Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review - Captain America: The First Avenger

Fuck Yeah?

After a summer of solid to awful superhero movies, you could be forgiven for being hostile about yet another one; especially one that focuses on a hero who is best known as pro-American propaganda. But the best thing about Captain America is, somewhat ironically, British. Step up, Hayley Atwell, and your delectable English accent. As Peggy Carter, she charms in almost every scene she appears in, even those when she's not wearing a red dress. Standing alongside Natalie Portman in Thor, she's not the stereotypical passive love interest - indeed, we're introduced to her as a high ranking military officer when she amusingly floors a stocky male private for questioning her ability on gender grounds. Now, it's not the kind of feminist revolution that will have Susan Sontag or Germaine Greer shouting from the rooftops, but it's a start for love interests with depth (see also - Olivia Wilde in Tron: Legacy). After equally impressing in the otherwise deplorable Casandra's Dream, Captain America makes a good case for giving Atwell meatier roles beyond the token female ones.

The second best thing about Captain America is, somewhat ironically, British-Australian-Nigerian. Hugo Weaving as the Captain's arch enemy Red Skull is a symbol of this film's pleasing streak of high camp. With a frankly ludicrous German accent, Weaving is a charismatic representation of cartoon evil, playing a rouge, superhuman Nazi planning world domination through an evil organisation called Hydra by channeling the power of Odin's Cosmic Cube (the first in a series of nods to Marvel film continuity in the lead-up to next year's Avengers film). He's representative of the sense of fun that lightens up the film: yet another superhero film not taking itself too seriously, but in contrast to many earlier attempts with some degree of competence. The design of his iconic red skull, when he eventually removes his skin mask, is pretty cool too.

This isn't sounding like a distinctly American success, is it? Indeed, the film's best scene is notable for its surprising hostility towards American war politics. In an all-singing, all-dancing montage, we're shown Chris Evans' Steve Rodgers / titular Captain as he makes his name on the domestic front as a propaganda icon sent out to persuade an American public to invest in war bonds. And then, in a biting transition, we suddenly jump to the same entertainer trying to replicate his cheesy 'motivational' routine on the European front. Fresh from a significant failure in battle, the soldiers mock him and demand the return of the chorus girls. In one brief segment, the film acknowledges the origins of this particular superhero as a propaganda icon and harshly critiques it. It's the kind of self-awareness and criticism largely absent in mainstream American cinema (Spiderman's flag waving, to mention one particularly cringey example), so it stands out as a particularly effective and entertaining interlude here. It's hardly in-depth social commentary, but such a curious take on our hero's history is only to be welcomed.

Elsewhere, it's largely superhero business as usual. An origin story at its heart, the film tells the stories of Steve Rodger's transformation from puny man-child to dashing superman through a process concocted by defected German scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and the brilliant but arrogant Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper playing a younger version of Iron Man's dad - he's not quite John Slattery, though). The film follows his progress as the one man army puts together a commando group of soldiers to try and defeat the evil Hydra, while also trying to win the trust of the strict, hard-to-please Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, in the same role he always plays). Getting the girl would be a plus.

The WW2 setting is certainly a strength and, like the Rocketeer, differentiates itself from director Joe Johnston's frequently bland filmography by having audio-visual character. The design of the machines, the fantastical retro technology and an endearingly exaggerated take on the war is compelling. At it's best, it recalls the classic Saturday afternoon matinees that Indiana Jones also channeled so well. But, like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it also embraces a few contemporary indulgences. When it actually comes to action, Captain America disappoints. Too many sequences rely on computer generation: a ziplining sequence is an unrealistic step too far. Not that this is ever realistic, but the otherwise impressive art design often feels at odds with the computer generated backgrounds and explosions. Considering the title character is for the most part a more grounded hero - super strength and physical characteristics as opposed to the more outlandish powers of the X, Spider or Supermen - it's a shame the action is subject to such excess. A sense of apathy certain invades during the increasingly explosive second and third acts.

Another failing of the technology is Steve Rodger's himself. For the first third of the film, Rodger's is shown as a scrawny but enthusiastic kid unfit for duty. Gone are the days where an actor would actually lose weight for a film (or indeed that directors would practically disguise an actor's physicality), so instead Evans' head is oddly superimposed on another's body. The illusion is fairly well disguised - except when he speaks. Evans' deep voice is at odds with this small body, and it's hard to believe this is a weak, asmatic individual. Only when he buffs up does his portrayal become more effective.

The central 1940s origin story does have one twist, though - it's all structured around the upcoming Avengers film. I won't spoil anything, but suffice to say there's quite a few hints about how the big crossover might play out (most obviously in a post credits teaser for the film). It goes some distance into creating a wider 'movieverse' in which all these superheroes exist - much more so than simply tacking on a Samuel L. Jackson cameo at the end (although that is present and correct). After a relatively bland parade of action sequences, the final few scenes of setup for 2012's extravaganza are welcome. It's a much better taster for Joss Whedon's film than the merely average Iron Man 2, which just felt like it was wasting time. It also helps in providing some unique and interesting backstory for Rodgers going forward, even if it seems unlikely we'll get another retro-themed Captain America film. This is a comic-book world after all - who knows what elaborate plot device they'll come up with?

All in all, Captain America is simply fun. Despite the presence of an excellent thespian cast (Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci definitely stand out as slumming it) it's all cheesy and very silly. And there's nothing wrong with that. The action is uninspiring for the most part, but some clever twists and subversions prop up an otherwise deeply formulaic and unoriginal film. It's a film that embraces, satirises and updates the legacy of an iconic hero. Even if the best bit is British.


  1. Nice job. I'm not super interested in Captain America, but your post actually made it more intriguing. I'll probably wait for DVD, but it sounds to have a bit more depth than I expected.

  2. Thanks Dan. Don't mean to oversell it - it's nonsense through and through. But there's a little bit more to it than many will give it credit for.