Part 5 of A List to Marvel At
In a climate where every hero has to be on some level bitter, altruism is really hard to do and convey well, to the point that many movies seem to avoid it. Even in new Superman movies the character spends all his time in his movies being deconstructed to the point that all the altruism of the character seems to vanish. With his absence enters Captain America: The First Avenger, with what in my opinion is its universe’s best character.
There’s a lot of talk of Captain America being a replacement “Superman”, but I also think that label is made because, with Chris Evans as Captain America, there has not been as great an embodiment of the superhero ideal since Christopher Reeve. From his willingness to put himself in harms way for the sake of others (like jumping on a grenade), to his comic ingenuity (the flag scene that came prior) to his relationships with Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes, the human side is shown before the super side, in order to show they are one in the same thing. Haley Atwell and Chris Evans have great chemistry, to the point where the physical attractiveness that obviously affects there relationship doesn’t take precedent over there respect for each other’s work and moral candour. The way Captain America gets his name in this movie, an embrace of his starts as a figure for propaganda, is at once parodic and entirely sincere. And that is a good metaphor of the film itself.
What the Marvel movies seem to understand is that a “superhero” movie has to also be attached to another genre. Here it’s pulp-historical drama, and with The Rocketeer‘s Joe Jonston they got a great guy to do the job. On one side you have the WWII detail of location and clothing, but then you have both the more digital elements of both the production itself (like how they CGI’d Chris Evans head onto a smaller body) and enemy weapons that are not steam-punk but straight on sci-fi. It ends up a strange mix of period setting and futurist technology, teetering perilously close to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow territory, but here it just seems to work.
The film is also very classically structured as well, particularly in the first half with references to propaganda films and A Matter of Life and Death, and the 40’s serialised swashbuckling adventures that Raiders of the Lost Ark also cribs from. This movie might not be as strong as that Spielberg classic, but the movie reaches a similar tone. This movie can get surprisingly violent at points, with blood squibs to go around and a man getting shredded in propeller blades. (another Indiana Jones reference). That tone is also helped by Alan Silvestri’s music; one of Marvel’s flaws can be the circulation of composers not giving memorable scores, but that certainly isn’t the case here, with the main theme blending in war drama fanfare and uplifting superhero anthem seamlessly.
Where it is no Indiana Jones is in the tightness of its storytelling. It falls into a problem with many superhero movies where the first half is the origin, and the second half has no idea what to do with that (Batman Begins also does this). This movie is at least moving towards a goal as hinted in its intro, but its means of getting there can be both rushed and dragged out in parts. Captain America gets his strength and is immediately able to use it, and at one stage becomes a straight up general when before he had been outcasted. And that outcasting is based on the decisions of the Tommy Lee Jones character who has no real reason not to use him, seeming to only raise drama. At one point, that same character eats a steak while interrogating Dr Zola for information that we already know.
These are all small things, but they start to add up towards the second half, especially after a movie highlight of Captain America and crew taking out the enemies bases. This makes some character deaths near the end lack pathos. It also means that the final scenes with Red Skull are pretty damn anti-climatic, which is a shame because Hugo Weaving plays Red Skull with devillish glee, and along with a sideplot surrounded around Stanley Tucci’s character makes parallels between Superheroes/villains and Nazi ubermensch that doesn’t get to be fully explored. And although that final scene makes him able to return to future movies, it still doesn’t stop it being weak (though its redeemed with Peggy and Steve’s last conversation).
I’m willing to concede some of the flaws of Captain America: The First Avenger, but its successes are remarkable, and the sheer likability of both the movie and its central character win out. I give Iron Man and Captain America the same level of technical accomplishments and faults, but I enjoy Captain America’s personality and ideology more (what I’m saying is: CIVIL WAR!). Those ideologies would certainly clash as the pieces of this puzzle were finally put together, and the grand Marvel Universe building look set to pay off…