There were problems with Iron Man 2 and Thor on fundamental levels, but the biggest issue with both films was the way that Marvel Studios forced the stories to submit to a larger continuity wank, to fit in extraneous and stupid SHIELD business in order to build a shared universe and set up The Avengers. There is (almost) none of that in Captain America: The First Avenger, meaning the movie gets to be its own movie and tell its own story, which on its own would make it the best Marvel movie since Iron Man.
But Captain America: The First Avenger is more than just the elusive standalone Marvel film - it’s the best Marvel Studios film, and one of the superhero movies that reminds us this genre is a viable storytelling format when it isn’t being smashed into following formulas or sticking to conventions. Captain America is not a great movie but it’s a damn good one, a thrilling and fun adventure movie with cracking one liners, decent action on a large scale and terrific characters played by good actors.
The film, directed by The Rocketeer’s Joe Johnston and written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (with, I understand, some uncredited work by Joss Whedon), takes some minor liberties with the origins of the Star Spangled Avenger but gets the meat of it right. Steve Rogers is a scrawny kid who wants nothing more than to serve his country in WWII. What he lacks in muscle and stamina he makes up for in brains, heart and guts - he’s the perfect American trapped in an imperfect body. A top secret super soldier serum morphs Steve into a specimen of physical perfection, but Nazi agents sabotage the project, leaving Steve as the only one of his kind. He heads to Europe, wearing the costume and shield of Captain America, to do battle with the evil, deformed Red Skull and his science cult Hydra, guys so evil they think the Nazis are soft.
But most of all what it gets right is the tone. The film is earnest and not afraid to be a little bit corny. There’s not a lick of irony in the piece, and while the movie does do that modern superhero tap dance of having to explain why the hero gets a costume - in this case Cap’s first assignment is as a USO bond salesman - the script actually manages to make it all feel pretty organic and not like a huge wink at the audience (here’s a hint for future comic book movie writers: just realize that at this point we simply accept these characters in costumes. It isn’t 1999 anymore). And most of all the movie understands it needs to be FUN - this isn’t the kind of Batman Begins slog that too many fanboys want out of their superhero films, it’s a rollicking old-fashioned adventure story.
It isn’t the post-modern fun of Iron Man, though - Captain America is firmly entrenched in the spirit of WWII. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the obvious comparison point (and cheekily referenced in the movie), especially because Johnston worked on that film, but the director’s own The Rocketeer is another good example. It’s two fisted, over the top and filled with retro scifi flair. Scientists preside over control panels that spark and explode, retro-futurist jets buzz through the air and Captain America blows up a seven story tall tank.
While Thor felt a lot like a retread of Iron Man, Captain America blazes its own ground by making its hero not a smartass, not full of himself and not flawed. If anything, you could complain that Steve Rogers has next to no arc because he’s exactly the same when he’s a scrawny guy standing up to bullies as he is when he’s Captain America duking it out with the Red Skull in the control room of a massive stealth bomber. But that’s the greatness of the character, the idea that the man inside is more important than the man outside; the Skull is the evil reverse of Cap, an already strong man who wanted to be stronger and subjected himself to an early version of the super soldier serum, which amplified his own bad qualities. Steve Rogers is polite and smart and friendly and sweet and good - all the things that we used to think of ourselves as Americans, in the days before Vietnam or Watergate, anyway.
Amazingly Captain America doesn’t touch on any of that. The film makes no effort to paint Allied forces as anything but grand heroes; while some of the soldiers are salty, they’re decent men. It’s refreshing to have that image of our armed forces in a post-Guantanamo era. There are some who may find this to be an insidious right wing political statement, but I think the replacement of Nazis with Hydra moves Cap perfectly into the realm of non-political fantasy.
Chris Evans makes a terrific Captain America. He gets the aw-shucks everyman quality of the character perfectly, and he looks pretty good with his shirt off. There’s no ego in Cap, and Evans nails that - he’s a guy who just wants to do the right thing and do it well. I can’t wait to see what Evans does with the character in future films.
He’s supported by a fairly incredible cast. Tommy Lee Jones is a revelation, reminding us of what he can do when he’s actually engaged with the material. He’s funny and badass in equal measure, and he’s charmingly loose when the time is right. Stanley Tucci is also great as Dr. Erskine, the man who comes up with the super soldier serum; both characters have plenty of funny one-liners that have Joss Whedon’s fingerprints all over them.
Sebastian Stan is Bucky, Cap’s sidekick. In this version Bucky has been aged up and is actually Steve’s best friend from Brooklyn, a blustery ladies man type who gets into the Army while Steve is 4F. It’s a good change and it allows a nice shorthand for the relationship between the two; sometimes you can fuck with the myth and actually improve it. Stan is good, but he doesn’t really get a ton of screentime. Hayley Atwell is fine as Agent Carter, the mysterious British liaison to the Super Soldier initiative; she’s beautiful in 1940s get-up, and the character is presented as quite kick ass, but she’s missing a scene where Carter goes from type to straight up character.
Hugo Weaving KILLS as the Red Skull. Putting on a Werner Herzog accent he has the time of his life going just broad enough without being campy. The Skull has a stretch limo deathmobile, so Weaving needs to be able to fill that seat while also maintaining reality as a character, which he does incredibly well. The Marvel Universe is filled with great bad guys, which makes the complete dearth of good baddies in the Marvel Studios films baffling. The Skull is the best realized Marvel bad guy yet put to film, by Marvel Studios or anyone else.
Tagging along with him is Dr. Arnim Zola, played with weaselly fun by Toby Jones. He’s not quite comfortable with the weird superscience cult that the Skull has built, and he’s physically perfectly out of place around the masked stormtroopers and Kirby-looking devices.
I wish I had more to say about the Howling Commandos, but they get the short shrift. The words ‘Howling Commandos’ are never uttered, and none of them are ever named in the film. They LOOK great, and they do take part in most of the film’s action, but I would have loved to see another couple of scenes with these guys, at least one where they told the audience who they were.
In fact this leads to my biggest complaint about Captain America: The First Avenger: it’s too short! The film is two hours long but could have easily fit in another ten or fifteen minutes in the second act’s action montage, which covers Cap’s activities during the length of the war, shutting down Hydra bases. It isn’t that the film is lacking in action - for the first time in Marvel Studios history a movie has just the right amount of action and it’s big enough to be satisfying - but it’s that the movie feels like it jumps quickly from establishing Cap to the final battle with the Red Skull. I wanted more! And that’s the kind of complaint only good movies have levied against them.
The action works, but isn’t spectacular. As mentioned, the action is bigger here and better staged than any of the previous Marvel films. The movie also peppers the action throughout, and the climactic battle feels appropriately climactic, not like an afterthought. I think Joe Johnston is a journeyman director and his skills lie in working with actors, so his action stuff is serviceable but not great. Still, Johnston manages to one-up Raiders’ guy-into-propeller gag in a big, big way.
This is the Marvel movie I’ve been waiting for. Iron Man is a really good film, but at the time I gave it a lot of passes - especially in the action department - because I was so happy with what it got right. But the rest of the movies the studio has released ranged from okay to not particularly good, and none of the other movies felt like they were real competitors in the summer movie sweepstakes. Captain America is big in a way no other Marvel movie has been, and it swings for the fences in ways that no Marvel movie since Iron Man has done.
Forget about comparing it to Marvel movies, though. Captain America is of a kind with X-Men: First Class in that it attempts to actively thrill and engage, but it’s better than that film (for one thing its effects seem three-quarters baked* as opposed to First Class’ half baked effects). It’s a ripping good time, a fun romp that scales all the action to pulp levels and doesn’t fall into endless CGI traps. There’s a lot of actual stunt people doing actual jumps and falls and swings in this film. It’s a movie where a punch to the face has impact, a movie where leaping across a flaming chasm is a great action and character moment.
It’s been a hit or miss summer, but Captain America is a huge hit. This is what a summer movie should be, filled with good performances and fun adventure and brisk storytelling. All of a sudden I’m excited for The Avengers again.
* I will say this: while some of the green screen stuff is borderline bad, the movie spends the money where it needs to - on creating scrawny Steve Rogers. By making skinny Steve believable Captain America gives you more character, and I’ll take that over a realistic hangar bay any day.