Principal Cast : Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Stanley Tucci, Derek Luke, Samuel L Jackson, Kenneth Choi, Bruno Ricci, JJ Field, Richard Armitage, Lex Shrapnel, Michael Brandon, David Bradley, Natalie Dormer, Jenna Coleman, Laura Haddock.
Synopsis: 80 pound weakling Steve Rogers, trying desperately to get into the US Army to take on Hitler, finds himself subject to a scientific experiment to create a super-soldier, and becomes a beacon of light against the tyranny of the evil Hydra – an army controlled by Nazi weapons designer Red Skull. As Captain America, Rogers takes the fight from the homeland to the battlefield.
What makes a hero, really? Powers? A utility belt filled with gadgets more similar to a date-rape kit than a detective? A sense of injustice to be righted? A mandate from a higher authority to deal with evil wherever it may lie? The comic book medium has told and retold these kinds of heroic tales ever since ink first splashed onto paper waaay back in the early 1900’s. Superman, epitomized the superhuman. Batman, the humanistic crime fighter using only his wits and wealth. Spider-Man, arriving in the early 60’s, brought us closer to the fantasy of being given an opportunity to rise above one’s lowly station and make a difference. The Fantastic Four epitomized the family unit, working as a team to battle evil. Captain America, one of comicdoms most iconic heroes, was designed to stir patriotism in the USA during World War II, created by legendary comic book scribes Jack Kirby and Joe Simon – and published by the precursor to Marvel Comics, Timely Comics. Once the war ended, the need for Captain America as a symbol of US pride was diminished, although a role was found for him throughout the Marvel Universe thanks to a twists to have him resurrected from suspended animation many years after the war actually ended. Thus, Captain America was thrust into a new, somewhat different era of publication than he was intended originally. Recently, with Marvel Studios building themselves a decent mythology on film – thanks mainly to their production partners Paramount, Captain America was given the green light to prepare audiences for the highly anticipated Avengers movie, due out in 2012; and I believe the term “highly” in this instance to be vastly understated. Bringing the classic American hero to the big screen was a fairly large order – non-comic audiences had the potential to be put off by the sheer American-ness of the character, especially in light of a relatively large anti-American sentiment in the days of the Iraq War. I’m sure the boffins at Marvel were trying to figure out how much they should alter the character to fit an audience’s expectation, or how much they stood to lose on this venture should it fall short of expectation – Captain America is well known within the comic book community, he’s just not as well known to mainstream audiences. Sure, audiences lapped up Iron Man, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Thor: all (bar Spidey) films which were building the audiences knowledge of the characters they’d come to see in Joss Whedon’s Avengers team-up, so had you been a betting man, you’d have taken those odds that Captain America would do pretty decent business.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a skinny, sickly weakling trying to gain entry into the US Army during WWII. His friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is your more typical American male, and gains entry without problem. Roger’s plight is recognized by a German expatriate scientist, Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) as being of more moral and ethical fibre than many of the strapping young lads who sign up, and so gives Steve a chance to prove himself. Roger’s is seconded to a top secret scientific experiment by Erskine, under the auspices of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), in which he is given a special serum to transform his body into a super-soldier, with enhanced strength and speed, agility and mental capacity. Once the serum is proven effective, a new army of soldiers is to be created, to take on and defeat not only the Nazi menace, but a newer, darker force, Hydra, led by the evil and calculating Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). The Red Skull is a Nazi weapons developer, who, along with his associate Dr Zola (Toby Jones), is trying to develop a new super-weapon to deploy with his own enhanced forces onto American soil. With Rogers promoting War Bonds back home, the military is beginning to buckle against the forces of Hydra, until Captain America steps up and becomes the super-soldier he was always intended to be, giving his fellow solders a beacon to follow to thwart the forces of Hydra and bring the war to an end.
So what makes a hero? In the case of Steve Rogers, and in a speech so eloquently stated in this film by Stanley Tucci’s Dr Erskine, it’s not about how righteous you are, but rather it’s about how brave you are – and Steve, being the epitome of a weakling devoid of potential for a soldier, fits the bill for the experiment. People who’ve always had power lose sight of why they should be vigilant about becoming arrogant, while those who are given power after never having it (nor expecting it) remember what it’s like to be “the little guy”. This is the moral message to take from Captain America. Always stand up to the bully, and never be afraid to take a beating to do so. Yeah, it’s somewhat cornball stuff, although you’d expect nothing less from Marvel’s preeminent non-super-powered hero, but the way director Joe Johnston has crafted this film, it somehow fits into the tone and workmanlike charm Captain America exudes. Johnston has had a long career in film, carving a niche for himself since working as an effects artist on films as diverse as the original Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, Honey I Shrunk The Kids and The Rocketeer. His debut directing outing was 1995’s Jumanji, followed by October Sky and Jurassic Park III, with his most recent effort, The Wolfman, receiving less-than stellar reviews. Captain America sees a return to form for Johnston, after Wolfman and Hidalgo, with an emphasis on action and cartoon-like cheesiness seeming to mesh well with the highly visual director. The film is filled with action, although it must be said the opening third of the film tends towards the malaise many “origin” films suffer – too much information, too quickly. Johnston’s proven he can do a big, epic ensemble piece, and while the trailers may have indicated this is solely a Steve Rogers-centric picture, it’s not entirely so. It really is a genuine attempt at a full ensemble piece. Captain America does get a little bogged down in the minutia of the story, particularly the origin of key villain Red Skull, and as a result, some character interactions in the film do feel a little thin on the ground. While this may actually work in the film’s favor, I did feel ambivalent to all the characters save three – Tucci’s Dr Erskine, criminally robbed of screen-time, Weaving’s Red Skull, and Evans’ iconic Cap.
The cast is uniformly excellent in their respective roles, with Haley Atwell coming off the worse (not that she’s bad, but by comparison to her fellow screen companions Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Evans and Stanley Tucci, she’s positively out of her league here, and it shows) of the bunch. Atwell’s the romantic interest of the film for Steve Rogers, and while their attraction seems more physical than intellectual, only a tacit effort is made to really bring a sense of realism to their potential as lovers. Tommy Lee Jones chews the scenery as the gruff Army Colonel – a role closer to a Michael Ironside-type character than anything else – and offers only the most marginal effort in building the role. Sebastian Stan is disarming and cheerful in his portrayal of Steve’s best friend Bucky (seriously, Bucky? That’s the worst sidekick name ever!), while Toby Jones is sublimely off-center as the Red Skull’s associate in crime, Dr Zola. I’ve always enjoyed watching Jones work, since his performance as the slimy toady in Ever After, and I’m pleased to say that even though here his role is limited to looks of shock and awe, he’s still magnetic to watch on screen. Keep an eye out for Dominic Cooper, as Howard Stark – yes, you read that correctly – Tony “Iron Man” Starks father. Cooper tries (and mostly succeeds in) channeling Robert Downey Jr’s essaying of Tony Stark for the role of Tony’s father, and I think it actually works well within the narrative of Captain America to have such a smarmy playboy for Rogers to work against. He provides the foil for the Rogers/Carter love triangle.
For me, however, the film really shines whenever either Tucci, Weaving or Evans are on screen. Tucci, who has possibly the worst character in the film, the short-lived Dr Erskine (gasp, did I give something away?), is easily the most natural to watch in this, his effortless skill at conveying sympathy, empathy and concern at Rogers’ wimpy plight and subsequent fatherly tenderness towards his experimental subject is always a pleasure to watch. Hugo Weaving, as Red Skull, seems to be channeling a parody of a spoof of an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger here, at the same time manifesting a symbiosis between V and Agent Smith for his cruel, sneering evilness and desire to dole out punishment. Red Skull is the arch villain Captain America needs – he’s despotic, cruel and wicked, a coward who will flee when his safety is in jeopardy, only turning to fight when cornered – I should note, too, that Red Skull brandishes one of the more horrific visages you’ll see in a comic book film, with his red noggin being the result of one of Dr Erskine’s experiments going horribly wrong in a flashback.
Chris Evans, however, shouldering the second comic book character his career has led him to (he played the Human Torch in the most recent Fantastic Four films) actually brings a weight, a humanity to the role of Steve Rogers, something I think the scriptwriter were keenly aware of. Rogers is a genuine hero, only his body lets him down; when given the chance to grab a new opportunity and become a willing participant in life, you never once get the sense he’s out for revenge or to make others look at him differently. It’s about him, not anyone else, and that’s the key point to his transition from dweeby loser to buff hero: he’s not after glory or recognition, he just wants to make a difference. Evans portrays Steve/Cap with what seems like consummate ease, even with the use of eye-catching CGI giving him the pre-experiment appearance of the “80 pound weakling”. It’s a commendable effort on Evans’ part not to make Cap too overbearing, or even to moderny-angst-ridden, or just a plain old prick.
The story itself, which features the use of flashbacks, flash-forwards and other narrative devices over the course of the film, follows the retconned origin of Captain America pretty closely; at least, as closely as a film can when it comes to dealing with a character who’s been around since 1940. Streamlining the often convoluted history of any comic book character is tough enough – even for the comic books themselves – and it’s a credit to Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script that it works as well as it does. It distills the essence of Captain America and slathers on the comic-booky feel of the world we’re inhabiting for two hours. While the narrative does run the risk of being overshadowed by the knowledge that this is simply a set-up film for the upcoming Avengers movie, it never feels like it once. This is a stand-alone film, able to be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the the character or the comic-book world he exists in, and that’s the true mark of a great comic-book film. The film has a pulpy, action-adventure vibe which seems in keeping with the flashy, action-driven stories of the era – tales of derring-do, whupping Hitler and the Nazi scourge and the brave heroes to defied the odds to win freedom for us all. Hell, I feel like slapping somebody on the back and saluting the flag just thinking about it.
Johnston has crafted a world of two distinct tones. The first, what I term the “real” world, is a crisp, muted brown WWII-era style in which Steve Rogers is not a shield-wielding hero, but an ordinary man. The second tone, the fantastical world of Captain America in action, relies more heavily on green screen backdrops and plenty of digital manipulation. At times, I was struck at just how similar in visual style this film had to Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow, with its use of digital backdrops. You might expect each differing tonality on-screen to work against the other, but it turns out to be just the opposite. Johnston’s successfully melded the two together, crafting a fully realized world in which men stroll down a New York street while Red Skull plans his dastardly vengeance from a Secret Lair somewhere in Switzerland, each one depicted in its own unique way, but remaining visually similar to the other. It’s fascinating to watch. Kudos to cinematographer Shelly Johnson, who fans might know lensed Hidalgo, The Last Castle, and Sky High, among others.
As I mentioned earlier, Johnston’s pretty deft at the widescreen epic ensemble film, and he populated this picture with a great background cast and plenty of explosive action. A key set-piece, in which Cap breaks into a secret Hydra base to rescue the captured Bucky (and many other soldiers) is large in scale and execution, and handled adroitly by Mr Johnston. Knowing how to pace each scene, giving the humor, danger and sense of adventure equal and meaningful screen-time, Johnston keeps all the main story threads engaged with the audience. The opening third of the film, which has to introduce all the requisite players and story points, is a traditional “origin” piece, including what can only be described as the most bravura montage in a film since Team America tore the concept a new ass, and while it does become a little slower in the more intimate moments (the bits with Rogers and Carter often lead to a mental time-out) there’s never too long before another gunshot, punch or explosion draws you right back into it.
From a production standpoint, Captain America is everything you’d expect a major studio film to be. It’s slick, glossy, with state of the art effects – the use of CGI to digitally make Chris Evans appear uberskinny is a little alarming at first, but effective after a few minutes (it’s a little like that moment in Lord Of The Rings where you’re watching to see how they made those hobbits appear so small, only to get to the end of the film realizing that about two minutes in you’d bought the concept anyway!). The score from legendary composer Alan Silvestri, who did the job for Stephen Sommers in The Mummy Returns, as well as almost all of Robert Zemeckis’s films since Romancing The Stone, and a host of others (I mention The Mummy Returns only because it’s one of my top 5 orchestral film scores ever) is decently patriotic, stirring and powerful, although I don’t think it’s ever going to be called one of the greats. I didn’t find myself humming the theme of the film afterwards, a sure sign that the score wasn’t as “iconic” as perhaps Silvestri would have liked. It’s not a bad score, not by any stretch, but it’s not that memorable either. And if the fantastic score from Silvestri is one of the poorer facets of this film, then there’s not much to be worried about, really.
As a comic book fan from way back, I went into this film having a small bit of knowledge of the history behind Captain America, and so I guess that allowed me to fully appreciate the nuances of the film as a whole. Newcomers to the character’s story may well baulk at the overly cheesy nature of a man dressed in the red, white and blue, with the somewhat arrogant appellation of Captain America, but for those new to this character, or to the world of comic book films in general, let me assuage your fears about not “getting it” – Captain America is a great action yarn, a ripping adventure film in the mold of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or any number of John Wayne war films – just without the drawl. Comparisons to Raiders, for example, are warranted only for the fantasy nature of each story, not for the execution (Raiders still stands tall, folks), yet audiences of all persuasions will enjoy, if not outright love, Captain America and all he stands for. Captain America is damn
good great fun.