Regardless of whether you’re a proud American or enthusiastic outsider (like me), it’s hard not to get excited by the patriotic spirit of Independence Day brought to life so vividly in films like The Patriot and, well… Independence Day.
Whilst both of those films – and many others – would make more than suitable subjects for review on this special occasion, I’d like to celebrate the 4 of July this year by taking a look back at a movie that practically oozes red, white and blue: Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, released in cinemas five years ago this month.
In 1942, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is repeatedly rejected for military service thanks to a less than impressive physique and a frankly breathtaking list of existing medical conditions.
Desperate to do his part for the war effort, Rogers ignores the protests of his lifelong friend Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and makes one last attempt to enlist.
Enter kindly Doctor Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who sees in Rogers the bravery and kind-heartedness he’s looking for in a test subject for his experimental “Super Soldier” program, which aims to transform an ordinary human into the ultimate warrior.
Over the initial objections of the gruff Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Erskine – with the support of British Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) – chooses Rogers over other, more seemingly appropriate candidates, and Steve is reborn as Captain America.
It couldn’t come sooner either, as in Europe, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a deranged Nazi (is there any other kind?) – himself the recipient of an imperfect version of the Super Soldier serum – has gotten his hands on the mystical Tesseract, an object of near-limitless power, which could spell doom for the Allied nations of the world…
If this synopsis didn’t tip you off already, Captain America is an out-and-out popcorn flick; a modern take on the classic matinee serial, in the vein of the Indiana Jones franchise.
The tone of the film is therefore enjoyably old-fashioned, and whilst some fans of the Marvel Comics’ character might have wanted to see a gritty, Saving Private Ryan-inspired take on the material – and that could certainly work – the approach taken by director Johnston and Marvel Studios feels right and makes for a breezy watch.
The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely plays a huge part in establishing this old school vibe; the good guys in the world they’ve created are mostly unwaveringly good, and the bad guys without exception very bad.
This shouldn’t be seen as a negative, however – in fact, it’s actually refreshing to watch a superhero movie where the lead is unabashedly, y’know, HEROIC.
Markus and McFeely – along with composer Alen Menken and lyricist David Zippel – give us one of the absolute highlights of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, in the form of the Captain America USO show montage, which features the most insanely catchy superhero jingle you’ll ever hear, not to mention the joyous sight of Adolf Hitler (or a lookalike, at least) being punched out over and over again.
They also do a fine job juggling the requisite references to other films in the franchise required by a Marvel Studios movie, and the nods to Thor (the Tesseract) and Iron Man (Tony Stark’s dad, Howard, pops up) are thankfully unobtrusive.
Even the film’s ending, which feeds directly into Avengers, still feels like an organic end to the story we’ve just watched, even as it clearly serves to set the stage for what is to follow.
Still, this solid script isn’t without its flaws.
The most obvious is that the structure feels slightly off. The big action set pieces tend to arrive later in the game than you’d like, and under Johnson’s direction, they tend to be slightly underwhelming, coming across as perfunctory, even rushed.
Fortunately, Johnson’s direction of the acting is considerably stronger than his ability to oversee fire fights and explosions, and there’s not a weak link in the cast.
Tucci brings the required amount of intelligence and warmth to Erskine, Jones is able to play a gruff, jowly army man in his sleep, Atwell convinces as a woman equal parts tough, resourceful and feminine, and Weaving takes a fairly thinly sketched, cartoonish part and makes it seem deeper than it should.
But the film truly belongs to Evans, who absolutely soars as Cap. He sells the earnestness, courage, tenacity and, crucially, decency of Steve Rogers, and manages to imbue the straight-laced tough guy with a much-needed sense of humour too.
On the romance front, Evans shares strong chemistry with Atwell, and on the bromance side of things, he also gels well with Stan, setting a strong platform for a relationship that will carry through the entire trilogy of Captain America films to date (not to mention launching roughly a million slash fiction posts online, as well).
It has to be said that a lot of what Evans does has its roots in the script, and so much of that comes down to the fact that Marvel – unlike rivals DC Comics and their flagship character Superman – isn’t embarrassed by Cap and his clean-cut image.
Indeed, rather than trying to make Rogers seem grim and tortured, the script by Markus and McFeely goes in the opposite direction, embracing Roger’s innate nobility, almost to a fault. Still, as a result, Evans is able to make this trait part of Steve’s appeal, and like I said early, it’s a treat to root for a nice guy for a change.
Of course, so much of superhero acting comes down to letting the costume do the heavy lifting, so kudos here to costume designer Anna B. Shephard, who’s interpretation of Cap’s iconic costume is recognisable without feeling out of place, either on the battlefield or within the time period.
Unfortunately, the digitally enhanced prosthetics created by David White for Schmidt’s Red Skull persona are less successful, and while the end product is a fairly close approximation of the character’s look in the comics, audiences are likely to be split over whether he looks intimidating or ridiculous.
The production design by Rick Heinrichs is also mostly very good, and the WWII-era setting is believably brought to life, even if it does feel like an idealised reality at times, particularly where New York City is concerned (although this does jibe with the tone Johnston is shooting for).
Cinematographer Shelly Johnson captures this all with a richness and clarity, and there’s a vintage look to Captain America that fits the material well, although for the most part, the visuals stick to the Marvel Studios approach of pumping out films that are stylish, but determinedly non-distinctive.
Rounding out the aesthetic aspect of the film are the visual effects, and these are mostly decent – there’s a lot here that blends in seamlessly, and quite a bit more that doesn’t.
Something that can’t go unmentioned is the effects work undertaken to make tall, muscular Evans into a short, scrawny weakling. This was farmed out to effects house LOLA – known for their work as digital cosmetic surgeons – and the fruits of their labours run the gamut from utterly convincing to just plain weird looking (although in their defence, part of this might be down to the fact we already know what Evans really looks like).
In terms of audio, main composer Alan Silvestri turns in a score that, whilst not his most memorable, undoubtedly works. In particular, his main theme for Cap is patriotic, brassy and unapologetically a hero’s motif, so as you’d expect, it fits the character to a T.
So yes, in a lot of ways, Captain America is a decent blockbuster, if an imperfect one. What really makes it special, though, is the strong, simple thematic concerns that underpin it.
Look out! Spoilers!
At it’s heart, it’s a film about doing your part to serve your fellow country men and women, and about the value of bravery, humility, loyalty and self-sacrifice, all traits that America is built on (and thus what made me choose to review Captain America today over more obvious choices).
It also speaks to the idea that we should place greater stock in moral strength over actual physical brawn.
Steve Rogers embodies all the qualities I mentioned earlier, and yet he is constantly underestimated, or worse, bullied, by those who can’t see past his frailty to the calibre of man under the surface.
But even for all this, he’s refuses to turn bitter; we see this again and again, as he continues to stick stubbornly to his principles, and never once uses his newfound powers to set himself above others, and this is what makes him – and not his buff fellow recruits – the perfect choice for the Captain America mantle.
As Erskine so eloquently puts it:
This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.
It’s the core of what makes the eventual contrast between Cap and the Red Skull, who styles himself a god, work: Steve doesn’t see himself as anything other than a guy from Queens, just trying to fight bullies like the Skull and his Nazi cronies who want to prey on the weak whom Steve still clearly empathises with.
This quality, to show compassion and understanding to those like himself, who haven been beaten down by the unfair elements of society, is something that also draws Peggy to Steve, given her status as a highly capable woman constantly overlooked by her sexist male superiors.
Even if this thematic thread isn’t fully developed, it still gives their relationship a nice extra layer, and it adds a genuine sense of heartbreak to Cap’s suicide run in the finale, as these two good-hearted souls are torn apart forever.
The spoilers! They’re…they’re gone!
Captain America: The First Avenger might not reach the heights of Iron Man, The Avengers or even its own two sequels, but owing to strong performances from its cast and its easy charm, it’s still a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That’s all for this review– now it’s your turn to have your say! Agree? Disagree?