Captain America: The First Avenger

Already this year we’ve been introduced to a whole new order of superheroes, with The Green Hornet, X-Men First Class, The Green Lantern and Thor filling out the space previously occupied by Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. There is probably enough room in cineplexes for four new franchise heroes, but each iteration carries with it an unavoidable feeling of repetition; predominantly because most of these films are origin myths, telling the same story of how these heroes came to be and, the individual particulars aside, all following the same basic formula.

The latest superhero goes by the name of Captain America, so we know his military rank and country of origin before we begin. For those of you unfamiliar with comic book history, the character debuted in 1941 as a free-thinking do-gooder who spent the war years fighting the Axis powers and socking Hitler on the jaw. Now in 2011, Captain America is the last character to be introduced to cinema audiences before next summer’s much-vaunted superhero-extravaganza The Avengers, where he will join up with fellow Marvel Comics heroes Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk for a four-way superhero-extravaganza. This film acts as a set-up for that reunion but, luckily for audiences, it’s an entertaining summer blockbuster in its own right.

As the story opens, Chris Evans’ scrawny, asthmatic Steve Rogers wants to serve his country in World War II but is passed over by every recruiting officer. Determined to play his part, he is chosen by Army scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to undergo a top secret experiment that will transform him from 90 pound weakling into a muscle-bound super-soldier. Despite the misgivings of his commanding officer, Colonel Phillips (a wry Tommy Lee Jones), the now-muscular Rogers joins his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) in a special secret division that includes British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and boffin Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who just so happens to be Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark’s father.

With his alter-ego code name and a red, white and blue outfit (including his trademark indestructible shield) Rogers is ready to dish out starry, stripy justice to the Nazis. But before he can deploy to Europe, a red-faced Rogers is forced to perform in a travelling U.S.O. show, to raise money for war bonds. Once joined with the rest of the American troops fighting to push Hitler back to Berlin, Captain America meets his nemesis in Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who also goes by the name Red Skull because, underneath the rubber mask that looks a lot like Hugo Weaving, he’s got a red skull.

An even greater threat than The Fuhrer, Schmidt runs an occult terrorist wing of the Nazi party codenamed Hydra, which is developing advanced weapons of mass destruction. Schmidt can do this because he has access to “the science of the Gods”, an energy source called The Cube that acts as a running thread through the Marvel Comics universe. Schmidt has also been injected with a prototype version of the same serum that transformed Rogers, sharing his superhuman abilities and making him a deadly opponent.

Director Joe Johnston, whose Wolfman reboot underwhelmed last year, does better with the grand sweep of a WWII adventure. The retrofitted steam-punk technologies allow Johnston to exercise the same talents with eye-popping special effects and sci-fi gadgetry as he did in his good-humoured adventure The Rocketeer, in which a 1930s pilot invented a futuristic jet-pack that allowed him to become a masked hero. Just like this summer’s X-Men prequel and the third Transformers installment, Captain America re-writes history to meet the needs of a superhero story, and executes the trappings of both genres very well, for a while.

After a bright, bustling opening, Captain America tumbles headlong into all of the customary pitfalls of an origin story. The time and effort expended explaining how the Captain came to gain his superhuman abilities means there is not enough room to expand on the character. Our hero’s amped-up metabolism, Peggy tells him, burns energy four times faster than the average persons. The same is true of the movie, which generates such a tremendous head of steam in the first hour, it is exhausted by the second half. The pace shifts into quick montages and clichéd vignettes, with all the compulsion in the story squeezed out to make room for an inevitable, unavoidable series of stare-downs and stand-offs.

How they’re ever going to create enough space for four of these lycra-clad legends in one movie remains to be seen.


The Unquiet Man said...

It really is a movie of two halves, John. And is all this guff about The Avengers? Do we care because we're supposed to care?

Mydrynn said...

Joss Whedon did a good job with Serenity and that had a big ensemble cast.