Whether you’re a proud American or an 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. This year, I’m celebrating the 4th of July by taking a look back at a movie that practically oozes red, white and blue: Captain America: The First Avenger – released in cinemas five years ago this month.
Directed by Joe Johnston, this 2011 action blockbuster was one of the foundation movies of the box office-breaking Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while it doesn’t quite live up to some of Marvel Studios’ later outings – including its own superb sequel, Captain America: The Winter Solder – Captain America: The First Avenger gets by largely thanks to the earnest, old-school charm it shares with its titular superhero.
In 1942, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is repeatedly rejected for military service thanks to his less than impressive physique and frankly breathtaking list of existing medical conditions. Desperate to do his part for the war effort, Rogers ignores the protests of his lifelong friend Sergeant 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 wants for his experimental “Super Soldier” program, which aims to transform an ordinary human into the ultimate warrior. Over the initial objections of the gruff Colonel 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 at a better time, either. In Europe, deranged Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) – himself the recipient of an imperfect version of the Super Soldier serum – has obtained the mystical Tesseract. With this object of near-limitless power in his grasp, the power-mad Schmidt sets in motion a plan that spells certain doom for America and her allies.
If the above synopsis didn’t tip you off, 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 enjoyably old-fashioned, and while some fans of the Marvel Comics’ character might have wanted to see a gritty, Saving Private Ryan-inspired take on the material, the approach taken by director Johnston and Marvel Studios feels right.
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script plays a huge part in establishing this old school vibe. The good guys in the world of Captain America are unwaveringly good, and the bad guys without exception very bad. This simplicity is far from a negative – in fact, it’s actually refreshing to watch a superhero movie where the lead is unabashedly, y’know, heroic.
What’s more, Markus and McFeely do a fine job squeezing in the obligatory references to other MCU movies, too. Captain America‘s nods to Thor and Iron Man are unobtrusive, and 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, Captain America‘s solid script isn’t without its flaws. The biggest of these is that the structure feels slightly off. A lot of time is spent establishing Steve’s character, so much so that the big action set pieces arrive later than they should, and (as overseen by Johnson) 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 deliver firefights and explosions, and there’s not a weak link in the cast. Tucci brings the required amount of intelligence and warmth to Erskine; Jones convinces as a gruff, jowly army man; Atwell excels as a woman equal parts tough, resourceful and feminine; and Weaving takes a fairly thinly sketched, cartoonish part and makes it work.
But the film truly belongs to Evans, who was born to play the lead role. 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. He also shares strong chemistry with Atwell and Stan, setting a strong platform for relationships that carry through the entire Captain America trilogy.
Of course, so much of superhero acting comes down to letting the costume do the heavy lifting. Kudos, then, 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. While Weaving’s appearance 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.
This uneven quality extends to Captain America‘s visual effects – there’s a lot that blends in seamlessly, and quite a bit more that doesn’t. Notably, effects house Lola’s efforts to make tall, muscular Evans into a short, scrawny weakling run the gamut from utterly convincing to just plain weird looking, although it’s only occasionally distracting.
Cinematographer Shelly Johnson captures all this with richness and clarity, lending a fittingly vintage look to Captain America that fits the material well. That said, for the most part, the visuals stick to the Marvel Studios approach of pumping out films that are stylish, but determinedly non-distinctive. Composer Alan Silvestri’s score is much the same as Johnson’s visuals: it’s not the most memorable soundtrack of its career, but it undoubtedly works – especially his brassy, patriotic theme for Cap himself.
Still, for all its shortcomings, Captain America: The First Avenger is a rollicking adventure worth watching. It may not reach the heights of Iron Man, The Avengers, or even its own sequels, however, strong performances from its cast and its easy charm make it a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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