As the last stop for Marvel’s film division on the road to The Avengers, Captain America : The First Avenger exists both as an archetypical origin story for an inevitable standalone franchise, but also (much like Thor earlier this year and Iron Man 2 last summer) as a prequel of sorts, continuing to lay the expositional foundations for Joss Whedon’s superhero-supergroup showdown, arriving in May next year. With Marvel determined to create a homogenised modern ‘Universe’ in which all of their properties can co-exist, to the extent that they’re already re-imagining a story last told less than a decade ago (the trailer for next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man suggesting little more than a change of cast and a more naturalistic colour grade), the cross-narrative franchising potential now appears to be limitless.
With the rest of the Marvel superheroes already re-booted into a modern alternative reality, the biggest challenge remaining lay with transporting one of their earliest and most superficially dated prospects into said universe. With a deleted scene from The Incredible Hulk (2008) purporting to show Captain America frozen in the Arctic Circle, along with his featuring heavily in promotional material for The Avengers, it’s been clear for some time how he’d make his journey to the present day, something the opening moments of Captain America confirm. After spending just over two hours with the original Avenger on his own turf however, a WW2 retro-styled homage to Saturday morning adventure-serials, told in flashback with more than a whisper of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) about it, one not only wonders whether Joss Whedon really is the director most capable of delivering the goods for Marvel’s most precious genre mix-tape commodity, but also how much of a mistake it may well prove to catapult Steve Rogers seventy years into the future for his continuing adventures.
Even for someone such as myself with little investment in the micro-dynamics of Marvel’s convoluted narrative histories, it’s clear early into Captain America that director Joe Johnston has knocked this one out of the park, delivering the most assured and enjoyable slice of pulp fiction yet to emerge from the studio. Much as Johnston crafted a superior sequel to Spielberg’s original with Jurassic Park III (2001) than the man himself did with The Lost World (1997), he’s now given us stylistically everything we were hoping for from the fourth Indiana Jones picture. Having previously directed an episode of an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as well as the television movie The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones : Spring Break Adventure (1999) - better than it sounds, honestly – based on what’s on offer here, he’d be the perfect director to take over from Spielberg once again for Indy’s fifth outing, finally fulfilling the promise of his fantastic early hit The Rocketeer (1991), a strong flavour of which runs through Captain America.
Whilst hardly deviating from the archetypical formula of the comic book origin story, Captain America succeeds to a greater degree than its peers in its careful attention to detail, whether in the rendering through script and performance of each and every character on screen or via its knowingly playful take on period style and iconography, Johnston ensures that we care about even the most minor player whilst delivering a directorial style full of heightened period flourishes. Hugo Weaving’s evil Nazi Johann Schmidt (stealing every frame he’s in), having his portrait painted amidst the shadows of his lair to the deafening strains of Wagner plays with elements of German expressionism whilst the recurrent montage sequences bring to mind 40s newsreels, even a stage show fronted by Captain America to sell war bonds resurrects the famous first comic book cover where he’s seen punching Hitler. Marvel’s earlier summer outing, Thor, may have been intermittently successful, but its tonal imbalance led to a picture very much of two halves, with Kenneth Branagh having little handle on the story’s more spectacular elements and only the rather goofy fish-out-of-water scenario really clicking. There’s no such problem for Johnston,under whose guidance the cast have little trouble finding the perfect balance of tone for the material. There’s certainly a high degree of camp from the fetishistically dressed Nazi villains (Weaving rolling his tongue around every over-articulated syllable with Herzogian relish), but also an applaudable lack of sentiment, almost entirely to the credit of Stanley Tucci’s brilliantly played father-figure-cum-mentor Dr. Abraham Erskine.
It’s a film that’s not afraid to let its story build as gradually as its character beats, and whilst still heavy on the CGI, it’s a rare example of a summer blockbuster (much like Super 8) that develops a genuine story arc rather than relying on a series of set-pieces strung together with little regard for narrative cohesion. It also helps that Chris Evans inhabits the titular role quite so well, the picture working because of him rather than in spite of, with the seamless CGI work that transforms him into the skinny wannabe of the first act quite simply astonishing.
There’s plenty here for the most detail-hungry Marvel aficionado to get excited about, from the introduction of the Howlin’ Commandos and Howard Stark, through to the central McGuffin of the powerful Kiss Me Deadly style glowy blue box thing that seems to tie all the films together (I’m sure it probably has a name…), and a pre-credits appearance from Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury appears to lead us straight into The Avengers. I’m still eager to see what Joss Whedon does with his film next summer, Marvel themselves certainly seem to be confident about it, but right now I’m just hoping that Joe Johnston gets given more retro-flavoured opportunities just like this, because with Captain America he’s delivered the best bubblegum-flavoured slice of comic book fun this side of Batman. I just hope they find a way to get this hero back to the 1940s where he belongs as quickly as possible.
Captain America : The First Avenger – 2011 – USA – 125 mins – Dir : Joe Johnston