Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Revisited

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Director: Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Based on Captain America, a Marvel Comics creation from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby
Cast: Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Samuel L. Jackson & Hugo Weaving
Runtime: 124 min // Certificate: 12a

Captain America has always been one of Marvel’s most problematic characters, not least in the post-Soviet era. In an organisation that has always been on the progressive side of history with regards to social issues, Captain America – at face value, a jingoistic, ultra-militarised creation – sticks out like a sore thumb. How can the people who brought us the X-Men and Spider-Man be responsible for such a crass propaganda tool? Though the character has obviously evolved beyond recognition since his initial inception (thanks, primarily, to major shifts in political / social / cultural thinking) I still struggle to take him seriously, which makes it difficult for me to invest in him like I can Marvel’s more relatable characters.

What place then for such an anachronistic character in the 21st Century? Well, for a start, as a member of The Avengers Captain America suits his purpose rather well. On his own the character feels like a relic – perhaps even an embarrassment – but comparing him with more progressive, modern characters like Iron Man grants him an additional layer of intrigue. The question of how such an archaic character fits in with the planet’s post globalisation ethos is one that is directly tackled by Joss Whedon in The Avengers and by Joe Johnston in The First Avenger – the character’s first cinematic adventure since 1990’s Captain America, a.k.a one of the worst films ever made – thus his presence is much less problematic than it might well have been.

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Well, with The Winter Soldier – Cap’s third outing in four years – having been released to a broadly strong reception, I decided to revisit The First Avenger to see if my initial reaction to it has changed in any way. Played as a piece of period cinema, The First Avenger chronicles Steve Rogers’ (Evans) life before and in the immediate aftermath of his transformation into Captain America. It lays the foundations for the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D., establishes HYDRA as an evil force to be reckoned with and introduces us to the Avengers’ resident “straight arrow”. With such a lot to do and such a vast amount of material to cover, one cannot understate just how colossal Joe Johnston’s task was here, yet that doesn’t excuse him from the fact that The First Avenger is a prime example of sloppy filmmaking.

The First Avenger runs into trouble from the word “go” and then fails to recover all that much. Despite the best efforts of Johnston, Markus and McFeely, the film is unsuccessful in its attempt to modernise the character sufficiently enough for the new millennium, though in fairness the detrimental effects of this failure are somewhat nulled by the film’s period setting. Nevertheless, the character remains hamstrung by the fact that he’s little more than a symbol of America, or rather what America likes to think it is; he’s fearless, powerful and moralistic, and he always does what he thinks is right for his country. Despite their best efforts, the filmmakers fail to give Captain America a modern purpose and, as such, he feels very much like a relic, so it’s perhaps best that he spends the vast majority of the film in the forties…

Captain America (The First Avenger) - 2011 - 2Of course, it’s all worth it for that moment…

The villain of the piece – Johann Schmidt, a.k.a the “Red Skull” (played by Hugo Weaving) – is just one example of the film’s failure to modernise the canon sufficiently enough. Back in the day, when the Soviet Union was the greatest threat to American dominance (in an era that puts the present “crisis” to shame), the concept of Captain America taking on “the Reds” must have been pretty thrilling. Alas, despite the film’s period setting, it all feels terribly dated now. It perhaps doesn’t help matters much that Weaving plays Schmidt like a downmarket, pantomime version of Agent Smith, but that’s not my primary criticism; no, the main problem is, as it always has been, that the conflict is too safe, too simple and much too obvious. The notion of Captain America as the symbol of all that is good in the World (and Johann Schmidt as the symbol of all that is bad) is one that no amount of contemporisation can make palatable because, when the breach between “good” and “evil” is so black and white, it doesn’t make for a particularly interesting story.

However, what really holds The First Avenger back is that it’s a fundamentally underwhelming adaptation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a “bad” film per se, but it doesn’t do anywhere near enough to justify its two hour plus runtime. The first act consists of a pretty bland origin story, in which we watch a creepy, CGI Chris Evans walking around all small and skinny, while the final act fails to capitalise on the horrors of its WW2 setting, resulting in a final conflict that is distinctly devoid of both action and drama. In a way I understand why it’s all a bit boring; after all, Captain America is a difficult character to begin with, and it’s tough to strike the right balance between comic-book silliness and a decent modernisation of his canon. Alas, too much time is devoted to attempting to justify Captain America and, as such, the film lacks the thrills that define the rest of Marvel’s output in the last five years.

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Having said that, The First Avenger does have its moments. Some of the action sequences are enjoyable, particularly in the immediate wake of Captain America’s transformation, and the visuals (creepy Chris Evans excepted…) are decent enough. Chris Evans holds his own in a role that doesn’t ask too much, while Tommy Lee Jones is fine as the generic but engaging gruff general who it’s tough not to like. I’m not convinced by Weaving as the Red Skull (at worst, he seems terribly typecast) though I did enjoy seeing Toby Jones as his sidekick, even though his role was pretty limited. With such a colossal task on their hands, one has to give the performers some credit for helping to keep the film (mostly) afloat.

Ultimately, The First Avenger is the least successful chapter in “Phase One” of Marvel’s vast Avengers saga, though that doesn’t mean that it’s a total disaster. When the patriotism is toned down, when the lame jokes are put to one side and when the action is allowed to flow naturally, the film is a relatively fun watch, albeit one that doesn’t really do enough to give Captain America a modern, distinctive personality. He lacks the charm of Iron Man, the intrigue of the Hulk and the ridiculousness of Thor, while his debut film lacks the epic spectacle of its cousins. It does what’s necessary – it introduces us to Captain America – but that’s about all it does, which is a real shame as the potential for greatness with this one was vast.

★★½

Click here for my previous review of this film (August 10, 2012)

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