Captain America: The First Avenger

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

Captain America: The First Avenger is theoretically part of an ongoing story, namely the Marvel superhero films linked by the eyepatched Samuel L. Jackson. A year ago, I complained at length about last year’s Iron Man 2, hijacked halfway through for dull passages of franchise-building. In contrast, Captain America is completely unobtrusive as it hyperlinks with the Iron Man films (Stark Senior plays a prominent role) and the recent Thor (with Raiders-style blather about tech from Asgard). These films are designed to flatter fans, so there’s an extra bit of plot significance to the McGuffin power source which will only be appreciated by the true believers who stayed to the end of Thor’s credits.

However, the Marvel films aren’t very serious in fitting their films into a coherent world. Iron Man, the first in the “series,” started with arms-deals in modern Afghanistan. Captain America, despite its war setting, is a long way away, crossbreeding retro-fantasies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the ‘40s Superman cartoons. For anyone who doesn’t know, the film is the story of Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans), who debuted in the proto-Marvel Timely Comics, months before Pearl Harbour. The character’s most famous cover image was of the Cap socking Hitler in the jaw, which the film samples lovingly and wittily in a way Alan Moore might approve.

In the film version, Rogers’s story is schematised an earnest hybrid between Superman and Batman, with the Kryptonian DNA always prevailing. Evans’s hero is a super-puny human, bestowed with Great Power because of his virtuous refusal to be outclassed by bullies. The film is admirably upfront about its nerd wish-fulfilment. Its hero’s journey is from a Charles Atlas body-building ad; the biggest laugh comes from the heroine wanting to touch Cap America’s new pecs. Unlike Superman or Batman, Rogers doesn’t put on acts; the shield-flinging Captain America is the same guy as the girl-shy shrimp we saw beat up in the first reel. Judged against the likes of Iron Man, the only dimensional character is Toby Jones’s cringing Nazi, but the leads (Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell) magnificently imbue ciphers with warmth and charisma, led by crusty veteran Tommy Lee Jones.

As usual in a superhero-debut, Captain America’s first half offers the most pleasures, from the period scene-setting (we visit a version of the 1940 New York World Fair) to the surrogate dad stuff (Rogers gets mentored by a sweet German-accented Stanley Tucci, which offers a contrast to the dark early scenes of X-Men: First Class; if only Tucci’s character had mentored Magneto, the whole of X-Men would have never happened). When a hood machine-guns his way out of a secret army-base in the middle of Brooklyn, with Rogers having to overcome him with his wits and new-found speed, it’s tremendously exciting. Later, in the montages where Captain American confronts his nemesis Red Skull on the battlefield, the action can suddenly shrink to a man in a silly costume, fighting a man in a silly mask.

The most disorientating thing about the film, though, is the way its last act becomes increasingly virtual, with openly unreal CGI sets and backgrounds. It’s impossible to tell if this effect was a deliberate style choice, as opposed to the desperation of summer-film deadlines, but it’s tempting to think the former. (One example of the film’s blatant unreality is the way Red Skull’s final base seems to exist in two completely different places; on one side is a European forest, the other is halfway up a sheer mountain.) If so, it was a risky step. Filmgoers haven’t forgotten CGI embarrassments like the Bond film Die Another Day (which had a not dissimilar finale to Captain America, aboard a giant plane). On first viewing, and on a cinema screen, I though Captain America’s stylisation worked… but then I’m a junkie for things like the Fleischer studio’s old Superman cartoons.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.

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