Monday, 15 August 2011

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Marvel Comics is a bit like opera.  It's been around for over 70 years and still hasn't caught on.  Where its rival DC produced characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman who are not only immediately recognisable to the general public but have become national archetypes, Marvel's stable of superheroes, outside of Spider-man and the Hulk, don't impinge much on mainstream culture.  And that's not for want of trying.  Marvel has always been keen about expanding into film and television and while the general public might see 2011 as the year when Captain America "finally" came to the big screen, the good Captain, in fact, made début in a Republic serial in 1944.  Since then, he's been in two television plays, a 1990 feature film that is deservedly unknown and dozens of cartoons.  It's a bit puzzling that such a patriotic figure as Captain America failed to imprint himself on the American consciousness, but I suspect that had a lot to do with the ludicrous costume Jack Kirby stuck him in.  Red buccaneer boots and a balaclava with tiny wings takes a lot of getting past.

Like the other non-X-Men Marvel films of recent years, Captain America: The First Avenger is part of an overarching series that climaxes with next year's The Avengers, hence the title.  It follows the basic origin story of the comics as it's evolved over decades.  During the Second World War, Steve Rogers is a patriotic young man who wants to join the US Army and help fight the Nazis.  Unfortunately, he's literally (Thanks to some creepy CGI on actor Chris Evans) a 90 pound weakling with a host of medical problems that only gets him rated 4F because there isn't a lower classification.      His tenacity to enlist is noticed by German refugee scientist Dr Erskine, who recruits Rogers as a test subject for the US Army's Super Soldier programme intended to produce... You get the idea.  The experiment is a success with Rogers now a perfect physical specimen of greater strength and intelligence, but a Nazi agent murders Erskine, leaving Rogers as the first and only one of his kind.  In the comics, Rogers immediately goes off to war, but here, after running down the assassin on the streets of Manchester New York,  he's seen as both a propaganda victory and an embarrassment by the government, who put him in Kirby's ridiculous costume and send him on a bond tour as Captain America.

So, we have the conflict set up of the dutiful Captain America wanting to prove himself in real combat against an Army general played by Tommy Lee Jones who wishes he'd just go away.  And it doesn't hurt that there's a crazed German officer called the Red Skull (for obvious reasons) who is so evil that he thinks Hitler is too much of a nice guy.

Captain America is the most straightforward of the Marvel superhero features–mainly because the title character isn't burdened with the personal demons that the comic book writers imagine passes for character development rather than cheap soap opera.  Captain America is Marvel's version of Superman; a compassionate, patriotic man whose superpowers are merely a bonus and would be fighting evil even if its with his bare fists and no hope of success.  Many American commentators have criticised the screenplay for underplaying Captain America's American angle and even the scene of VE day set in (shudder) Trafalgar Square.  Given Hollywood's anti_American record, this isn't surprising, but Captain America isn't as guilty as charged.  True, it isn't as flag waving as some would like, but to a non-american, like this reviewer, this is a very American film that expounds some very American traits, such as the American belief in the Little Guy who can become great while never forgetting where he came from.  As for Trafalgar Square, most of the film was shot in Great Britain, and Trafalgar Square still looks much as it did in 1945,

And yes, his costume does get better as the film progresses.

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