Captain America: The First Avenger is not a superhero film. There, I said it. Oh sure, it’s got a superhero in it, and a supervillain, and a lot of the trappings and furniture of your average cape film. But what we have here is more akin to the legend of America’s most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy.
Like Steve Rogers, Murphy struggled to get enlisted, a puny, underaged dweeb who just wanted to serve. But heart, soul and tenacity succeed where all else failed, and Murphy would eventually go on to fight throughout Europe, winning the Medal of Honour, Legion of merit and the French Legion of Honour along the way. He went on to be a film star, musician and advocate of veteran’s rights – a true American hero whose image was used extensively in the post-war years as a positive national self-image.
Steve Rogers is a lot like Murphy. Fearless, determined to serve, always conscious of the need to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming evil. He gets the superserum and (eventually) the suit, but he gets them because of who he is on the inside. It’s a fairly typical wish-fulfillment strategy, based on the old saw that you can get what you want as long as you want it badly enough, but it works in this context. In a way, he has Murphy’s career backwards. Captain America is a propaganda asset long before he gets a chance to fight.
To reiterate, I look on Captan America as a pulpy war movie with SF trimmings rather than your bog-standard superhero joint. Director Joe Johnston understands this kind of material well. He helmed “The Rocketeer”, after all, still one of my favourite movies. He brings the same design flair and sense of fun to Captain America. It’s a good looking film, with a good-looking cast that understands the light touch required to make period SF work. Chris Evans fills the uniform out nicely, Hayley Atwell shines as the kind of glamourous Girl Friday that Cap would come to depend on in the 60’s, Tommy Lee Jones is a delight as the gruff-but-fair colonel in charge of the missions. Hugo Weaving was really the only choice as the Red Skull. Even under a thickness of makeup that would make Julia Roberts blanch, his villain skills shine through.
It’s a shame then, that even though Johnston has said in interviews that Captain America would be the stand-alone piece in the jigsaw of Marvel films that will piece together to form next year’s Avengers movie, the ending hauls it into line. Up to that point, the film had stood on it’s own two feet. You didn’t need to know who Howard Stark would sire, or where the cube came from that gave the Skull’s infernal devices their power. They were Easter eggs for the fans, but didn’t spoil the flow. The last five minutes, in which Steve is brought brutally up to date, are clangingly out of place with the tone and feel of the rest of the film. It was the kind of scene that would have been better suited to a post-credit vignette. It’s a real shame, because up to then I had really enjoyed the ride.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s pretty, funny and sharp. Good, pulpy fun with enough to keep both the fans and the non-comic reader happy. The ending aside, it’s a great summer movie.