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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.