joe Johnston.
Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Sebastian Stan and Toby Jones.

Captain America The First Avenger

Steve Rogers is too small to serve for America in World War II so he enlists in a super-soldier serum military experiment. After which, he becomes Captain America and must battle the evil, renegade Nazi, Red Skull.

Captain America The First Avenger
Now that’s how you make an action film. Let the plot and characters develop naturally, rather than treating them as awkward fillers from one action sequence to the next. Fill the supporting cast with great character actors. Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving and Tommy Lee Jones; the depth of talent is like a Man City substitute bench.

As nearly everything Marvel does these days, Captain America is part of a larger continuity. He’ll eventually lead the superhero dream team – The Avengers (with The Hulk, Iron Man and Thor) – against whatever foe Joss Whedon has fudged in for 2012. The scope of the project is admirable. Trusting the gamble with Whedon, even more so.

So that’s why there’s the awkward subtitle to Captain America, the ‘First Avenger’ bit. He’s, well, you know, the first one. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) exists in a pre-superhero world. After a military experiment to create the ultimate super soldier, he is its first dawn. It’s 1942, and America is in the thick of the Second World War.

They didn’t have to do it this way. Captain America could have easily have been translated to Iraq or Afghanistan, just as Iron Man was. But they were brave again. They went for a period setting, and it opens up so many more possibilities. First off, you get the Nazis as villains, who are the best movie bad guys in cinema. You can’t beat a good evil Nazi. Secondly, it allows for period detail. The streets are crammed with automobiles, not cars. Men wear suits and hats. There’s the lost dialect of wise-guys, dames, bullies. At a Future Technology fair early in the film, we see Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s father, Howard (Dominic Cooper), demonstrating a hover car. His suit is sharp and his moustache pencil thin. Florescent lights illuminate the stage and his dancer girl assistants are dressed flamboyantly like Can-Can girls. It shares the appearance with the Deco-Steampunk levels of Bioshock.

This fair is where Rogers gets his shot. Knocked back by the army countless times for being too small, having a pigeon chest, asthma – everything, really – he attempts to sign up again. The kid’s body denies his heart. This is all shown in seamless CGI. Chris Evans is a muscular guy, and it is his physique that performs as Captain America later on. Before he is transformed into such, though, Steve Rogers is thinned down into a puny body. It’s entirely believable. This is how CGI should be used – to fool the eye, not to impress it.

Admiring his spirit, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) asks if he would like to be a test subject for a military experiment. Of course. Rogers would do anything to help the war effort.

There are bigger men than him at the training camp. Better with a rifle and fitter, too. But none have his spirit. And that’s what makes Rogers a hero. If the super soldier serum were given to anyone else, they’d be a super-something, but not a super-hero. The biggest, toughest guy at the training camp, the front-runner for the first test, is a bully. Given the serum, he’d be a super-bully. The Nazis, as Dr. Erskine points out, are bullies. They forced him from his home because of his faith. He wants Rogers as the first test-subject. In a climate of dark, tortured superheroes, it’s nice to have one that stands bravely and unconflicted in the light.

Unfortunately, Captain America completely misses the potential of its middle act. After finally proving to military commanders that he is more than a propaganda tool, they give Captain America his own unit of soldiers. Their task is to destroy the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) remaining Hydra (a renegade Nazi organisation devoted to Red Skull) weapons facilities. The team is diverse and full of banter. There’s a guy from Boston with an Irish moustache and hat; a manic French chap; a black man – all you could want. What they would really benefit from, in character development terms, is time to plan out and execute at least one of these weapons facilities. This is easy to do. Simply write in that Red Skull commands only three weapon factories – one that was destroyed by Captain America at the start, the second with his team, and the last one for the conclusion. However, the film instead chooses to list numerous weapons facilities they need to destroy, and hurries it along in an entertaining, but rushed montage. Not only does it fail to capitalise on the idea of Captain America leading a team (which will be of vital importance to the Avengers project), but it also makes Red Skull look a bit of an idiot. They’ve defeated him once already, and now they’re storming through a load of his high-tech, ultra-secure, Nazi fortresses. It hardly contributes anything to his threat. But then again, he does have a red skull, which is pretty creepy.

But it’s the only gripe. Captain America is a solid film, and for the most part, takes its time over the important stuff. The bad-guy is bad and the good-guy is good. And that really works. What a surprise.


Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films

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