I’m not gonna lie: the only thing standing between me and the unremitting glory that is the Avengers, is this review. So if this is a little less comprehensive than usual (because I’m always just so comprehensive), then just picture me on the couch, shoving chips in my mouth as I watch the single greatest superhero team-up of our time, and take comfort. Because if nothing else, this re-watch has gotten me good and pumped to watch some Avengers. That’s the genius of the cinematic universe, I guess.
But first, let’s take a trip to yesteryear – 1942 to be exact. That was when the Americans finally stopped dragging their feet and entered World War 2; which, thanks guys, better late than never, I suppose. Now, if you’re not a history buff like myself, then some of the information presented in this movie might surprise you; did you know, for example, that the Nazi science division was called Hydra, and that their leader Johann Schmidt ruled over them like a cult? And that they had blue lasers?
No, you didn’t know that, because the state of public schooling is a disgrace these days. Fortunately, Captain America is here to set all that to rights, and to replace that bit of fluff between your ears with knowledge. True. History. Facts.
This movie starts a little oddly because there’s two prelude scenes before we get to our Star-spangled Man. The first, set in the present day, shows a team of anonymous actors finding the frozen Captain America in the arctic. The second, introduces not only our villain of the piece, but the maguffin that will dominate the next film – omg, the fucking Avengers is the next movie, guys, guys, I can’t even.
Anyway, eventually we get to our hero, the man we paid admission price to see, and oh, wait. What? Who’s this guy?
Little boy, they’re trying to make a movie here, and you’re standing in front of Captain America.
But as it turns out, that is our hero, and the star of the flawed, oddly-paced, over-stuffed, but ultimately good-hearted and entertaining film we’re about to see.
The First Avenger is directed by Joe Johnston, and if you’ve ever seen the Rocketeer then you know exactly why he was the perfect choice for this film. This is part of what I love about the Marvel Movie Machine, is their near-perfect choices when it comes to directors. If you want a buddy-cop comedy you hire Shane Black, if you want irresistible nerdbait you hire Joss Whedon. And if you want a World War 2 period piece with just a splash of steam punk, then of course you hire the guy who made the Rocketeer.
That was an inspired choice and it certainly served them here; any awkwardness comes from trying to cram together two separate movies into one (whilst still letting people know they have a fucking Avengers movie to go see next summer). The first film – which I will call ‘Captain America’ – is a fairly standard comic book origin story, in which an everyman is granted extraordinary powers and must use them to fight a diabolical villain who is our hero’s equal and opposite. Shoved into the middle of this is a Band of Brothers/Saving Private Ryan/Inglorious Bastards-type film, wherein a crack squad of crack soldiers is brought together to, you know, fight World War 2 and stuff; I call this movie ‘The First Avenger’. In an embarrassing attempt at both characterization and representation we have a Black guy, an Asian guy, an English guy, a French guy and a mustache guy.
In a quote that is downright adorable, actor Kenneth Choi said of his preparation:
“[I] did a lot of WWII research especially in regards to the ‘Nisei’ soldiers, or Japanese-American soldiers. I wanted to get as much true, real-life information for a guy like Jim Morita fighting in WWII. I felt that if I had built a factual basis for him, I could then let go and permit the character to exist in the Marvel Universe, which allows for a lot of imaginative circumstances.”
This is about a thousand times more thought than anyone else put into it, and all for a moment where he can dangle his dogtags and say sarcastically, “I’m from Fresno, Ace.” But really, all the filmmakers cared about was that you the audience knew, without the chance of misunderstanding, that Captain America is not a racist.
So this leads to a bit of odd pacing in the middle, where we have to stop and introduce (if you can call it that) Captain America’s team and then watch a montage of them taking down Hydra bases. The thing is, I don’t really see how you get around this issue without either excising it completely, or having a completely separate film (which, as awesome as that would be, is unfeasible when we have an Avengers movie to get to). And to it’s credit, this issue doesn’t sink the film, even if it holds it back a bit from greatness.
For greatness then, we will simply have to look to the films cast, which, as always, is superb. Much like with their choice in directors, someone upstairs at Marvel was thinking ‘who can we get to play a crusty, sarcastic but lovable, war-weary general’, and when the answer naturally came back Tommy Lee Jones, well they just picked up the phone and hired him.
But let’s not bury the lead.
I was mad when I first heard they were casting Chris Evans as Cap. I don’t think it put me off food or anything, but I was legitimately upset. As upset as any racist when they discover that Idris Elba has been cast to play a Nordic (read: lily white) god. ‘Chris Evans is Johnny Storm!‘ I raged, ‘He can’t be two things!‘
But, it turns out, he can. I guess that’s why they call it acting? And make no mistake, Chris Evans can fucking act. I know this because his Johnny Storm – selfish, feckless, vain, arrogant, cocky Johnny Storm – was the best thing about those largely forgettable films. The character he creates for Captain America is pretty well the exact opposite in every respect. He totally sells the absolutely necessary component of Captain America: that he was a hero before he underwent the procedure that gave him his abilities. I will doubtlessly have more to say about Chris Evans’ magnificent turn as Steve Rogers in future films, so I’ll turn my attention now to one who has no future films (not counting a couple cameos, etc): Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter.
Now it’s a bit of an awkward holdover of the times in which these characters were created, and who they were created for, that every superhero automatically gets the Superhero Girlfriend™. It’s part of the male wish-fulfillment fantasy: what’s the point of getting abilities that set you above your peers if you can’t get laid as well? So, presumably, to distract us from our own sad, sexless lives, pretty well every superhero gets a hot girl: Tony Stark has his Pepper Potts, Bruce Banner has Betty Ross, Thor gets Jane Foster, and now we have Peggy.
So how does she hold up in the great pantheon of Superhero Girlfriends™? Simply put, Peggy Carter rules. She’s the best. I don’t think anyone’s going to top the easy chemistry of Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow any time soon, but Peggy and Steve are downright adorable in their own right, and it’s no coincidence that she keeps being brought back for cameos, not to mention her own network television show. Unlike our other leading ladies, Peggy has shit to do outside of her relationship to a man (and yes, I know that Jane Foster is like, an astrophysicist or somesuch, but no one’s greenlit a Jane Foster tv show as yet, nor a Pepper Potts: CEO show, etc).
And it would be a sin if I didn’t mention Stanley Tucci as, shall we say, the Ben Kenobi character. In this case it’s Dr. Abraham Erskine, but it’s a pretty similar character as Yinsen in Iron Man; older patriarch saves the life of protagonist, inspires him and then dies. I don’t want to devalue either of these characters or the actors who play them; Yinsen especially is critical in making Tony Stark consider and then reconsider who he is and who he’ll be. Steve Rogers is much more grounded with his moral compass and not liking bullies and so forth, but the scenes he shares with his mentor are genuinely heartwarming and inform the character throughout multiple films. Also worth noting is Tucci’s German accent, which could teach Hugo Weaving’s accent a thing or two. Hugo Weaving, incidentally, plays the Red Skull, and that’s pretty well all you can say about that.
On the whole, I give Captain America: The First Avenger 3 exploding Hydra tanks out of 4. What works in this movie works so well as to (mostly) elevate above that bloated, messy middle bit. It’s fun, it feels fresh, and the final scene – wherein Cap awakens in the present day – is not only gorgeous to look at, it perfectly sets up the Avengers. Which I finally get to watch now.