Told with a superb eye for period and a totally winning (and thrilling) accent on character and story, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is the superhero movie of the year.
Having seen the trailers (and some of the films in my post Thor, Green Lantern and X-Men – it’s a battle of the 2011 superheroes) of all the comic book stories making their way to the big screen, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER was always going to be the most interesting set up of all of them for me because the background for the creation of this character is the director Joe Johnston’s visual style, it’s the best superhero movie of the year.
Johnston had a good experience of making a thrilling wartime action-adventure picture because 10 years ago, he made The Rocketeer, in which a young pilot in the 1930s becomes a masked hero to battle some nasty Nazis when he discovers a prototype jetpack. Its spot-on period recreation, tongue-in-cheek wit and fizzy action sequences are what Johnston has brought to this film but whilst he shows us an identifiable world we knew, he also shows us a more unsettling past that could have existed if the evil men we see here had their way, using technology and science as weapons to reap destruction. Luckily for us, there’s a good man called Steve Rogers on our side who wants to stand up and fight for what is right.
I’m becoming quite a fan of Chris Evans. Just his whole personality and comic timing are really charming and he’s excellent casting for this. From movies as seemingly slight and formulaic as Cellular to dark morality tales such as Sunshine and Puncture – he’s been a very palpable presence. And here, whether it’s as Steve Rogers facing up to a loud-mouthed bully in a street alley “I can do this all day” or as the newly created Captain America, he shows an integrity and straight-arrow honesty that wins you over.
When we see him at the start of the movie, Steve’s a weakling, in no way soldier material. Not like his best friend Bucky Barnes (a nicely confident but understated Sebastian Stan), who enlists with no problem. But a chance encounter with Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Abraham Erskine changes all that and soon a serum that Erskine has been working on – with a little help from Dominic Cooper’s suave engineer Howard Stark – transforms the tiny Steve into a super-soldier. Being part of this secret army research project also brings him onto contact with the very sassy agent Peggy Carter (brilliantly incarnated by Hayley Atwell) and their relationship brings us some of the best moments in the movie.
Once Steve has become this new man, as it’s just him, what can one man do? The army head honchos think he isn’t useful on the front line but a wily congressman sees the potential for Steve as a recruiting tool to aid the war effort and before long he’s in a red, white and blue uniform in a vaudeville-type show going from coast to coast. It’s a lovely sequence – the show starting out very modest, with Steve having to read his lines from a shield he’s been given with his get-up (a precursor of the amazing shield he’ll later have) but before you know it, the show becomes slicker, with more dancing girls, a bigger budget and even a mock-up Hitler for Cap to fight, as people catch on to the idea of him as a symbol for good versus evil.
Trouble is, it’s not where Steve wants to be. He joined the army to fight for an ideal, not to kill people (he doesn’t like bullets, hence the shield becomes his weapon) but he’s not in the thick of battle. Travelling to entertain the troops though, he gets his chance to do much more and when he hears that Bucky is missing behind enemy lines and no one will rescue him. So with the help of Stark and Peggy, he heads off using his new strength, speed and agility to find him.
In the process of course, he rescues more than just Bucky but dozens of captured soldiers and soon he’s leading a ragtag group of those very same commandos with Bucky, on ever more daring missions. Eventually, this brings him into contact with HYDRA, the Nazi deep science division and their terrifying leader Johann Schmidt (played with his usual brilliant panache by Hugo Weaving). Along with his weaselly accomplice Dr Arnim Zola (a spot-on Toby Jones), there are looking to usher in a new, scientific era, fighting enemies with weaponry designed through a mix of science and future technology and lay waste to anyone in their way.
Cap has certainly got his work cut out here but he does have some heavyweight help, from Tommy Lee Jones as his sharply acerbic commanding officer Colonel Phillips, to the very entertaining group of allied soldiers he rescues – Neal McDonough, JJ Feild, Kenneth Choi, Bruno Ricci and Derek Luke. Steve’s never been a ladies man but once he’s become Captain America, the girls start to swoon – if only the right girl would notice him, or maybe she already has. Watching Steve work out how to deal with his new-found allure is delightful and you so want him to win the girl.
Things come at a price though and there’s sadness for Steve (and us) in this journey. Everything zips along though with dazzling action sequences, a frightening villain (I’m not sure anyone but Hugo Weaving could have played him so perfectly) and a guy at the centre of it all who’s just incredibly winning. And although Cap will appear in the very modern-day, scratch that, slightly future day of The Avengers next summer, we can raise a cheer to the brilliant origin of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER that’s shown here and enjoy one heck of a spiffing ride.