By Malice Intended of Planet Ill
Young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has the heart of a patriot, but the body a 98 pound weakling. He longs to be on the battlefields of World War II, giving Hell to Hitler and his Nazi regime. Alas, the fitness and health requirements of Uncle Sam’s army prove an insurmountable obstacle. Just when all seems truly lost, Dr. Abraham Erksine (Stanley Tucci) offers Rogers a way to realize his dreams. All that is required is for him to submit his body to science. After being administered the top-secret “super soldier” serum, Rogers is blessed with otherworldly physicality. Christened Captain America by the press, he soon takes to the battlefields of WWII to engage The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and the minions of Hydra in battle.
Captain America: The First Avenger introduces yet another character that will be prominently featured in Marvel Studios upcoming superhero extravaganza, The Avengers. As each Marvel Studios film has strived to carve out its own unique identity, Captain America wraps itself in the cloak of old school patriotism. Director Joe Johnston has been charged with shaping those ideals into something that modern audiences won’t be compelled to mock. Ironically, his outright refusal to reshape the film’s sensibilities according to contemporary guidelines proves to be its saving grace.
Whereas Spielberg and Lucas’s Indiana Jones films were conceived as homages to the old adventure serials, Captain America aspires to actually become that which it fetishes. The 1940’s are lovingly rendered by the film’s costume and set designers, to the point where the film becomes a postcard version of the era. It’s as if Johnston somehow transferred his nostalgic daydreams onto celluloid. Many shots look like panels from old Captain America comics rendered as photorealistic oil paintings and assembled into entire scenes. Visually the film makes no attempts at naturalistic or authentic view of the time.
The action is also of the old-fashioned, two-fisted variety. Those who have been weaned on MMA-style fight choreography and lightning fast cuts may feel a bit out of sorts. Shootouts and fisticuffs are presented in a somewhat stagey fashion, similar to old black and white movies. Those who are truly familiar with the aesthetic the film is trying for will totally get it. Johnston has no apparent desire to match or better the younger generation in terms of style and presentation. His sensibilities lie firmly in the retro wonderland of Lucas and Spielberg. He merely uses modern tools to enhance that vision.
The screenplay is more precise and clearheaded than that of many recent superhero films. It hits all the necessary beats in an efficient fashion. Its only flaw is that it hints at something deeper in its second act, but ultimately proves unwilling to deliver. Rogers’ naiveté is exploited by the powers that be in order to turn him into the ultimate weapon. Once they’ve achieved this, they don’t use him in the way they originally intended. He becomes a walking recruitment poster for millions of other young men who harbor the same ideals as Rogers. Rogers was created to fight, but instead is used as a recruiting tool. During its middle stretch, the film seems to be incorporating a sly commentary on those themes. It frustratingly snaps back into position during the final stretch to provide to requisite thrills, leaving more thoughtful viewers to dwell on what could have been.
Flaws aside, Captain America: The First Avenger is just like the title character. It holds fast to its ideals, even at the risk of being ridiculed by everyone else in the room. It does precisely what superhero stories where initially intended to do: play on the fantasies and ideals of young boys. It doesn’t do so in a subversive manner, opting instead to play as a harmless piece of escapist propaganda. Of all modern superhero pictures, I suspect it may just be old cap that resonates most with a certain portion of children. It’s heroism is presented without irony or cynicism. Sometimes the simplest approach is still the most effective. 3.75 out of 5