Captain America: The First Avenger
Feature, Theatrical Reviews

Between World War 2 and the Funny Books – Captain America: The First Avenger

The comic-book medium shares an inherent relationship with war. While the medium was technically born a few years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, it was during the years of upheaval that the form really took shape, and set the standard for how the comic-book would exist in the decades that followed. Imagery of Superman, a character whose very essence changed from working class hero to ultimate patriot during the war effort, quite literally delivering Hitler and Stalin to the United Nations for justice to be decreed, is burned in to the mind of anyone with even the most passing of interests in the Golden Age of comic-books. Similarly, the most iconic moment for the Captain America of this period involves the character thumping Adolf. It was the post-WW2 settlement of American airbases in the UK that inspired the first comic-book stores to open on this side of the Atlantic, in turn giving birth to the love affair between the British audience and American comic-books.

Interestingly though, and surprising in this day of the comic-book movie’s dominance over the mainstream American cinema, its not until now, and Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger that we have seen a comic-book movie based on and set during a real-world war. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen touched on it, but Joe Johnston’s Captain America is pretty much the first bona-fide superhero war film.

Alas, the vision of war presented in Johnston’s film is not one ground in reality, but a skewed (Stark-ed if you will) representation of a past altered by the kind of technical progression that would normally be found purely in the realm of science fiction. Not dissimilar to the World War 2 of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the comic-book tone is clear throughout the movie, but unlike Tarantino’s film, we don’t see Hitler here, and the course of the real world still runs, in spite of our hero’s heroics. Instead of Hitler, the big bad is represented by a fictional figure known as the Red Skull, a globe trotting super villain, whose Alps-based secret lair has more in common with the Bond films than the Third Reich.

The ultimate “point” of Steve Rogers is that he is a good man. He’s not witty, he’s not “cool”, and, at this stage of his creation, he’s not dark. While never erring too far to the edge of overt-campy, Captain America is a lighthearted “boys own” tale of wartime adventure. At times the film recalls Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, with the unlikely protagonist of that particular film also evident in Steve Rogers. What sets Rogers apart though, and in turn marks him down as fairly unique in the world of the superhero is that he actively chose to be the way he is. Whereas fate deemed the likes of Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner to be practicing superheroes, Rogers volunteered. The closest thing to a counterpart to Rogers in this respect is, ironically enough, given their polar opposite personalities, Tony Stark, who also had something of a say in his role within the superhero universe.

While the film is never particularly creative in its direction, the fun tone is complemented nicely by action sequences that are actually comprehendible, something which is in itself somewhat unique in the age of the modern blockbuster (Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, we’re looking at you). Workmanlike would be an unfair description, but Johnston’s direction simply does the job. It’s lacking the flair of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, and is closer in stylistic terms to the similarly able direction of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man films.  What hinted at ropey special effects in the trailer for the film actually look great now wholly complete, with all fears of a Chris Evans-faced Gollum proven unfounded for the earlier, pre-super soldier serum Rogers section of the film. Reminiscent of the sort of effects used in the making of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button have been employed, and the results are effective. Classy set design captures the essence of 1930’s Brooklyn nicely, transforming the high streets of Manchester without that ever being especially noticeable.

The second act of the film throws up a pretty interesting meme on propaganda, and its role within warfare. This goes some way to explaining the origins of Captain America’s ever-so-slightly hokey look perfectly, and is surprisingly entertaining too (and featuring a show tune that’s infinitely hummable). Chris Evans is great as the titular character, providing a nuance that has gone unnoticed thus far in the actor’s previous work. Something of an old hand when it comes to comic-book adaptations (Captain America ranks as his fifth comic-book character and sixth comic-book film), Evans proves to be the right choice for the first avenger. Evans is surrounded by a solid ensemble of support actors, most prominent of which is British actress Hayley Atwell is Peggy Carter, a feisty tonic to the average love interest (continuing the line of strong female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Elsewhere Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci provide the paradoxical Gods behind Rogers’ transformation in to superman, one providing the military backbone and the other the scientific miracle, while Hugo Weaving provides an alternative vision of man perfected, hamming up the stage as the Red Skull. Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark makes for a startling spin on the well-trodden Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark routine audiences will be more than familiar with, and Sebastian Stan’s ‘Bucky’ Barnes (this writers favourite Marvel Universe character), while frustratingly brief an appearance, sets the scene for one direction the Marvel Studios slate may head in the future.

The iconography of the shield runs through Johnston’s film. Connotations of Jackson’s band of merry agents aside, Rogers’ somewhat unusual preferred weapon of choice is hinted at and anticipated throughout the film, with a dustbin lid and a car door both standing in for his eventual arma de elección. As is commonplace with all of the Marvel Studios films to date, cameo appearances from some of the characters that fill out the comic-book company’s rich history flow throughout. The Howling Commando’s make an appearance, filling in for Captain America’s absent Invader counterparts, although disappointingly lacking their leader, one Nick Fury. We also see the origin of Iron Man’s repulsor rays, and the original Human Torch even shows up, which is apt considering the former profession of the man who dons the Cap cap.

The most notable plot point in terms of the wider Marvel cinematic universe for this viewer came from the friendship between Steve Rogers and Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark, an on-screen liberty that should add an interesting dynamic to The Avengers ensemble, what with Tony Stark’s daddy issues. Speaking of which, and it’s worth pointing out that the rest of this paragraph will contain spoilers to those unfamiliar with the story of Captain America, the films final reveal brings with it a real punch to the gut. Even though it’s a story a pop culture-savvy audience is no doubt hugely familiar with, an origin as iconic, memorable and well worn as that of any superhero, on-screen Johnston presents a sequence that has the same effect as the finest Twilight Zone twist.

Joe Johnston’s Captain America is a film that never forgets it’s comic book roots, falling straight from the serials mocked openly within the picture, to create one of the finest films of the summer, and the final piece in the pre-megabuster puzzle that will result in next summer’s The Avengers.

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18 thoughts on “Between World War 2 and the Funny Books – Captain America: The First Avenger

  1. Excellent review. Nothing I would add to it.
    Where would you place it, ranking wise in relation to the other Marvel Superhero films?
    I believe it is quite hard to make a Superhero film that hardcore fans and the general pubic both can get behind. I think it is one of those rare films that both can enjoy!

  2. Rgrivan says:

    It was fine – but the talk about it being up there with Indy Jones from some quaters – please. Like the other Marvel films it was ok, decent. workmanlike. Some nice sequences, but mostly there was never any danger, what danger there was never had time to build, and the Red Skull was always on the backfoot.

    And the obvious Marvel sanctioned ending was pretty bad. Film has a perfect ending, and folks will know it when they see it. Shame it then goes on for another five minutes.

    • While I haven’t mentioned Indy myself, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this more than any of the Indiana Jones films. I’m not a fan of them, and aside from tenuous connections (WW2 setting, Nazi’s) I don’t see the connection.

      Sure the direction is workmanlike, but I think you’re underestimated the scale of ambition that comes with the massive undertaking that is transplanting the Marvel universe on to the big screen.

      • (Off topic) The Louvre!

        (On topic) I thought the film was enjoyable! But not the best Marvel movie adaption. I think it was the proper approach to take with “Captain America” though. I loved the cinematography!

  3. Rgrivan says:

    The Indy connections are all over the place – hero chasing Nazis who are trying to harness “magic” – the guy being killed on the bomb plane – the play on the ending of “Raiders” etc – there is a lot of Indy in there – but in those movies, while deep down you knew Ford would never die, they at least showed you a guy getting beat up a lot. They created tension, and brought you to a point where at least on the surface, you thought he was in trouble. Then boom! release.

    Here, I never, ever felt that the Capt was in danger, and more importantly, neither did he – the jump across the fire was the only time it approached that level. For most of the running time he goes around punching a load of people – but you end up disengaged with the sequences.

    And I get the scale of ambition, but at the end of the day each film needs to stand on its own two feet. Iron Man 2 suffered because of the Avengers stuff – I would bet money the Tony dying subplot was a greater issue in the first draft, but was reduced right down to get Samuel L Jackson (who by the way, is just thrown into the movie – meaning they expect people to know who he is and what he represents).

    I enjoyed this movie, but if it had ended at the natural point, I would have liked it more. Joe Johnstone had an ending, and then Marvel, put in a sequence which undercuts EVERYTHING we have just seen. Yes, we know what is coming, but in that film, in those moments, the emotional arc is destroyed.

    The Avengers stuff doesn’t need to be hammered in there – CA had enough of it as is – Stark Snr. the liquid serum that reappears in The Incredible Hulk. Putting even more Avengers in there just sank what was a soaring ending.

    • “Joe Johnstone had an ending, and then Marvel, put in a sequence which undercuts EVERYTHING we have just seen. Yes, we know what is coming, but in that film, in those moments, the emotional arc is destroyed.”

      Couldn’t disagree more about your last point (re; the emotional arc). In fact, I think the whole emotional arc of the film is based around the inevitability of the climax. And even tho I’m overly familiar with the final part of the story, I still found it hugely affecting, and massively exciting.

      And how do you know that the final scene was shoehorned in by Marvel? The moment in question is as necessary a part of Cap’s Silver Age reintroduction as any other element, im fairly sure that aspect will have been in any script from the earliest stage of development.

      • Rgrivan says:

        The decision by the Capt to do what he does, is clearly the emotional centre of the film. To then say one minute later “oh, by the way, it didn’t matter” totally undercuts all the build up once Capt is on that plane.

        Now if that was the opening scene of the Avengers I would clap – because it is crazy, and fun and different. And looking at the trailer for the Avengers it looks like the issues in that final scene will be resolved in that movie…which means it likely should have been in the Avengers.

        Joe Johnston did not film the final scene. It was filmed as part of Avengers filming, and was suppose to be a post credits sequence. But Marvel decided instead to put it into the final film as the real ending. It is a shame, as I would have liked the film a little more had to closed on the kids, as it clearly is suppose to.

        • “Joe Johnston did not film the final scene. It was filmed as part of Avengers filming, and was suppose to be a post credits sequence. But Marvel decided instead to put it into the final film as the real ending.”

          Have you got a source for that? I was under the impression that the scene in question would be the post-credits sequence myself (based on logic and prior to seeing the film), but figured I was wrong. I thought the scene shot by Whedon was the very brief bit in the gym, before the trailer for The Avengers. That “waking up” scene itself was far longer than any previous post-credits sequence in the Marvel films which, coupled with the inclusion of a modern-day prologue too suggests that this was part of the original plan for the film.

          Anyway, I can’t find anything online clarifying either account, but presumably you have evidence backing up your beliefs.

        • “The decision by the Capt to do what he does, is clearly the emotional centre of the film. To then say one minute later “oh, by the way, it didn’t matter” totally undercuts all the build up once Capt is on that plane.”

          I don’t see how the later action expels the earlier one.

          • Rgrivan says:

            Ok, I was wrong there, he made comments, but I think in reference to the post credits scene with the boxing. But apparantly the script for the Avengers had that scene in it -

            SPOILERS

            http://www.badassdigest.com/2011/04/25/captain-america-and-nick-fury-walk-into-times-square

            So it has been moved from from film to another.

            As for the ending, Captain America makes a choice and does something many of his fellow soliders have had to do – the message at the end is that he still inspires kids and his life was not in vain, He made a difference. It was a perfect – he becomes a symbol of hope.

            • “So it has been moved from from film to another.”

              Again, thats your interpretation based on the content of an article of speculation written by someone who has nothing to do with the films. Devin was simply presuming that the Times Square scene would feature in The Avengers, and not Captain America, yet there’s no evidence to suggest that this was ever the case.

              Every single iteration of the script for this Captain America film features Rogers in the modern world. Some more than others. One version was split 50/50 between the modern world and WW2. One was based in the modern world and told the story of WW2 through flashbacks (as per the manner in which story unfolded in the Silver Age Captain America comics).

              • Rgrivan says:

                I think the implication of that article is that Devin had a copy of the Avengers script with that scene in it.

  4. Rgrivan says:

    I would also say, that for non- fans of the comic – the end could be a little confusing. How exactly is he where he is? There is a scene at the start, but it is hardly clear exactly what has happened to Rogers.

    Another sign that the final scene doesn’t work – we go from a sad last line, into a happy song! Tonally doesn’t work.

    • “I would also say, that for non- fans of the comic – the end could be a little confusing. How exactly is he where he is? There is a scene at the start, but it is hardly clear exactly what has happened to Rogers.”

      While this is something rather difficult to measure in any real sense, I’ve not actually heard anyone complain about Cap’s ultimate fate being confusing. For what its worth, my wife, who’s never read a comic-book in her life, let alone a Captain America one, and who assures me she wasn’t familiar with his fate before seeing the film, didn’t have a problem with understanding what happened. The opening sequence, in which the shield is found frozen, coupled with the fact that we see Cap fly an aircraft of the same size in to a frozen land surely expels any issues of confusion? Besides, this is the first I’ve personally seen of anyone claiming it could be confusing.

      “Another sign that the final scene doesn’t work – we go from a sad last line, into a happy song! Tonally doesn’t work.”

      Again, you’re misremembering it; the final scene cuts to a series of animated credits, accompanied by the orchestral piece “Captain America”, by Alan Silvestri, before the reprise of The Star Spangled Man kicks off the regular credit roll after.

      • Rgrivan says:

        It is still pretty upbeat.

        At the end of the day you are a self admitted Captain America fan, and I have never read the comics. Nothing I will say here will alter any view of the film, but I do find it interesting the difference between how a comic book fan sees this Avengers experiement, and how someone who only really knows the films, views it all.

        • Totally agree. I’m unashamedly excited about this whole thing, but not to the extent that I’m blinkered (I’ve been disappointed by more comic-book films from my youth than I’ve been pleased with). But yeah, its interesting to see how different people have taken in the experiment.

  5. Rgrivan says:

    I will say that Captain America makes the Incredible Hulk a better film. The compliment each other much more than any of the other films do.

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