Captain America: The First Avenger- Marvel's Missed Opportunity

25/07/2011 16:11 BST | Updated 21/09/2011 10:12 BST


Nazis.  When it comes to baddies, you just can't beat 'em.  Marvel's third outing of the summer tells the story of Steve Rogers (Evans) , a sickly kid from Brooklyn, desperately persevering in his attempts to enlist in the US army and defend his homeland from Hitler's encroaching forces.  What he lacks in stature and lung capacity, he makes up for in heart and determination and Rogers is warily selected by his commanding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips (Jones) to become a guinea pig for the inaugural testing of a secret formula designed to create a new breed of super soldiers spearheaded by repatriated German scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci) and Stark Industries founder Howard Stark (Cooper).  The results of this see Evans emerge 2 ft taller and 10 stone heavier, the zenith of human evolution primed to kick some Third Reich butt in the name of Uncle Sam.

Captain America: The First Avenger is very much a movie of two parts, divided by the experiment itself.  The first half, although it relies on a formula as much as it's titular character, succeeds in establishing Steve Rogers as empathetic and admirable.  Director Joe Johnston has obviously realized that it is crucial that the audience buys into his chivalry and steely determination before he transmogrifies into a super-jock, to sustain their affection for the character.  It is a full hour of screen time before the experiment takes place, and this is the section of the movie where Evans's performance is at it's strongest.  The CGI grafting of his chiseled visage onto an emaciated frame is utterly convincing and the performance is even more impressive when you think of how complicated the process must have been to shoot.

Captain America is very much an "origins" story following the same expositional pattern of the countless other superhero reboots of the last decade and at times feels overly familiar; by the time Stan Lee's obligatory cameo arrives, you could be forgiven for letting out a little sigh of ennui.  The supporting cast is strong, especially Hugo Weaving's demonic Red Skull (complete with atavistic Nazi accent) and Toby Jones the sycophantic German scientist working on the development of the Nazis' own formula of super-serum.  There are, unfortunately, also the stereotypical stock characters that most of the post-Nolan superhero movies have been keen to avoid; Tommy Lee Jones as the crusty military officer, Stanley Tucci as the mad scientist, and Hayley Atwell as "the woman".

Johnston is no stranger to the Nazis, having worked with them before in 1991's The Rocketeer.  The period is very effectively recreated by the production designers and Manchester's northern quarter provides an excellent double for bustling 1940's New York.  The general aesthetic invokes the sense of adventurism of the 1950's complete with motorbike chases and Wilhelm screams.  Comparisons are there to be drawn with the first and third Indiana Jones movies, as Johnston is clearly paying tribute to the Saturday afternoon swashbuckling American serials that inspired Lucas and Spielberg.  That is not to say that the film feels anachronistic in any way, expect the same lashings of overbearing 3D CGI that you would in any other modern comic book adaptation.

The story of Steve Rogers and his preternaturally patriotic alter ego was always going to be the toughest sell outside of North America, and there are moments in which the studio's concerns become tangible.  Captain America enlists the help of a motley crew consisting of a stiff-upper-lipped Brit, a cheeky, mustached Frenchman and a Chinese man who is handy with his fists.  Marvel's new found global sensitivity impedes the flow of the sometimes-clunky screenplay.  One of the Red Skull's lines that would, ten years ago have been "You suffer from American arrogance" becomes  "Arrogance is not a uniquely American trait, but you suffer from it".  Zing!  This said however, the somewhat jingoistic origins of the Captain America character are addressed in a marvelously self-referential section in which the newly beefed-up Steve Rogers finds himself not shipped out into the action, but used as the poster boy for the war effort's propaganda machine, embarking on a nationwide tour complete with the 1940's spandex Captain America costume, corny newsreel music and lines of parading dancing girls to drum up support for the troops- the purpose of the original comic book series.

The tragedy is that once the exposition has been dealt with and Captain America first appears through the door in his completed get-up and signature star-spangled shield, the movie completely falls apart.  It descends into preposterous action set pieces and CGI buffoonery, completely undoing all the good work that it had done in the previous hour and a half.  Steve Rogers becomes a vacuous meathead whose antics put him in as much peril as a day out at a health spa.  The final showdown with his nemesis is disappointingly anti-climactic and ends in a strange scene lifted from Doctor Strangelove.  The movie is bookended with sequences set in the present day, and the nods towards the other Marvel movies coupled with the inevitable arrival of an eye-patched Samuel L Jackson serve only to remind us that what we're actually watching is a two-hour teaser trailer for a film coming to cinemas near you next summer.  Captain America is a welcome addition and it will be interesting to see how he integrates into the modern world in next summers The Avengers, but as for his solo act, The First Avenger can't help but feel like an opportunity missed.

The 3D is utterly pointless.  See in 2D if possible.

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