I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.
I had [actually that should read as ‘have’] reservations about Captain America: The First Avenger. The reservations? You can read about them over here but they stem from a character and story perspective. Putting those problems aside I come to appreciate the pulpy spectacle a little bit more than I did before.
The First Avenger‘s story finds Steve Rogers deemed unfit for service in World War II but volunteers for a special project that gives a man super-human gifts. Finally getting his chance to serve his country he travels to Europe to stop Johann Schmidt a.ka. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Hydra scientist who intends to win the war with his new weapon of destruction, the Tesseract.
The First Avenger is a much better action/adventure film than it is one about its own characters. Chris Evans‘ Steve Rogers is a standout, but that’s expected since he’s the star of the show. The other actors do well in their roles, the, ahem, buxom Hayley Atwell foreshadows the kind of tough, heroic woman that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow would come to be; Tommy Lee Jones grizzled, avuncular performance works extremely well here and Stanley Tucci‘s Abraham Erskine is another standout in the film’s first half-hour or so.
It’s in the other characters that film shows its limitations. Hugo Weaving‘s Johann Schimdt makes for a standard foe, your typical ‘he’s like the hero but one step removed’ sort of villain. He’s obviously evil and villanous and perhaps that’s all he needs to be. It doesn’t make for a memorable antagonist despite the fact that his skin has been burnt off. Most of the other characters get the short-shrift and bow out too early to have an impact, leaving the film’s action to pick up the slack. It’s a good thing that the action is pretty great.
There’s a physicality to Captain America that clearly differentiates itself from other superheroes particularly in the Marvel canon. Most of the heroes have some kind of miscellaneous item to fight with (Thor has his hammer: Black Widow her, um, guns, Hawkeye his bow and Iron Man his suit/repulsor tech blah, blah, blah). Captain America has his shield but he’s the closest character to the Hulk that uses his fists than any other kind of weird technology. He’s not about to bring out a rapier mid-battle or have gauntlets to stab you with in the mould of Assassin’s Creed. He brawls, keeping in line with serial heroes like Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones, and that added level of physicality is a bit more enjoyable than someone getting blasted or hit flush in the face with a gigantic hammer.
In the end The First Avenger most problematic issue is in its pacing. Characters don’t get enough time to establish themselves and their relationships and in turn tend to be rather shallow. The film runs rather than jogs, to get where it needs to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for me, if only there was only something to be invested in other than the action. From an action perspective Captain America: The First Avenger is enjoyable piece of genre filmmaking…but there’s always that feeling that it could have been better.
[Does anyone care what happened to Sebastian ‘Bucky’ Barnes because I don’t and that’s a massive problem with this film. Things happened and you can’t quite muster the interest/attachment to characters’ fate since the film isn’t interested in bookending its stories than bridging Rogers into The Avengers. – a thing I do like about the film is that, like Thor, it introduces a more fantastical bent with the Tesseract making the action way over the top]
I’m just a kid from Brooklyn
I’ve never been a huge fan of Captain America; he’s always seemed too simplistic for my tastes. It’s this simplicity that runs through Captain America – The First Avenger’s veins, making it enjoyable on a visceral action level but fairly conventional in its narrative and utterly straightforward when it comes to its characters.
America has entered World War II and men are enlisting to fight. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to join but due to various health issues is rejected. He attracts the attention of German defector Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci’s endearing scientist) who drafts him into a super soldier program that will transform the plucky Brooklyn native into World War II hero Captain America. During the conflict he comes up against another man who’s suffered adverse effects of Erskine’s super soldier serum, Johann Schmidt, a.k.a the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving); a Nazi scientist bent on world domination through a powerful energy source called the Cosmic Cube.
What Captain America – The First Avenger really wants to be is a comic book version of Raiders of the Lost Ark and while it achieves the tone and delivers in the action beats, it’s amiss in other areas. Chris Evans is excellent in the central role, radiating a genuine authenticity and nobleness that’s the hallmark of the character but others like Sebastian ‘Bucky’ Barnes barely register. Romances simmer when they should have more of an impact. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull feels lightweight and one-dimensional, a villain that exists because the story needs one and a foe that lacks a real threat since we know there’s no chance of him succeeding.
Its problems stem from the film’s simplistic approach to the material and the need to tie it into the larger Marvel universe. There’s little in the way of emotional attachment for the characters (Roger’s aside), with a few of them coming across as caricatures however enjoyable they may be (perhaps only Clint Eastwood does likable gruff as well as Tommy Lee Jones). When someone dies it’s inconsequential and part of that is down to the looming presence of The Avengers.
It lacks the necessary dramatic tension and suspense because most, if not all audience members will go in knowing how this story ends (if the ending wasn’t already telegraphed by the film’s modern day bookends). We know Hydra will not succeed in its plans (not even a little), that Rogers won’t get the girl and that he’ll line up alongside Iron Man and Thor next summer. It denies this story a proper ending or conclusion for its characters. In its place is a bridge to film I’m not entirely convinced by or sure that I care about yet.
The action is easily superior to Thor, X-Men: First Class or Green Lantern because of its physicality. It’s easier to accept a fist fight than a green CG punch to the face. Johnston’s finest work is in these moments with quick editing and fast choreography cementing Evans’ Rogers as a durable action hero. As I’m fond of saying, when he hits someone they stay hit. Kudos should also go to Alan Menken for his Star Spangled Man song which is pretty terrific.
There are other problems but Captain America – The First Avenger is decent adaptation of a beloved character, although it could have done without racing through World War II and spending a little more time with its characters. If judged on its action then it’s an enjoyable addition to a summer that’s had some great action. Breezy and enjoyable, even if it sacrifices its own ambition by falling in line with the rest of Marvel’s output.