(Joe Johnston, 2011, USA)
Hopping from one floundered superhero franchise, Fantastic Four (2005), and its lame duck sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), to Marvel’s makeshift ensemble mash-up The Avengers, due next year, Chris Evans beefs up to play the titular hero in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the fourth and final installment of origin stories that have previously given the likes of Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk their individual times to shine, despite continuous cross-referencing. The final piece of the puzzle, Captain America shifts the timezone of its figurative cinematic siblings back to World War 2-infested 1940’s USA, where fear is rife and Adolf Hitler reigns supreme, and although it follows nearly the exact same template as Iron Man (2008) with few narrative variants, director Joe Johnston infuses his superhero yarn with enough dynamic action and sumptuous visual flairs to make this one of the better comic book adaptations this limp summer has had to offer. Although coming off the back of the disappointing X-Men: First Class (2011) and tortuous Green Lantern (2011), that isn’t saying much.
As a shiny new example of the now done to death superhero genesis primer, Captain America brings little originality to the table, meaning that its plot is predictable, derivative and, to some degree, transparent, but what it manages to successfully bring out of the hat is a refreshing, often breathtaking visual palette, with each frame imbued by cinematographer Shelly Johnson’s sepia toned expertise. Much unlike the muted shades of the more contemporary, sleek Iron Man duo, the film is glossy and energetic, with zippy action scenes more than making up for its narrative shortcomings, even if they too eventually become clanking and conventional, flagrantly disregarding gravity whilst borrowing techniques from other sources. One motorbike chase resembles the Endor hoverbike sequence in Return of the Jedi (1982), for example, and the now mandatory 3D post-conversion looks cheap, though the sight of CA’s trusty shield flying at the screen elicits the appropriate responses.
Keeping up with the current trend of attracting an impressive cast list to big budgeted extravaganzas that are these types of films, Johnston manages to rustle up impressive support in the form of Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as Samuel L. Jackson reprising his now-archaic role as eyepatch sporting S.H.I.E.L.D operative Nick Fury, who all join a well cast Evans and deliver convincing performances in their varied roles. Hayley Atwell is similarly well cast as hard as nails officer Peggy Carter, whose simple beauty slots in with the glowing, postmodern nostalgia Johnston is aiming to convey, although her eventual role as love interest to protagonist Steve Rogers (Captain America) feels forced and shoehorned in, serving little purpose other than fleshing out the scope of the story, though it merely distracts.
As primary antagonist, Hugo Weaving’s facially challenged Johann Schmidt (aka Red Skull) is underdeveloped and makes little impression, outplayed by Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola; unwavering sidekick and the brains behind his motive-less bid for world destruction, which drags down the films’ third act into a (physically) weightless melange of emotionless action and video game aesthetics, where things are supposed to be at stake despite a significant lack of tension. Schmidt wants to destroy the world, because that is all his limited character traits allow him to do.
Speaking of character traits, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s cliché-induced screenplay goes out of its way to paint Steve Rogers as a wholly selfless, angelic hero, especially before he is pumped full of a muscle-sprouting serum which turns his scrawny lab rat body into that of a hulking ‘super-soldier’, though this says little about the integrity of the little guy, an underdog who will seemingly stop at nothing to serve his country. It is at this point where the film fully takes off, and instead of throwing our hero straight into the front line, it stops and manages to say something about the celebrity of a star-spangled man in tights, something Spiderman 3 (2007) hinted at, which injects some welcome comedy ably handled by its cast.
After its dizzying final collision, Captain America ends with a jump through time and a standard issue after-credits sequence, finally bridging the ongoing gap between these scene-setting episodes to the oncoming main event, though the tightly edited peek at what’s the come introduces a puzzling series of questions; just how much time will be allocated to this high number of power-enabled champions? And will it all be worth it in the long run?