In a summer brimming with nostalgic offerings, spanning the gamut from the toy-fueled bombast that is Transformers: Dark of the Moon to originals like the Spielberg tribute Super 8, Captain America: The First Avenger is still able to make a distinguishing mark in the cinema landscape. I think this is because rather than dwell on the nostalgia of our childhoods like Transformers, it shares the outlook of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, romanticizing a time period that ended before we began (I imagine this is true for 98% of the audience anyway, except for the octogenarians).
World War II is probably one of the most romanticized eras in American history, and since the roots of Captain America are in that time period, setting the film during the ‘last great war’ was a smart one. Director Joe Johnston, likewise, was a perfect choice for the material, as he came into his own in the Spielberg school of effects-heavy adventure films, like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jurassic Park III, but the best comparison is his supremely underrated The Rocketeer, a pulpy comic book film which was also a WWII-era period piece.
Setting the film as a period piece allows the audience to accept that a character like Captain America could exist. Not so much the science fictional origins of his super strength, but the unbridled patriotism the character wraps himself in. I doubt many people would take the character seriously if he had decided to do this present day. The film also provides a nice comment on the origins of the name and costume, which include a lavish USO-style show, complete with music emulating that of the period. Consequently, this film feels more like a comic book than any superhero film. The costumes are over-the-top, and the sets are lavish and bright, and there’s even a meta-reference to the character becoming a comic.
However, the film will not be known for it’s amazing action sequences. Not that they aren’t good, but they end up being fairly middle-of-the-road, not displaying the visual wow factor or cleverness to be particularly memorable. This is good in that it’s easy to imagine a guy running around with little more than a shield being extremely silly or boring, but it manages to be neither, and the shield throwing is one of the better aspects of the action.
What separates this film from the rest of the superhero fare this year are the performances. While I thought everyone in Thor and the principles from X-Men: First Class did fine work, Johnston really gets the most out of his cast. I’ve been a fan of Chris Evans (I particularly enjoyed him in the sublime Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but he brings a performance to Steve Rogers that I’ve never seen in him before. He tends to play to the brash, cocky type, and Rogers is the opposite. Evans is able to bring a remarkable sincerity to the character, and I think that helps to carry the whole movie. Hayley Atwell is dynamic as officer Peggy Carter, and her romance with Evans’ Captain America brings a strong romantic subplot to the film, and one that feels natural, and not a lifeless addition added by the studio (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).
The supporting cast is fantastic likewise. Hugo Weaving pretty much does his thing as the villainous Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, and what more do you need? Dominic Cooper works well as Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father, and I enjoyed his portrayal as a Howard Hughes-esque figure, with women and machines being his two great passions. Stanley Tucci has a pretty convincing accent as the defected German scientist Dr. Erskine, and has some particularly touching scenes with Evans. While Tommy Lee Jones described his character as the archetypical commander you see in many war films, he gives his best performance of the past few years.
Captain America spends a lot more time with Steve Rogers pre-super solider than I would have expected, but it really helps make the character more believable. By getting to know Steve Rogers as the scrawny kid who stands up to bullies and wants to fight for his county, the audience is completely endeared to him prior to his transformation, which carries through the rest of the film.
Being the fifth film in the Avengers franchise, Captain America benefits from being able to nod to the established universe without having to waste time with exposition not directly related to the film. We see Iron Man’s dad, the World Tree and other references from Thor, and of course the end of the movie involves a certain character who criss-crosses all five of these films. Captain America already feels integrated into the whole universe, and it should, being the final film before they all come together.
As such, the film’s ending is a direct set-up to next summer’s The Avengers, and it is kind of a shame, because it makes the climax feel rushed and more forced than if they were able to leave it open-ended. The post-credits scene is actually a trailer for Avengers, and seeing that has already made the Joss Whedon directed crossover jump to the top of my most anticipated blockbusters of next year!