Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Three cheers for the red, white and blue! (Shh! Don't be so loud. We need to open this in other markets.) "Captain America: The First Avenger."

Directed by Joe Johnston. Screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely; based on characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Kein Feige, Amir Madani. Music by Alan Silvestri. Photographed by Shelly Johnson. Edited by Robert Dalva, Jeffrey Ford. Production designed by Rick Heinrichs. Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough.

Captain America: The First Avenger is the final film in the prequel quintet that started in 2008 with Iron Man and leads all the way to The Avengers, which opens Friday. It is the prequeliest prequel of them all, because it takes place during World War II and is essentially about America’s first superhero, Captain America (aka Steve Rodgers). Cap is less a freak transformed by unfortunate circumstances and more a regular and willing average guy pushed to the limits of human perfection by a super-serum: he goes into a test chamber as scrawny Steve and exits as Captain America, a slab of grade A all-American beefcake. He goes on to become a key figure in World War II, so much so that to this day in the Marvel Universe regular folks revere him as a legend. Of all the pre-Avengers movies, Captain America is perhaps the one that most needed to be made, since audiences may be the most unfamiliar with him. It’s also the riskiest venture in this five-movie buildup enterprise, because how can you sell a superhero this clean-cut and nice in today’s climate?

Well, they did, and they did it with style. Captain America: The First Avenger, I am pleased to say, is a colossal entertainment that honors the Captain America legend and has a great deal of fun with it. Good clean fun, I should say. This is maybe the most good-natured and innocent comic book made in several years, not because it doesn’t have rousing fights or dastardly villains (it most certainly does), but because it places those elements within a story that would feel precisely at home within a four-color panel printed on newspaper. For that matter, it feels not-so-far removed from the kind of adventure serial they would make in—hey, whaddayaknow—the 40’s. In fact the single time the movie missteps is in a closing sequence that tries too hard to tie this film into the leadup for The Avengers. We kinda feel used and overly marketed to, because the movie actually has a perfect closing shot that it unfortunately fails to realize as such.

This film has two parents, I’d argue, both of which have nothing to do with Marvel Comics: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer. The director is Joe Johnston, and you may not be surprised to learn he worked on both of them (art department for Raiders, director for Rocketeer). Not only is there a sly nod to Raiders in the film’s opening set in a Norwegian church (as well as Marvel neighbor Thor), but all three films embrace the iconography and tropes of 40’s action adventure serials: Nazis, jackboots, brown colors schemes that evoke the dustbowl and Depression, men in hats and perfectly-tailored suits, and gorgeous gals in red lipstick with great–if I may be so bold–gams. Just like in Raiders there’s a supernatural MacGuffin, and just like in The Rocketeer there’s another MacGuffin holding amazing power that everyone wants but which falls into the lap of our hero.

That hero is Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), who begins as a proverbial 99-pound weakling and ends up as Captain America, with some trials along the way. He’s the kind of kid who’s made of nothing but skin and bones, but he’ll proudly stand up to a bully at a movie theater, wiping his jaw after a knockdown and exclaiming “I can do this all day.” His good-heartedness attracts the attentions of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American who is working on a top-secret formula to create a race of supersoldiers that will help win the war. When he asks Steve why he keeps trying so desperately to enlist in the army, the response he gets perfectly encapsulates the Captain America philosophy: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just hate bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”

That essential strand of good character will propel Captain America through his adventures, assisted, it must be said, by a terrific support team. We have Dr. Erskine, who believes in Steve all the way through boot camp. And gruff, no-nonsense Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets some of the film’s surliest and best lines. Steve’s best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) plays a crucial role, and their friendship feels sweet and real. There’s technology guru Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper): if Iron Man 2 posited the elder Stark as the Walt Disney of science, then here are his early animation days. And most of all there’s luscious Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British agent and inevitable love interest who is first attracted to scrawny Steve’s bravery and good heart; the muscles are just a bonus.

But of course, all this wouldn’t do without a great villain. And we have one: Nazis. But of course. Comic books during World War II typically avoided the Nazi menace within their pages, limiting their influence to front covers where Superman, for example, punches Hitler in the face. The reasoning is sound, because a story where a superhero swoops in and solves a real-world problem only trivializes the issue being represented. Captain America sidesteps this problem by employing Nazis and specifying them as a secret branch of Hitler’s army. Code-named Hydra, they’re a  force to be reckoned with and have dreams of overthrowing Hitler. And at their head is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a the Red Skull. How did he get that name? Well, he’s a former experiment of Dr. Erskine’s, where the unfinished serum turned him into a crimson-faced demon who wears a human mask. Of course.

As Schmidt, Weaving is splendid. I don’t know if he ever specifically gnashes his teeth, but he certainly enters teeth-gnashing territory. Weaving has made a good line in villains the past few years, going all the way back to his odious agent in The Matrix, but here he outdoes himself with a nasty disposition, more smarts than you’d expect, a series of remote and humongous laboratories that would make a James Bond villain envious, and a convincing German accent that makes everything sound vindictive. Of course the plot demands that he face off against Captain America in a battle to the death, but Schmidt earns his stripes as a nasty so well that we’re more than willing to go along with what is, essentially, a very basic conclusion.

Along the way, Captain America grows into his role with gradually increasing confidence. In a delightful sequence, he’s placed on a USO Tour filled with showbiz and hokum (set against a delightful theme song written by Alan Menken and David Zippel), and then finds himself as an entertainer on the front lines facing a group of not-at-all-amused grunts. His romance with Peggy is done with a chastity and surefootedness that’s kind of charming, and as Cap starts making more decisions for himself, he never wavers from his core ideals, adopting a costume and shield that looks at home, of course, in the funny pages. But in the end he really wears the hell out of it.

Captain America takes place in what you’d call a parallel universe. Of course, the Marvel Universe is by definition parallel, since we have no Iron Men or Hulks wandering around our world. But with Captain America we realize the differences between these planes stretch all the way back to World War II, where in the Marvel realm, underneath Germany’s assault on the world, there was a secret war being waged with intergalactic energy weapons between supermen. But there are still resonances to our world, since Schmidt and Rodgers become dueling sides in a discussion about the Übermensch. Schmidt believes he is worthy of the power given to him, even destined for it, but Steve remains humble even in the face of his great abilities. “Who am I? Nobody. Just a kid from Brooklyn.”

What I like most about Captain America is that it earns its title through integrity rather than bullishness. This is not xenophobic nonsense that would be home in a Michael Bay production, but instead Cap is held to an ideal that crosses tribal borders. He’s patriotic but not oafish about it. He believes in flags, but not simply his own. As he assumes his title, he reflects that being Captain America means he represents America, and he doesn’t dare assume the responsibility of standing in for the world. And plus he gets able assistance from all corners of the globe: not just the British Peggy but also a ragtag team of “Howling Commandos” that cross all ethnicities, and even Dr. Erskine has a nice line that sweeps away any sense of scapegoating the entirety of Germany (“People often forget the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.”)

Through all of this extended comic-book nonsense, our rock at the center is Chris Evans, who as an actor is starting to overcome the shoddy material he’s had to work through (remember him from Fantastic Four? Anyone?) As Steve and later Cap, Evans is tough but never becomes a thug. He stands up for what he believes in and avenges his loved ones. He’s so stalwart and true and goshdarn lovable without being a klutz or sap. And he even inspires courage in those around him:  when a German spy throws a kid into the East River, and Cap of course goes to rescue him until the child calls back: “Go get him! I can swim.” It’s gee-whiz and really corny, but the movie earns it all with the courage of its convictions.

What’s most encouraging about Captain America, however, is that upholds traditional values not just within the story but outside: it’s told with craft, care and affection, and not the usual assembly-line process that influences so many comic book films. There’s a story here, and arcs, and characters. And also pretty good action choreography and direction by Johnson. As opposed to so many action films that dissolve into chaos, we get a good sense here of geography and who is doing what to whom, where and when. There are modern tricks on display (Evans’ scrawny early scenes are accomplished through spectacular CGI), but they’re so well done you wouldn’t really notice it.

As I said, there’s a flaw. The movie goes on just a little bit too long, with a coda that seems antithetical to what Johnson’s trying to accomplish (and as a matter of fact, it wasn’t even directed by him, but instead by Avengers helmer Joss Whedon). It’s cold and bleak and a little tragic, but I got all that before with the actual ending. All of this is stuff that’s trying to lead up to The Avengers, but do we need it here? Couldn’t we have it halfway through the credits, or at the end? Or something? Why punish the people who may not necessarily care what this movie is leading into? Here we’re told a real story with characters we care about, and in the very last scene it’s all swallowed up by what is pretty much a marketing gimmick. It’s unworthy.

It has been a mixed bag, these pre-Avengers movies. Some of them have tried too hard to interweave their ongoing mythology self-contained narratives, and have made themselves a little unwieldy (and also significantly difficult to pitch to newcomers). But the best ones have been done by phenomenal directors who bring fresh sensibilities to comic book tropes, which, I think are perhaps starting to get a little weary. But I have to admire the spirit in which these were made, as marketing-controlled as they have been.

This really has never been done before. Five movies that tell interconnected narratives that span 70 years, two distributors, and multiple big-name movie stars. All leading up to one massive super-movie that wraps everything up (to a point). Some of the films have been weak, but even those have provided important pieces of the ongoing puzzle. Even the least impressive of them (Thor), I’m glad was made, because it will provides context for what Thor will be doing when he find him in The Avengers. Like the Harry Potter films, The Avengers movies will be a little slice of film history for accomplishing never tried before, and my hat is off to them.

What does that have to do with Captain America? Something, but not a lot, because one of its pleasures is that it works best on its own. Here’s a thrilling and exciting action/adventure story that is probably a truer successor to Indiana Jones then even the most recent Jones film itself. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and is happy to be such a thing. You can imagine the writers punch-drunk on their own audaciousness, and Johnston rolling up his sleeves, knowing he’s in his comfort zone. The result is a spectacular piece of blockbuster filmmaking. Like all great showmen, the people at Marvel Studios, leading up to their biggest film of all time, saved the best for last.


NOTES/AVENGERS CONNECTIONS: The whole movie is actually a flashback housed within a present-day framing structure that influences Cap in a rather direct way, and leaves him in a prime position to lead “The Avengers.” And of course, you have Howard Stark (who gives a presentation at the New York World’s Fair that is a direct precursor to the Stark Expo we see in Iron Man 2, replete with dancing girls). S.H.I.E.L.D. will one day try again to harness the power of supersoldiers, with less-than-ideal results.

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