I was entirely charmed and enthralled by Thor, the previous offering in the Marvel cine-verse (to coin a phrase), and so had high expectations for Captain America: The First Avenger. I especially hoped it could help make up for the somehow lacking X-Men: First Class.
When the lights dimmed after the credits for the little teaser Marvel always leave, I was still in afterglow from the movie. They ran the trailer for The Avengers. With Iron Man, Thor and now Captain America set on their own firm cinematic ground, I can’t wait to see what happens when you add Hawkeye, Black Widow and Hulk into the mix. Come the end of it, I was frothing with excitement… but that’s a review for another day.
Captain America is cohesive as a narrative, endearing as a period piece, and a great deal of fun. I think that’s what Marvel have finally figured out about how to make these movies work; they have to be fun.
And Hugo Weaving is clearly having a lot of fun as the Red Skull. It’s not as chilling or unique a role as Agent Smith, but how many roles like that come along in a career? He turns in a solid and enjoyable performance which, coupled with the absolutely stellar makeup work, becomes almost transfixing. His strange pseudo-Austrian accent does get a bit distracting at times, and he looks for all the world vaguely of Samuel L Jackson to me… I have no idea why.
Hayley Atwell does a phenomenal job as Peggy Carter, the love interest. More and more these days I feel like female leads (or at the very least, the roles written for them) are becoming more generic and interchangeable. Anne Hathaways and Michelle Monaghans and other little starlets that wink briefly into existence for a few movies, but are more or less indistinguishable from one another… at least to me. But Atwell clearly deserves this break-through role, as both her resume and her performance testify. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was moved to tears by the final conversation between Peggy & Cap.
The film mainly revolves around these three, and the other characters are, to some extent or another, there more or less as a backdrop. That doesn’t stop Tommy Lee Jones from turning in a great interpretation of the grizzled Colonel Philips (someone else who clearly had a lot of fun with their role). The rest of the cast also turn in warm, heartfelt performances. Before entering the theatre I knew Cap’s best friend was named ‘Bucky’ and was sure I’d snicker, but I liked the guy so much that I forgot to. I felt Neal McDonough and his rag-tag gang of glaringly politically-correct ethnicities could have been used for a bit more, but then again I don’t feel like the film was lacking anything they could have brought.
Howard Stark, however, would have been better in fewer, more enigmatic doses. Dominic Cooper just looks too much like Guy Sebastian to me to be credible. The Howard Stark from the Iron Man films was more pencil-ly thin and modern in a 50s sense of the word. Cooper comes across a little too ‘wacky whizz-kid’. He actually makes Robert Downey Jr’s young Tony Stark look restrained. I think the character was certainly necessary to the plot, but I’m not sure he needed a role, if you catch my drift. They try to make him into a Howard Hughes figure when really having him present at Cap’s big super-power-imbuing, Frankenstein-esque scene would have been enough. However, it is still fitting that Stark Sr. puts in an appearance given how Cap’s shield pops up in Iron Man 2.
And it’s that malleable connection between the films that Marvel uses to neatly explain away how the Red Skull becomes the powerful, world-threatening villain that Cap needs to have in opposition. I felt like the film looked at me and said, “You’ve seen Thor? Good, you’ll get this. And you stayed for the bit after the credits too? You’ll definitely enjoy this then. Everyone else who didn’t see Thor? Well, they just know it’s a powerful artefact from Asgard.”
I think it’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen a movie-house do. For the first time we’re not just watching a trilogy, or a saga of movies (e.g. Star Wars), but an interconnected world being grown between movies. And it’s marvellous how they’re stitching their world together with links both small and tenuous (e.g. Have you noticed how many Marvel movies end up shot in that one World’s Fair ground?) and obvious (again, Cap’s shield in Iron Man 2). These pieces are there for the hard-core fans to thrill themselves over, but the casual devotee will miss nothing essential to the plot by being uninformed.
A particular fear of mine that the movie would be stars and stripes down my throat until I gagged was thankfully unfounded. Certainly the film is red white and blue from start to finish (actually, it’s more brown… a lot of brown), but I never felt like it was being explicitly shoved down my throat. It’s not some huge story of America being incoherently awesome at loud volumes (looking at you, Transformers), or even the story of the birth and growth of a hero. Steve Rogers starts out a hero, albeit a scrawny one, desperately wanting to stand up and do his part during WWII, if anyone will let him. When asked if he wants to go kill Nazis, he replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies”. Here’s a guy who’s already got a large heart and a great soul. And Captain America is a film about that man finding his place in the world after a few false starts. (Frankly, a story I can very much relate to.)
He’s humble and honest. He’s nervous and shy around girls. He’s clever (the flagpole trick is endearing in its simplicity). He’s polite. One imagines he helps old ladies cross the road and carry their groceries home. But the movie never tries to make him some wonderfully amazing superhero, unstoppable because he’s imbued with the power of America, the good. Instead the movie holds up an ideal that all Americans would find to their betterment should they pursue it. Sure he has super-strength and speed, etc. but his real super-power is his humanity. It’s exquisitely expressed as Dr. Erskine later observes that they picked a weak man so he would know the value of strength he’d been given and the importance of compassion. It’s a much less abrasive version of “with great power comes great responsibility” that makes the Spiderman movies look childish for how often and overtly they drove that point home.
The tribute to the original costume is brilliantly worked in and the new one looks functional and bad-ass. The shield evolves over the course of the movie and the geometry when it is thrown is smooth and believable. However, Marvel quite clearly not ashamed of making up new elements left right and centre (adamantium, Tony Stark’s life-saving chest piece in Iron Man 2… shall I go on?) The flavour of the week (Cap’s shield is Vibranium, which absorbs any shock or kinetic energy so Cap doesn’t have to worry about spraining his wrists when tossing or catching it.
However, that same imagination runs delightfully wild with a nearly steam-punk streak of overcharged ingenuity: a giant-propeller rocket with jet engines on the ends of the blades, the submarine that looks suspiciously like a Naboo N1 Starfighter, the house-sized super-take, torpedo planes, the giant Valkyrie wing/plane… it’s a feast! The special effects are amazing (but really, they should be these days or we’d really complain, wouldn’t we?). The action is occasionally a little too scary for the kids, but never overly gory.
It’s a good film. It’s witty, full of heart, strong characters, good acting, immersive action, and imaginative story-telling. I think everyone involved probably had a lot of fun making it, and I can tell because I had a lot of fun watching it. Sure it’s got a few warts and lumps, but nothing’s flawless. But in the same way that Cap strives to be not a perfect soldier, but a good man, I feel the movie succeeds with him; not a perfect movie, but a good one.