By Matt Smith
The release of Captain America: The First Avenger brings the first phase of an ambitious multi-film introduction of Marvel Comics’ characters that comprise the superhero team The Avengers to an end. Begun in 2008 with Iron Man, this project has built upon storylines and characters over three years in five separate movies, and will finally lead to the release of the Joss Whedon written and directed magnum opus, The Avengers next summer. This final introductory film, based on the most central character of the Marvel Universe, is pretty good, even by Marvel’s usually high standards.
Directed by Joe Johnston, Captain America: The First Avenger, begins in 1942, after a brief introduction during which Steve Rogers’ lost aircraft is discovered in the present day after seventy years, with Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the leader of Hitler’s occult science division HYDRA, searching for an artifact in Norway. Half the world away, in Brooklyn, Steve Rogers is denied enlistment into the U.S. Army for the sixth time, and is ready to try again. He is discovered, in a way, by a German expatriate scientist who approves his entry into the military and then oversees a top-secret government project that will turn scrawny Steve into a supersoldier. Eventually, Steve becomes Captain America, a symbol of American strength and morality, and is used as a prop long before he becomes the hero we all know he’s destined to become.
While the movie does play a bit like a greatest hits of superheroes against a period backdrop at times, it is the setting which gives the film its greatest moments in character and in art design. The cumulative effect is that we are shown a cohesive vision of past futurism, with amazing modernist backdrops, costume designs reflective of materials that would have been just out of reach in reality (at least the material used for Cap’s trademark shield, Vibranium, has a less hollow-sounding name than the “Unobtanium” of blockbusters past), and massive new-energy-driven technology (a bevy of tanks, planes and gyrocopters that would have been unthinkable before the scientific advances of the 1930s and 40s). Johnston, who tread similar retro futuristic grounds in his earlier superhero film The Rocketeer, handles these newfound gadgets and the impressively straight science fiction of the HYDRA weapons with a youthful wonder, allowing us to view some only in passing, which only elevates our sense of wonder at the world we are shown. He also succeeds in presenting a clear and simple reality, harkening back to the same adventure serials that inspired The Rocketeer, where bad men must be overcome by a hero with his head and heart in the right place – a sentiment that has been integral to sci-fi films since Metropolis.
Evans plays Captain America as I’ve always seen him, which is to say that he is unbelievably strong, yet kind and with a straight moral compass. The screenplay gives us glimpses of Cap’s square-jawed American demeanor in scenes like the one where he is asked by his nemesis the Red Skull if he ever gives up. “Nope,” is all he replies with, foregoing the usual requisite quip or multi-sentence speech about courage. He is among the company of such American icons as John Wayne in all those WWII movies where the men didn’t say more than was necessary. Like all great heroes, Captain America also has a great nemesis in Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, who is a product of the same super soldier serum as Steve Rogers, albeit an earlier version that wasn’t quite ready. Driven by his own desire to conquer the world, including Hitler’s beloved Berlin, the Red Skull has amassed his own private army, fiercely loyal to the cause, and wielding weapons that, powered by the relic discovered in Norway, can disintegrate men instantly. I don’t know if and when they have it in the plans for the Red Skull to show up again (in the comics he is the frequent Big Bad of both Captain America and the Avengers, also having lots of run-ins throughout history with Nick Fury), but I hope it’s relatively soon in the life cycle of this series.
There are nice turns by the supporting cast, too, which includes the Howling Commandos played by a who’s who of “I know that face” character actors, Cap’s original sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as well as the requisite love interest, Peggy Carter. British actress Hayley Atwell does a fine job of making sure her sometimes corny lines are delivered in just the way they should be in a film that looks to classical Hollywood era B-movies for much of its inspiration, and also gives us a sympathetic character we hate to see Rogers lose only by fate and the passage of time, and who, even in the comic books, is a beloved remnant of his past that is referenced even today as someone deeply involved in who Captain America became once he had to start really fighting for humanity. I also liked Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, the father of Iron Man’s Tony, a ruthless and cunning mind who was driven by his obsessive brilliance into alcoholism and rage later in his life. Here he is the inventor of the technology which allows the serum to be injected properly, as well as one of the highest ranking scientists in the Strategic Scientific Reserve, of which Peggy Carter is also a member.
I would be remiss to fail mentioning a really brilliant sequence in the middle of the film when Steve is called upon to first don the Captain America costume by a congressman who wants him to use his newfound fame from taking down a HYDRA spy to sell war bonds. Steve goes on a roadshow fundraising across the country while chorus girls perform a patriotic tune around him, becoming the strong character that the country needs to believe in for the morale of the people back home. When he parlays this character into a real life identity in a rescue mission after being booed by the troops at a USO show, that character becomes capable of rallying much more than the American public, and a man who is able to put together a first rate cover ops team to take out secret HYDRA bases around the world. What is amazing about the fundraising sequence, though is its beautiful and faithful reconstruction of the American propaganda machine in all its glory. The final credits themselves are based on actual propaganda posters from WWII, and should be sat through even if you have no interest in seeing the long-awaited multi-character stinger at the end of them.
As a film, Captain America: The First Avenger is strong enough to overcome the potential stigma as being a two hour teaser for next summer’s superhero extravaganza, which is really saying something. It would have been easy enough for the creative talent to merely package some of the old standbys of the genre into a very bland package and call it a movie. Thankfully that’s not the case. Joe Johnston, along with screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely (who also adapted all three of the Narnia films), share a common bond in their love for the old serial style, and it shows through here without feeling too out of place, despite the slight corniness and sometimes obvious special effects work (which disappears in the modern sequences, no doubt to differentiate the two time periods and the removed reality of a backstory). It is the careful attention to the period and futurism that helps this movie become a success, so I guess it’s a good move to portray the origin of the character as it really was rather than just giving it some brief flashback sequences in a modern day story that wouldn’t have packed as much of a wallop.