Monday, 25 June 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

In the middle of World War 2, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) feels trapped on the sidelines. Ruled unfit to serve because he cannot pass the physical, Steve refuses to let this setback prevent him from doing his part. Impressed by his determination and humility, a mysterious scientist (Stanley Tucci) offers him an opportunity to finally achieve his dream...

If you had asked me any time before 2011 that I would become a fan of a Captain America movie, I would never have believed you. I could never get around the irony of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed superman fighting against a regime based around idealising blonde-haired, blue-eyed supermen.

This movie is the perfect example of how a film can rise above its flaws to become something special. Because when you take a closer look at The First Avenger, there are some aspects where it drops the ball - the middle act is basically a collection of similar-looking action sequences; the villainous Red Skull is a bit of a cartoon, the third act is rote and completely short-changes itself in order to set up the next Marvel movie. And while it looks great, there is something vaguely televisual about the production that makes it feel like an expensive pilot for a Captain America TV show.

But what saves this movie is what it gets right, and that vital element is the character of Steve Rogers. You can mess up a lot of things in an action movie, but if you get the characters right, and make them people worth investing in, it can be the deciding factor in making a movie worth watching.

Steve Rogers is an ordinary guy who does not like bullies, and tries to stand up whenever he meets them - no matter how many times they knock him down. It would be easy to take a character like this, and try to make a joke out of his earnestness, or ala Man of Steel, try to complicate his motivations to make him 'gritty' and 'dark'. But director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (with some help from an un-credited Joss Whedon) avoid both of these pitfalls, investing time in showing Rogers' determination to overcome any obstacle that stands in his way. 

What is great about Rogers is that his determination is not that of your garden variety action hero. He is never portrayed as a macho individualist, and he is not particularly nationalistic. His desire to enlist is not rooted in patriotism per se, or gung-ho about the military. He is just a good man who knows what it is like to be marginalised, and wants to fight injustice wherever it exists - whether that is a hulking bully at a movie theatre, or Nazis.

By contrast, Steve Rogers is defined by a desire to help other people, but and to be accepted by the rest of the community. There is a sense of egalitarianism to his character that is not usually associated with action heroes. In the training sequence, his split-second decision to jump on a grenade, is not based on self-glorification, but a desire to protect the people around him. It is also the action which convinces the military brass that he is the candidate to test Erksine's serum on.

This leads to my favourite scene in the movie.

Steve's final meeting with Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is the keystone to the character and the movie. Erskine explains the reason why w short asthmatic was chosen over a trained soldier. Because Rogers has never had power, he knows the importance of it and how it is used.

It is the thesis of the movie, and carries through the rest of the movie. When Erskine is fatally injured and taps Steve on the chest, he is basically transferring his belief in Rogers to be a 'good man'. Steve gets to exercise that when he goes AWOL to rescue POWs from a prison camp.

The other noteworthy element of the movie is Steve's relationship with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), which builds well from a rapport based on shared lack of status. Considering how poorly romantic subplots are handled in action movies - see Thor - the focus on a slow-burn attraction was probably a wise choice. Their understated dynamic works well, and gives the film's conclusion more poignancy than it would have (especially considering the final scene).  

        In terms of other highlights, while the second act is a bit rote, it is enlivened considerably by the brilliantly meta 'The Star Spangled Man' musical number. It's basically the origin for the 'Captain America' moniker and his costume, but it never feels shoe-horned. It's also extremely catchy.
          Still on the musical side of things, composer Alan Silvestri deserves all the cred for coming up with a genuinely memorable theme for its title character.
          Captain America: The First Avenger may not be as good as its sequels, but for me it has something those movies strive for, but never quite attain: heart. 

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