Monday, 17 October 2011

Film Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Patriotic Steve Rogers (Evans) is repeatedly declared 'unfit' to serve his country's military during World War II. When his gumptious attempts to sign up impress ex-pat German scientist Dr. Erskine (Tucci) Rogers is inducted into a top-secret army experiment. Injected with a Super-Soldier Serum (tm) the "90-pound asthmatic" is instantaneously transformed from weakling into a new breed of warrior who project overseer Colonel Phillips (Jones) declares will "personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of hell".

Created in 1941, Captain America was one of the first comic book heroes intended as an explicit patriotic symbol and piece of political propaganda where the cover of its first edition pictured the hero draped in stars and stripes punching Adolf Hitler square on the jaw. The film acknowledges this premise as the shield wielding embodiment of American values takes on Nazis in the last prequel before Rogers is reunited with super-friends Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk in the upcoming Avengers movie. However, this franchise's steeped history in overt, flag-waving patriotism doesn't seem so in-your-face here, impressively toned down for international audiences. As a testament to this the film was even simply released as "The First Avenger" without the Captain America prefix in some countries. Instead we seem to be presented with a super soldier who merely happens to be American, a welcome humility given the subject matter. However, in a sense this is also part of the film's downfall. Captain America was defined by his staunch stance against fascism and the fact there is scarcely a mention of the ideological divides that spawned the Cap means his identity and consequently the ideal he is supposed to be fighting for becomes somewhat of a tepid misnomer. In this way the purpose of his existence is densely and lethargically clear; The Avengers. Regardless, Captain America: The First Avenger is still an enjoyable popcorn flick which rests reasonably well on its own merits. And it's a good job too because by this stage there's little more the Cap can do to heighten anticipation for The Avengers movie anyway.

When Erskine is assassinated by a Nazi agent the US military don't quite know what to do with Rogers. As such he's treated as a pinup boy, relegated to propagandist showmanship raising war bonds at home instead of being given the chance to show off his new super attributes. This constitutes the first half of the film and while it may sound dull, it is this buildup to before Rogers being thrown into action which is the most enthralling part of Captain America, excellently paced and genuinely involving. However, things get a little bit ridiculous when, without any apparent combat training, Rogers suddenly launches an audacious one-man rescue mission behind enemy lines to liberate his best mate. Unfortunately here, in the second half of the film, Captain America begins to struggle against choppy waters as questionable plot holes quickly become entangled with sheer outrageousness. It's a bit of a shame for a movie that starts so brightly whereby the time everything is said and done you can't help feeling you've almost been robbed.

Like X-Men: First Class, this is a wacky piece of alternate history which features little recognisable to the real historical timeline. Captain America finds himself up not against Hitler, but a Colonel Schmidt (Weaving), head of the Nazi's scientific deep-research arm, HYDRA. Schmidt is the Yin to Rogers' Yang, also having dosed himself with a prototype serum leaving him with some horrendous physical defects earning him the nickname 'Red Skull'. Schmidt is obsessed with the occult, allowing for the film to branch out along that well-worn pseudo-historical timeline of Nazis dabbling in mystical powers (see Raiders of the Lost Ark or Hellboy for example). Schmidt harvests the power of an Asgardian (Thor's home) device known as the 'Tesseract' which enables him to bestow his followers with frickin' laser beams. Yes, you read that right; Nazis with ray guns. But then no one said this was a History Channel documentary. Indeed, HYDRA seems more like a world-wide criminal organisation that James Bond would have to deal with more than anything to do with Nazis.

However, at least Captain America stays true to its comic book sensibilities. Consequently it is comfortable being as stupid as it is, and for that you can't really fault it. In other ways it is also a vast improvement on the origins stories of Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk. One of the main reasons for this is that it has the most palpable villain out of the lot, a key component missing from the others which left them feeling a little bit irresolute. Then again you can't really go wrong with history's most reviled jackbooted thugs as Weaving's Schmidt and his sidekick, Dr. Zola, played by Toby Jones, once again illustrate why Nazis are the best boogeymen in Hollywood. Everyone else isn't half bad either. Evans is convincing as the humble stalwart Cap while the rest of the supporting cast are reasonably effusive. Tommy Lee Jones has fun with Colonel Phillips while fans who've been paying close attention to the Marvel series will be arrided by Dominic Cooper's involvement as Howard Stark (that's Iron Man's Dad for the uninitiated). However, Peggy (Atwell), a sassy British intelligence officer who acts as Rogers' love interest, seems a little bit lost, her place in the grander scheme of things somewhat undefined. It's never quite clear what her role is or even what she's doing there in the first place.

Captain America: The First Avenger is several things; silly, by far the most violent marvel movie to date (more death than in any other comic book film I've seen), but also possibly the most enjoyable origins story out of all the Avengers prequels. Technically it's more faulted than either Iron Man or Thor, but it is also the most unassuming and straightforward, something one can only admire its guts for. At least it's pure in its intentions and in this sense having a solid cast and a solid(ish) script is enough. It's just a shame that it gets a bit wobbly in places rather than delivering a killer blow to make it something really super.