Nation’s pride – Captain America: The First Avenger review

Captain America: The First Avenger – Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell and Hugo Weaving. Directed by Joe Johnston. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

When it was announced that Marvel Studios would begin production on a Captain America movie, the idea seemed ludicrous. Captain America is the paragon of all things ‘USA’, and in this ultra-cynical post-Daily Show, post-Colbert Report, post-Team America: World Police, post-“Mission Accomplished”, post-Sarah Palin era, doubters rightfully questioned the appeal of such a film. Sure, Hollywood will churn out movies about any old superhero as long as he (or she, but let’s face it, mostly he) has a name worthy of adorning a cinema marquee (“Antman? Good enough!”). But a feature based on The Captain himself seemed like an invitation for mockery. Here we are though; it is the year 2011 and we have a Captain America movie. I have seen it with my own two eyes, and am both happy and surprised to report that it is a blast. It would be a lie to say the film avoids easy opportunities for some good old fashioned jingoism (Cap tells an enemy he’s “just a boy from Brooklyn” before giving him a beat down, much to the presumed cheers of Brooklyn audiences), but at least it feels understated, and the American nationalism on display is outweighed by that of the Nazi villains.

Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, an idealistic young man who is dying to serve his country during World War 2. However, his tiny frame, asthma and general puniness means he is continually rejected by recruiters (Evans’ body is rather spectacularly shrunken down, although his voice remains disconcertingly deep). When army doctor Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices Rogers’ tenacity, he signs him up for a super-solider program in which Rogers will be become twice (if not three times) the man he was before. After being injected with Erskine’s molecular-enhancing serum, Rogers is inflated like a well-chiseled balloon into the perfect American specimen. At first, the Government parades him around the country as ‘Captain America’; a propaganda tool to help sell bonds. But Rogers, a decent fellow who hates bullies, wants to take on the Gerries and help out his buddies on the frontline. To the detriment of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and aided by British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the Captain heads into enemy territory to face off against the Nazis greatest weapon: Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, doing his best Werner Herzog), himself a trialist of Erskine’s earlier, unstable, serum, with a burnt red skull to prove it.

Director Joe Johnston – who last year gave us The Wolfman, the worst film of 2010 – returns to the kind of boy’s own adventures he does best. Captain America feels a lot like a supercharged version of Johnston’s Rocketeer from 1991, and there are similar serial shades of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films on which he worked as art director. The film is fun. There is an innocence to it, but not naiveté. Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely understand exactly what it is they’re making. It’s not close-minded or mean-spirited (Rogers is hesitant to even say he wants to kill Nazis, and would just rather they cool their boots and stop bugging everyone). Instead, it embraces self-belief, inner-goodness and friendship. Trite? Maybe. But it effectively brings to mind the films of that era with humour and heart (a final sequence recalls the beautiful opening scene from A Matter of Life and Death). Also, the action ain’t so bad. Weaving’s Schmidt/Red Skull is the best villain of the Marvel universe yet, and whereas the final action sequences fell flat in Iron Man and Thor, this one indeed feels both epic and earned. None of it, however, would work without Evans’ easy charm. His appeal is different to his aforementioned Marvel stable mates; he is modest, kind and, ahem, a virgin (this is certainly not the persona Evans has given off in other films).

If you wanted to be cynical, you could say the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was the best piece of marketing this film could have ever hoped for. When President Obama announced that the Al Qaeda mastermind had been killed by a team of Navy Seals, the American war effort suddenly seemed justified to the many millions who had questioned it; or at least, like a blockbuster movie with a happy ending. Even if the mood was temporary, it felt good to think that there were brave soldiers in the world that could literally take out the most evil of enemies. Captain America, once a relic of a time in which people were asked to unquestioningly follow their nation into war, feels relevant once again. Is the world better off this way? That is a debate best held elsewhere. But Captain America: The First Avenger, at this exact moment, works wonders. There is no gray area in this war. The picture draws a clear line between good and bad, and our scrappy, virginal protagonist is well and truly a beacon of valour. He may not be as morally complex as Batman, but Captain America is a good man, and he means well, and sometimes it’s just nice to rally behind a hero with a heart of gold.

Who knows what violent horrors will befoul the world in the coming years? Perhaps a Captain America movie can only be appreciated during this small window of presumed peace? The irony, of course, is that the world we live in is far from peaceful, and embracing a film like Captain America might be the equivalent of shielding our eyes from the moral ambiguity of international terrors. Or, as I prefer to think, it’s a temporary escape from “moral ambiguity”, and a reminder that one needs to be a good individual before the world can follow.

4/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens across Australia July 29, 2011.

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