Truth, justice and the non-spoiler way!
As his old theme tune goes 'When Captain America throws his mighty shield, All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield!'. However I must confess that as a kid just getting into comics, the Cap didn't exactly grab my attention the way Spider-Man, Batman, Judge Dredd and Dan Dare did, and this mighty shield business was part of the problem. Why did he have a shield but no sword? The two go together like Laurel and Hardy, fish and chips, Frank and Stein... And of course, being in the UK, I was naturally more interested to find out what this Captain Britain bloke was all about.
Now appropriately enough this childhood reactions to Captain America actually neatly sums up the two biggest challenges for bringing one of the most venerable heroes in the Marvel Universe to the big screen. A shield doesn't have the same cinematic cool as a Batarang, and chucking it about possesses a risk of looking daft that web-slinging does not.
However this is small potatoes compared to the issue of the character's inherent patriotism. Given the somewhat, shall we say, mixed opinion of America on the modern world stage, there was a big danger of alienating audiences outside of the US. Now admittedly, in his comics the Captain has frequently seen taking a critical stance of jingoism and where national pride slips into aggression and greed, but as movie versions of superheroes tend towards presenting simplistic versions of the comics characters, there was a danger of the silver screen Cap becoming a parade of super-powered flag-waving.
But fear not true believers! Joe Johnston's take on the classic character artfully handles both these issues beautifully, bringing us a Captain America who symbolising good hearted values that everyone can identify with and making that shield action truly mighty!
Now Joe Johnston has garnered a reputation for being something of a journey man director, however it has to be said he did a marvelous job with The Wolf Man last year. Yes, Universal's reboot of Larry Talbot's tale wasn't a perfect movie, but considering the mangled and troubled production Johnston inherited, it's remarkable the film turned out so well. Similarly Captain America: The First Avenger has been through the fires of development hell, however this time the behind the scenes problems appear to have been resolved by the time Joe first called 'action!'. And the resulting movie is simply so entertaining and loving crafted, I think we may well see Johnston shaking free of the journeyman tag and a reassessment of his past movies.
The film tells the tale of the transformation of Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) into the titular shield-slinging hero and his attempts to thwart the plans of world domination by rogue Nazi deep science division HYDRA led by Johann Schmidt aka The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Yes folks, this is an origin story but it is to the movie's considerable credit that you hardly notice - as the character of Rogers is so appealing even before his transformation, with Evans being supremely likeable in the role. And the plot delivers enough action before he truly becomes the Captain that you're never sat there thinking 'just get on with it!'.
In many respects, it's a classic David and Goliath style story for even after being supercharged by the super solider serum, Roger is still the archetypal little guy making a stand against the bullies of the world. Of course as an offshoot of the Nazis, HYDRA provide a villain everybody across the world can hate, but it's the presentation of the Captain as a true everyman that neatly transcends the potentially troublesome patriotic boundaries.
But like many of the better superhero flicks, the Red Skull, as another product of the super solider serum, provides a villain that mirrors our hero but is also his polar opposite - Rogers wants to save the world while Schmidt wants to crush it, which further underlines our hero's humanity and virtues.
Now Schmidt is brought brilliantly to life by the ever reliable Hugo Weaving. And while I have some misgivings over the look of the Red Skull in this movie - the classic incarnation in the comics is alot more bonier and craggier - I can live with the fact that he has the same colour and texture as tandoori chicken as the make-up work allows Weaving facial acting to show through. Heavier prostheses and/or more digital make-up could well buried the performance.
And as well as good performances from Evans and Weaving, we have fine support from the rest of the cast. Tommy Lee Jones is marvelous fun as Col. Chester Phillips - a craggy military old man figure which steers clear of the expected stereotype by giving him some of the funnier one liners in the script. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter makes a refreshing female lead who proves she can hold her own against the boys, sporting more character and getting far more action than the usual ladies in a superhero flick. Dominic Cooper gives a great turn as Howard Stark and although his mannerisms recall his onscreen son Robert Downey Jr, he gives the character an individual spin that make him more than just a 1940s Tony Stark. Plus we have Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones putting in scene stealing performances are Dr Erskine and Dr Zola.
Overall the movie looks the business too - the Captain America costume evolves nicely throughout the film and its final form is both true to the original design yet manages to look realistic. And at this point I should mention the shield work - the story rather nicely explains why the Captain has it and how he discovers its many uses in combat.
As you'd expect from a director who cut his teeth in FX work, the action and big set pieces look fabulous. However what really makes Captain America: The First Avenger stand out from all the other superhero blockbusters is the period setting. Now there's great sets and retro tech props that bring the world of the '40s vividly to life, but the real fun comes from the fact that as well trading in the expected four colour fisticuffs of the comics, this film also makes great use of the WWII setting and so we have a host of scenes that recall war movies of the past. Hence we have chases through misty Germany forests, snowy action at a compound in the Alps, prisoners of war staging a break out, and even aerial pathos as a doomed airman has one last chat with his sweetheart over the crackling radio. There's even a cheeky line that sound suspiciously like a reference to the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark!
Speaking of references, there's plenty of connections to the other movies in the Marvel franchise. I've already mentioned the Iron Man link, but also there's also strong connective tissue to Thor and The Incredible Hulk. Yes folks, this Avengers business is all tying together rather nicely! And make you stick around for the now traditional post credits bit which sets the scene for what is coming next summer when all these heroes share a screen.
But how does Captain America - The First Avenger stack up against his Avengers brethren? Well, obviously it's far better than the obviously born of a troubled production Incredible Hulk, and also it's far leaner than the somewhat rambling Iron Man 2. However where you place it next to the original Iron Man outing and Thor will largely depend on which hero best fits your taste. Certainly these movies are three of kind, delivering the same brand of superhero spectacle with plenty of wit and a warm heart.
And it's definitely a close run thing between the three - which itself is a testament to the quality of Captain America -The First Avenger. Now for me, Thor still has the top spot but then I have long standing love of Norse mythology. Iron Man loses a few marks for having a weak final villain, whereas if I have a criticism of Captain America, it's the fact that I felt we could have done with just one more sequence with showing the Cap and his commandos battling HYDRA before the final show-down.
However considering the movie already has a two hours plus running time, another dust-up may well have spoiled the flow of the narrative. For as it is the film flies by, which is the mark of perfect pacing. And also this niggle is perhaps more reflective of the fact that I simply enjoyed the movie so much I just want to see more of the Cap doing his stuff. And very tellingly, especially that throwing his mighty shield!
JIM MOON, 15th August 2011