Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Director: Joe Johnston

***

Marvel Comics have produced some pretty silly superheroes over the years. Thor was probably the silliest, yet he managed to be portrayed adequately onscreen earlier in the summer. Captain America may not be quite so daft a hero to portray, but he has other problematic barriers to cross on the road from page to screen. Would his jingoistic upholder of the American way not seem anachronistic in our post-9/11 age? This screen adaptation presents Captain America not as a champion of US of A, but a symbol to rally behind in the face of pure evil. Hugo Weaving-shaped pure evil.

Similarly to how X-Men: First Class mangled the origins of the Cold War, Captain America: The First Avenger toys with the history of the Second World War. As the Nazi research unit Hydra (led by Weaving’s Johann Schmidt) attempts to formulate an almighty superweapon with which to defeat the Allies, so the American Army is planning to develop a troop of enhanced soldiers. The first recruit/guinea-pig for this troop is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who goes from twiggy-limbed weakling to buffed-up beefcake in a flash. Evans is excellent casting; Fantastic Four proved he could play a superhero with charisma to spare. Here, he tones down the smarminess of the Human Torch to be a dignified soldier. However, he’s not just some flag-waving boy scout, he wants to prove himself. With the help of sassy agent/love interest Miss Carter (Hayley Atwell) and grouchy Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, a repeat scene-stealer), it’s not long before the newly-christened Captain America is off to Europe to fight some Hydra scum, and the red-headed loon leading them.

The title Captain America: The First Avenger makes it clear that, like Thor, this is just a lead-in to next year’s The Avengers. However, it’s also clear that this material is being taken seriously. This is evident in the hiring of Joe Johnston as director. He brings the same eye for 1930s and ‘40s style to Captain America as he did to the underrated The Rocketeer, with sepia-tinged camerawork and beautiful replica sets and vehicles. The script makes a few decent attempts at emotion and character development, but it’s tricky to pull off when there’s so many characters involved and so many great actors at work. Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci and Dominic Cooper (amongst others) may not get much screentime, but at least they bring their best to the table. Of more concern are the requisite second-act action scenes, that feel forced compared to the great-looking build-up of the first half. All this, and a surprisingly downbeat ending make for an engaging, but ultimately functional two hours. Marvel Studios have allowed us to have some light fun this summer, but the pressure is on them now. Like its hero, Captain America is charming, but it ultimately represents something greater than itself. After all this build-up, The Avengers had better deliver.

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