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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Captain America

Another month, another very good Marvel superhero movie...

(My original review goes on a bit so it was slightly edited on Channel24. Check that version out if you want the less rambly review or read on for my original.)

What it's about

Steve Rogers, a brave but physically weak and frail young man, is deemed unfit for military service but his determination to fight for his country at the height of the USA's involvement in World War 2 leads to his volunteering for a top secret government program that will turn him into Captain America, a super-soldier and the living and breathing embodiment of American idealism.

What we thought

It's not for nothing that Captain America comes with the subtitle “The First Avenger”. Unlike the Marvel superheroes that we have so far seen our screens, Captain America was created a couple of years after Superman, rather than a couple of decades. Unlike Spider-man, The X-Men, Thor or Iron Man, Captain America was also not created by Stan Lee (not that that stops Stan The Man from having a typically fun cameo in the film) but by Joe Simon and Lee's frequent collaborator, Jack Kirby.

I bring this up not just as a history lesson but because it sets Captain America apart from Marvel's later heroes. His early adventures made ample use of the second World War as a setting but, more importantly, because Steve Rogers is a character that hues far closer to the Superman model of the great, square-jawed “Ubermensch” fighting for “truth, justice and the American way” than to the troubled, every-man heroes that Stan Lee excelled in creating.

By far the best thing about Captain America: The First Avenger is that - through its star and its director - it plays up both of these aspects that are so unique to the character and his place in the “Marvel Universe”. The decision to hire Joe Johnston to direct the film may have at first seemed like a dubious choice (the last three films he directed (The Wolfman, Jurassic Park III and Hidalgo) have been almost universally panned) but going back to the beginning of his rather small filmography, it quickly becomes clear just why he is the absolutely perfect choice to bring Captain America's early days to life.

In the early 90s, Johnston directed The Rocketeer, a film that is both rather underrated and, most critically, is a mix of straight up superhero action with a pulpy 1930s period setting. Captain America may be set a few crucial years later than The Rocketeer but it evokes its setting with all the colourful vividness and attention to detail that made Johnston's earlier film such a delight and the two films share a very similar heady concoction of adventure, superhero action, comedy and romance – not to mention the scenery-chewing bad guys who knock the high-camp levels through the roof. And, of course, they both feature old fashioned superheroes whose sole motivation is simply their need to do the right thing.

That, inevitably, brings us to Chris Evans. Here we have a film that is stuffed to the gills with great actors - Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones and newcomer Hayley Atwell whose mixture of sultry, Old-Hollywood beauty and post-feminist-post-Buffy kickassery makes her the perfect romantic foil for the good Captain – but it is Evans who carries the film. His performance may not grab you as strongly or as quickly as Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr did in their respective roles as Thor and Iron Man but his relatively unflashy turn allows the quietly charming goodness and moral fortitude of Captain America to shine through.

Whether its the scrawny CGI-enhanced (and very impressively so, at that) Steve Rogers of the early parts of the film or the superhumanly buff super soldier that he becomes later on, Evans never puts a foot wrong. And, lets not kid, the dude clearly has range: this is the 5th comics adaptation that he has starred in and his Steve Rogers is absolutely nothing like The Fantastic Four's cocky Johnny Storm or Scott Pilgrim's ego-inflated douche-bag, Lucas Lee. 
The film is not entirely without flaws, though. More so even than Thor, Captain America does feel like two hours of set up for The Avengers – good, engaging set up but set up nonetheless – than a complete story in its own right. It's also true that the less you know about Captain America's story the better. Not only was I unsurprised by most of the film's plot turns but I was actually anticipating them as I understood precisely where this film needed to go in order to allow Joss Whedon to hit the ground running with The Avengers. The less geeky among you are probably better off going into the film with as little prior knowledge as possible. For comics fans, however, prepare to have your breath stolen and your mind blown by the post-credits sneak-peak at the Avengers. Yes, it really is happening but, yes, we do have to wait months to see it...

In the meantime, though, we at least have very impressive comic book films like Thor and Captain America to tide us over until Joss Whedon has to deliver, in the form of The Avengers, a film that has been built up for the last half decade as THE superhero movie that fans have been waiting for. No pressure, Mr Whedon. No pressure at all.

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