The Man With No Namor
Captain America: The First Avenger 2011 USA
Directed by Joe Johnston
Screening at UK cinemas
Warning: Star spangled spoilers are slight but they are being played.
“When Captain America throws his mighty shield... all those that dare to oppose his shield must yield.”
Woah! I really am just not sure where to start on this movie review. On the one hand it’s a brilliant looking movie, more than competently handled with some really nice “tips-of-the-hat” to the long history of this character... which I’m not a huge fan of, I hasten to add, although I do have all the old seventies issues of The Invaders, so I’m a little familiar with the character (or would be if I could remember much about them now in the 15 or more years since I last read them). On the other hand... this film didn’t keep me entertained much and I did feel things were dragging towards what turned out to be an unsatisfying denouement when they should have been cracking along at the fun pace of a 1940s republic serial.
Mind you, having said that, I’ve seen the Republic serial of Captain America from 1944 and I have to say this movie is certainly a lot better than that... and yes, I love old movie serials but that particular title is one of the worst I’ve seen.
Okay... where to begin on this one then.
The first half an hour to three quarters of an hour is tremendous. It doesn’t suffer from one of my long-standing complaints about superhero movies, that of not being set in period, and evokes a lovely this-is-us-now-looking-back sense of atmosphere which subtly permeates the proceedings until... well until things go a bit pear shaped in the second half of the movie. The pacing on these sequences is fantastic and the puny, Steve Rogers’ character is well spelled out, although the Bucky Barnes character is just so not Bucky Barnes it’s untrue. What happened to the teen/kid sidekick who was pretty much based on Batman's Robin?
There are loads of nice references for fans of the comics, which actually did not start off in the hands of Marvel Comics when first released in 1941... in fact Marvel as we know it today didn’t revive Captain America until an early issue of The Avengers in the 60s, following on from their revival of Namor (The Sub Mariner) in an early issue of Fantastic Four after Stan Lee bought the characters (did he buy them or did the rights get inherited by Marvel via Timely).
Now I missed the sly reference to the original Human Torch in this movie (damn, can I wait until the DVD to spot it or shall I go see it in 3D again... nah, I think I’ll pass) but I was quite annoyed by the absence of the aforementioned Sub Mariner, especially since this movie is done in the right period. I guess you could say these characters formed The Invaders with Cap and Bucky during one of the battle montages in the movie but you’d be hard pushed to do it... although saying that, there’s a reference to The Invaders character Union Jack in the movie. Like Bucky Barnes, this character is never seen in costume and so I didn’t catch the reference myself (you can tell I’ve been doing a modicum of research for this one, can’t you?) but there are so many other distractions that there’s a point when the hodge podge of little fanboy quirks begin to grate. Especially when they contradict things quite badly. Why the heck have we got the characters that made up the team from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes in it... if NIck Fury isn’t leading them himself. Yeah that’s right... Nick Fury fought in World War Two... so put it in the movie and have him frozen alongside the main character perhaps? Do you think?
I think I’ve just covered most of the negative references in this movie.
The positive ones are... well for starters, the inclusion, in a big way, of Howard Stark (yeah, Iron Man’s dad) although this does give rise to a continuity error... how come he’s got Cap’s shield in Iron Man 2 which is, you know, the only one of it’s kind made with a special metal, if Roger’s gets frozen and goes into suspended animation with it at the end of the movie. That question needs to be answered please people!
Another great thing about this movie is that, despite all the pre-publicity for the film, we do actually get to see Captain America in his proper, original costume from the 40s with his big, floppy wing ears, his red, turn up boots and his old-style pointy shield. That’s a great rush (even though it’s played for laughs) and to top it off the writers even found a way to include a little tribute to the famous cover of the first issue of Captain America, the one where he’s seen socking Hitler on the jaw, as part of... well okay, I don’t want to give too much away... but they even manage to include facsimilies of that comic in the movie itself... however, footage of a fictional Captan America movie did not match any footage from the 1944 serial... actually this movie footage looks like everything that movie serial needed to be, to be honest with you. Although I’ve got a nagging feeling in my head that I should go and watch that serial again now.
Lots of great things then, but this movie really falls flat a little before all those sequences... character development almost dissappears once Steve Rogers takes his super-serum but there are still enough “little moments” to hold your interest, even if the pacing isn’t as "singing along" as it was before. Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely excellent in it, bringing his comedy timing which we know him for from movies like Men In Black... and Chris Evans is, well, absolutely perfect. It’s a shame they didn’t have the original Human Torch in this movie with him... he could have played both roles since he did such a good job with the silver age version of the character in the Fantastic Four movies. It’s also a shame since the one thing it tells me loud and clear is... The Vision won’t be in The Avengers movie next summer (The Vision was an android member of the team haunted by amnesia of not knowing who he was and why he was created... years later it was revealed that he was a revived version of the original Human Torch... well actually it got a bit more complicated than that but that's the essence of it).
Actually that’s a major gripe with this movie for me. We’re rushing towards a movie version of The Avengers and this means they have to get Captain America frozen in time and then thawed out in time for next summer’s event movie... they even begin the process at the opening of this movie (as opposed to surprising non-comics readers at the end). This is a great shame because, frankly, I would have liked to have seen another Captain America movie (or two) set back in the 40s and this time have The Invaders join in. That would be cool.
The other gripes I had with this film were the fact that the good Captain is not going up against the Nazis but Hydra... and this production does everything it can to make it very clear that these bad guys are not Nazis... different logos, different salutes and, the thing which really kills this move for me, the introduction of disintegrating ray guns which takes things firmly out of the World War 2 feel and into B-movie science fiction... nothing wrong with B-movie science fiction, it’s just that they’d done such a good job on the film up until these things came along and ruined it.
So that and, yeah, the pacing felt off in the second half of the film. The climactic fight scene was something I was expecting to build to and be spectacular... then I’d realised we’d just had it... it was nowhere near as good as the stuff we’d seen in the battle montages and this really felt like a big anticlimax to the movie... in much the same way that Optimus Prime in Transformers 2 rose up from the dead and... gave the other robot a few punches and finished him, The End.
What more can I say about this movie. I’m really conflicted because it is really well made, other than on these points... and I would love to see a proper direct sequel... set in period. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to get that as The Avengers is obviously something that the studios are expecting to make more-money-than-humanly-possible with. I wish them luck and I’ll be first in line... but I just wish Captain America, a character who is not even one of my favourites, could have been treated with a little more thoughtfulness in regards to his context in the rest of the Marvel Universe on screen. As it is, I think this movie ranks six or seventh in my top ten list of successful Marvel adaptations... but please don’t let that put you off going to see it. I think it’s very successful on an artistic level and, while I prefer Johnstons own The Rocketeer as a good period movie (stymied from being a good adaptation by copyright issues, I guess), this is certainly a movie where that World War Two atmosphere of patriotism is done right. So it’s definitely worth a look and, for once, the 3D on this movie really isn’t bad.