Monday, 15 August 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger [Review]

The summer blockbuster season has been renowned for its superhero spectaculars over the past decade, following the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. 2011 has been no different, with no less than three different Marvel comic books (and one DC hero) adapted to film - two of which stand in preparation for next year’s Avengers film (stick around after Captain America’s credits for a trailer), where the likes of Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the Captain himself unite to undertake the decimation of evil and other such superbly heroic activities.

Captain America is appropriately subtitled, therefore, The First Avenger. Whilst being the last of them to have his own film, he’s arguably the ‘oldest’ - with the film set in 1942 era New York, it’s a good seventy years before the rest of the superhero squad are introduced within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; a universe in which the aforementioned four Avengers’ individual films occur alongside each other.

The final preparation for the collision of superheroes next year, then, is this: Captain America, an experiment turned propaganda tool turned super-soldier. Man-behind-the-mask Steve Rogers (Evans) spends the 124 minutes runtime attempting to defeat radical Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Weaving) and his legions of futuristic soldiers in order to - you guessed it - save the world. This of course comes after the inevitable origin story of the character; Rogers, a skinny, ill youngster unfit for national service is handpicked by German scientist Abraham Erskine (Tucci) for a ‘super-soldier’ experiment, giving him superhuman strength. Meanwhile, Schmidt lays his hands on an inexplicably powerful ‘tesseract’ (basically a cube) in a somewhat underdeveloped plot device, and must be stopped before his ambitious plans to take over the Third Reich and, ultimately, the world, come to fruition. It’s standard superhero fare, but the twist isn’t in the plot.

Rather, the wartime milieu of the film allows for a variant on the usual Marvel clich├ęs much in the way the Cuban Missile Crisis and 60s setting did for X-Men: First Class. Doused in warm sepia tones and high waistlines, director Joe Johnston has admirably captured the atmosphere of the period; from a ‘world of tomorrow’ exhibition (replete with hovercars) celebrating the rapid advancement of new technologies to less optimistic World War 2 signifiers - think searchlights and sirens - the film allows its audience a sense of nostalgia, whilst colliding 21st Century technology with historical themes in its characters.

Take antagonist Schmidt, a radical more radical than Hitler; in a more historically accurate twist, a Nazi officer who would wish to aspire to the Fuhrer to the point where he might surpass him. Schmidt’s armies appear in contrast; almost robotic, with steampunk and cyber influences apparent, the weapon technology harnessed by the tesseract is more sci-fi than war film. But the fact that it works so well is testament to the vision of the original comics, and the film’s producers and directorial style.

Johnston’s flaws are marked, however, by his use of action. Limited here compared to other Marvel blockbusters, the director arguably gives his characters chance to flourish - something that must be commended, no doubt. But when it’s at the expense of the majority of the action, in what can only be lauded as an action film - it’s a summer superhero blockbuster, after all - Johnston’s priorities are questionable. Much of the action comprises of montages that might have been more suited to wartime America itself, not a modern-day audience - think slo-mo; heroic running, gunning and diving; low-angle shots and so on. Basically, cheese of the mouldiest variety. It’s reminiscent of the era, but unnecessary, given the strengths of the mise-en-scene of the piece already.

This isn’t Chris Evans’ first Marvel role, of course, though it’s certainly a ‘cooler’ one (forgive the terrible pun). Starring in both Fantastic Four films as The Human Torch, Evans here attests his range, playing seemingly the opposite of his previous character - where the Torch was cocky, confident and flamboyant, Rogers is modest, selfless and of a pure spirit. Enthusiastic and engaging, Evans plays the character amicably. A stellar supporting cast from Weaving to Tommy Lee Jones, and an unprecedented turn from down-to-earth (and classically British) Hayley Atwell also help to sustain the character-driven feel to the film, albeit at the aforementioned expense of more elegant or sustainable action scenes.

Yet to quote another famous superhero film, maybe Captain America is the film Marvel deserves, but not the one it needs right now. At times it feels like it’s purely a setup for The Avengers, mired in getting Rogers to the present day so he can team up with the rest of them, but all the while trying fervently to best its counterparts. Taking itself more seriously than the likes of Thor - montages aside - Captain America is full of ambition. Sadly, however, most of it is fruitless. Johnston fails to do anything significant with his characters, instead burying them under one of the weakest stories seen in a Marvel film to date.

Plot holes are numerous and frequent (be prepared to see this film in dubious amounts on a future BBC Three ‘movie mistakes’ filler show). The pace is hurried, and flits from scene to scene - at times, it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly is going on. One scene in particular springs to mind; a zip wire down to a moving train on a snowy mountainside - a landscape that juxtaposes much of the rest of the film - ends inexplicably, jumping to a detention centre where one of Weaving’s henchmen has been captured, without any indication as to how. It’s all quite disjointed and jarring - not least unexpected, after such admirable character development and atmospheric settings.

But there’s still plenty to like in this middle-of-the-road yarn; Johnston’s adaptation is bursting with soul, character, and even the odd explosion. It’s not particularly complex or deep; there are no clever messages or insinuated political commentary, and the plot is wafer thin, but Captain America’s heart will win you over in a myriad of soulless superhero blockbusters, past and present.

✰✰✰✰

See also: Thor (2011), Iron Man (2008)

Dir: Joe Johnston
Cast: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci
Marvel Studios, 124 mins, 29/07/11

Synopsis: Marvel's final Avenger comes to the silver screen. Steve Rogers, a meek would-be soldier, is injected with an experimental serum that gives him superhuman strength and agility.

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