Captain America: The First Avenger is a pretty good film. Technically the fifth in the Marvel universe that has been forged since 2008’s Iron Man, it is the chronological first. I would go so far as to say it’s the best one that they’ve offered yet, completely failing to pander to easy nationalistic pride while presenting a valid hero’s journey and allowing Chris Evans to create a character with some nuance and likability. Intensely stylish and pure of heart, Captain America: The First Avenger is surprising in many ways … except for its wholly and depressingly unnecessary subtitle.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a ninety pound weakling whose humility gets him marked for a super soldier experiment. He becomes a perfect physical specimen and propaganda tool for the US government but is eventually called to face HYDRA, a Nazi splinter cell led by Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
Captain America, like Thor before it, works well because of the relative obscurity of the character to outside audiences. I had absolutely no preconceived notions of what Steve Rogers was supposed to be like and was able to accept everything that was thrown at me – almost as if this was a normal movie, which had no precedents that it had to follow!
Making the film a period piece had the potential to be problematic but fortunately the issue is skirted in multiple ways: an art deco stylishness hangs about the forties presented here, and the distance from the main Marvel storyline means that set-up for The Avengers is constrained, and doesn’t hinder the overall piece as it did Iron Man 2 and Thor.
The origins of Captain America as a character – and he is a character, distinct from Steve Rogers – are exposed for the blatant propaganda that they are. He’s used as a way to sell war bonds, punching “Hitler” every day and lifting Rockettes over his head. The jingoism is presented as empty and therefore subverts its possibility to permeate the film.
When Rogers becomes a soldier, as he was bound to do, he changes up his symbolism: rather than provoking home front reactions, he becomes a totem for men to fight behind and alongside. He is a part of the action and a figure of hope without necessarily representing anything specifically “American”: he’s just a soldier doing his job and the right thing.
“The right thing” is mercifully unambiguous, because he’s fighting HYDRA, not Hitler: all of the Nazis we see in this movie are spirit-tech fetishists blessedly free of politics and ideology. For all of the efforts to situate the film in World War II (an alternate dimension equal opportunity integrated World War II), Captain America and his squad may as well be fighting a completely made up army in a completely made up country. Every act performed in this movie has no bearing on actual history whatsoever and is freed from the burden of a duty to accuracy.
That said, Steve Rogers is very simple in his ideology: “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies.” There was indeed a day when many men wanted nothing but to join the army and “serve their country” the only way they knew how, but Captain America does not attempt to become a recruitment film. The 1940s and Nazis are decoration, with none of the attendant real world heaviness or disturbing imagery that either of those things would imply: it’s escapist to the core, rejecting the true meaning of “why we fight” for “we have to fight otherwise we’ll all die at the hand of the dude without a nose”. Sometimes, especially in a comic book movie, it can be as simple as all that – to the point that no one even bothers trying to explain the science behind any of this.
The action is good and deliberately bombastic: Captain America literally rides a motorbike off an explosion. This is something that happens in this movie. The set pieces are impressive and the CG is not distracting, but the 3D is, as usual, unnecessary. Johnston has forged this film in the mould of faux matinee idols along the lines of Indiana Jones, Han Solo and The Rocketeer – all of which he worked on himself.
I make a point of this because there are sequences in Captain America that feel as if they were lifted from all of those films, especially the parts filmed on the Forest Moon of Endor. Normally I would think a film that is basically a pastiche of other films would be a bad thing, but in the case of Captain America, derivativeness becomes a selling point. Captain America is a comfort because it’s familiar without being insulting, and nostalgic without wallowing in self-indulgence. I like to think of it as parallel to Raiders of the Lost Ark: Hitler digging in the desert, the Red Skull making incursions into Norway.
For the most blatant comic book villain that the movies have allowed us for a while, Hugo Weaving isn’t really allowed to cut loose as he should with the Red Skull. His look, vehicles and weapons are ridiculously toyetic, and by rights he should be chewing the scenery at every opportunity. Weaving does a good job of it but is not really challenged the way that he should be. In the climactic fight sequence I lamented that he was never really given the opportunity for any dialogue other than the purely expository. Excepting The Joker, I can’t strictly recall the last good comic book movie villain: Red Skull has the ingredients but not the screen time or dialogue.
Chris Evans, at least, is able to convince as Steve Rogers as soon as he has his real body, as none of his dialogue rings true in his “weakling” form due to the clunky special effects used to achieve it. The character is sweet and never trends towards the arrogance that people expect of a superhero: he never gets an inflated sense of self-worth and conveys that he understands the magnitude of all of the tasks before him. Evans manages to carry the film and counterbalances the relatively weak villain by allowing for a movie that does a very good job of establishing its main hero. Evans handles the ending very well, almost to the point that I wish this film stood alone rather than as part of a franchise. Not knowing that there was more to come would make the ending so deliciously poignant but, alas, that was never going to happen.
This time next year we’ll all be at The Avengers and, God willing, Joss Whedon won’t have ruined it. It’s going to be the flagship title, what Marvel has worked towards for four years and five films. With this calibre of work to live up to and general indifference or outright hostility to The Incredible Hulk (practically struck from the canon!) and Iron Man 2, Whedon’s going to have his work cut out for him.
Regardless of how The Avengers turns out (and I will admit that I was legitimately excited by the teaser at the end of this film), if you care at all about comic book films you owe Captain America: The Last Avenger to yourself. It’s more than competent: it’s fun, beautifully designed and more than a little bittersweet – an unlikely combination that deserves your support.