Ever since that tag on the end credits of 2008’s Iron Man, the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards the big team-up film The Avengers, and Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is the final stop before that film’s summer 2012 release.
The primary action of Captain America occurs during the height of the U.S.’s involvement in World War II. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, formerly The Human Torch from Fantastic Four and its sequel) is small, asthmatic, and weak, but by golly, does he love the good ol’ U-S-of-A. So much so he’s attempted to sign up for service overseas no less than five times, and each time rejected because he’s, well, small, asthmatic, and weak. At the funnest looking fun fair this side of Disney World, Rogers meets German emigrant scientist Abraham Erskine (an always welcome Stanley Tucci), who selects the young lad for a “super-soldier” experiment. The experiment is a success and Rogers becomes insanely buff and strong, yet, after a German spy infiltrates and kills Erskine, he becomes relegated to a cog in the propaganda machine selling war bonds, now dubbed Captain America. While doing a USO show in Italy, Cap leads an unsanctioned mission to rescue captured soldiers. Here the Army learns of the Red Skull’s plans for World Domination. Can Cap and his ragtag squad of colourful personalities save democracy?
I have to admit, I was skeptical about Chris Evans in the role, thinking the producers were trying to capitalize on the kind of quick-wit that Robert Downey Jr. brought to Tony Stark, but Evans is quite good. He’s got the right look, charisma, and doesn’t fall back on his smart-aleck Human Torch persona. Evans is also lucky to lead a solid cast, featuring Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, and Hugo Weaving.
Much of Johnston’s film is very fun, reminiscent of his own 1991 film The Rocketeer, and he adds a whole lot of gosh-darn good nature and cheer to the film, without being overly jingoistic. Some of the best moments are during the propaganda montage, as Evans encourages the audience to buy bonds; it’s over the top and Johnston is able to insert a certain amount subversive humour into the sequence. The film falters though, because it doesn’t take enough risks. The second half of the film is fairly uninspired, and the nostalgic look that permeates the first half is subtly stripped away so the action scenes toward the end look thoroughly modern. Some the action I have problems with too. The Red Skull’s minions look like black-clad Star Wars Stormtroopers, and are dispatched at a somewhat alarming rate, particularly when laser guns come out, giving the film a remarkably high body count.
Yet, Captain America‘s biggest fault lies in its book-ending scenes. These two scenes, which take place in the present day, typify films belonging to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I won’t give them away, but they should come as no surprise to fans of the comics. What happens, though, is that the scenes reduce Captain America to nothing more than a stepping stone for The Avengers. Actually, I think these scenes would be better suited to The Avengers, and would’ve make for a striking opening rather than undercutting what should’ve been a tragic and moving ending.
I knew going into Captain America: The First Avenger I wasn’t going to get another throwback adventure film like The Rocketeer or Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow (Kenny Conran, 2004), though that’s ultimately what I was hoping for. It’s a fine film, and it’s probably the best superhero movie of 2011, though it’s ultimately reduced to another cog in the Marvel machine.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, USA, 124 minutes). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci.