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In the present day circular object with a blue and red motif is uncovered in the arctic. The story behind this object starts in 1942. The Nazis have a deadly terrorist leader in their midst, the infamous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his H.Y.D.R.A. has stolen a powerful new energy source he intends power some devastating new technology. Meanwhile, the frail and undersized Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) continues to fail to make the medical and he attempts to enlist in the US military. Impressed by his determination and spirit, scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) decides he is the perfect candidate for a revolutionary new experiment that will enhance his inner core as the perfect American soldier…
Well it was going to be third time lucky for Marvel’s most famous piece of World War II propaganda. Captain America has appeared in two previous live action English-speaking incarnations, both of which were damp squibs. In fact, they survive as examples of two problems many producers have when they adapt comic-book characters to live action. The first one appeared as two back-to-back filmed television movies in 1979. I recall watching the first of these as a video rental and being seriously bored. Rather than taking the mythology of a character that had been crafted over several decades, the writers decided on going their own way with the character and it was a mess. It also suffered from a classic no-no in action or fantasy media, the overlong build-up. The second incarnation of our favourite steroid endorsing superhero was in 1990. This film did stick fairly close to the source material, but it made the opposite mistake to the TV film. Unless you are going all Frank Miller, it is wise not to literally translate the primary coloured comic-book to live-action. The film looked like a disastrous unintentionally camp throwback to 1960s “Batman”.
So, with two rather unfortunate test-runs, one for TV and the other as a straight-to-video picture, why on Earth would anyone think it was a good idea to take the good captain to the silver screen? After all, the corny all-American boy created by the military using drugs doesn’t seem to marry up with our post-Bush era cynicism. However, Captain America’s character is far more than this and its eventual emergence from “production hell” is testament to how much filmmakers have believed in the character. He may have begun as Marvel’s poster-boy for the war effort, knocking out Adolph Hitler, but since his 1960s revival a whole new dimension was added to the mythology. The concept of a WW2 superhero resurrected in modern times to go on to be a leader of other superheroes has provided the comics with an amazing amount of potential for global and galaxy-spanning sagas. On his own, the character has greater layers provided by the fact that he is a man out of time. He is still seen as the symbol for American patriotism and hope, but he also has a deep pathos connected to the amount he has lost. Furthermore, the writers of modern Marvel have been able to turn the fighter for the American government to be more the fighter for real American values. He is often put in the underdog position, fighting hypocrisy and checking corruption in high places. For example, the decision to put him as leader on the side against the government enforced Superhero Registration act, immediately established his principles over his supposed national duty.
The 2011 film, “Captain America: The First Avenger” was produced with a wry observation of what works with this character. First up, it makes the excellent decision of setting the story in World War II. There have been modern stories that re-tell Cap’s roots, but for the most part this part of his life is considered so much prologue material. By creating a period piece, Marvel Studios takes our attention from the fact that this picture’s primary function was to serve as a prequel to the mega-superhero crossover picture “The Avengers”.
The film acknowledges the corny propaganda of the past and casts Cap’s role as the real-life embodiment of a war poster boy. He is part of an inspirational campaign to fund the war effort and to encourage American sympathy. However, despite being a success with the general public, Cap meets cynicism and disdain from the embittered troops who are on the frontline. Only a rogue mission behind enemy lines to rescue POWs is going to get Cap the sort of job satisfaction he is after. We then get a comfortable fusion of Captain America the patriot and Captain America the maverick superhero. Chris Evans is an unusual choice for the role. He certainly looks like a Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), but he also fitted the Jonny “The Human Torch” Storm persona too. The decision to cast him seems like Marvel confirming that “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” buried that franchise and no crossovers with at least that incarnation of the super-team are intended.
Villain-wise, again, you would have forgiven Marvel Studios for not going with Red Skull given the silly execution Cap’s arch-nemesis got back in 1990. But, then again, they would have a hard time winning core fans around without having him as Cap’s first choice for main bad guy. The Red Skull is an established super-villain in the world of comic-books, but he is not one of the best developed characters. There have been three incarnations of the character, for example, although the persona chosen for this one has been established in Marvel mythology as the “True Red Skull”. The lack of complexity comes from the fact that he is a Nazi; rarely more than two dimensional character in the action genre. Having said this, Marvel Studios clearly decided to show that this character was more cynical than the fanatical ideologist he has often been depicted as in many of their comic-book stories. His story is combined with the HYDRA terrorist organization, which is an interesting and effective concept. Hugo Weaving knows his way around bad guy roles in fantasy films and he does a reasonable job bringing this character to life. There is an attempt to explain his evil, but essentially he is just a nasty piece of work. The supporting cast is a mixture of old favourites and a few fresh faces. Tommy Lee Jones is the most notable big name in the picture, playing the role of Marvel character Sgt. Chester Phillips. Phillips is an original character in the comics, but is quite distinct from Jones interpretation. In the comic, Phillips is a keen supporter of the experiment that creates Captain America. In this film he is more the jaded war-dog who takes a lot of convincing. Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell, is the sort of character that comic-book fans like me will nod their approval. She is actually fleshed out from her role in the comics as the French Resistance leader who fell in love with Captain America. I recall watching the original Marvel cartoon adaptation of the story where Steve Rogers first finds her niece and recalls his WW2 romance. However, on film I am not sure that casual movie-goers don’t see her as a love interest that can kick butt.
Sebastian Stan’s Bucky – a character I always thought looked like Marvel’s answer to Robin – is also executed in an interesting way. He was depicted as a young sidekick in the comics, but as with Iron Man’s War Machine, Marvel Studios decided to give him a more balanced approach. Here he is Steve Rogers’ best friend and protector, the textbook soldier that Rogers admires. The film deals quite well with how the roles then take on a reversal as Captain America emerges. I quite like their decisions with this character – especially the idea of not turning him into a costumed hero as depicted in the comics - and I am glad his role and fate are in line with the longstanding mythology of Captain America.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” strikes the comfortable balance between good filmmaking and staying loyal to the source material. This includes keeping the general tone of the modern comics. Unlike “Thor”, “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man”, all of which will merge in “The Avengers” this year, the special effects and action sequences are the James Bond side of fantasy, feeling more realistic. The character is probably my least favourite out of the ensemble. Like DC’s Superman, the very essence of the character is this flawless paragon of virtue. I like Spider-Man’s vulnerability and Batman’s psychosis. But, as with Superman, it doesn’t mean I don’t think the story surrounding him isn’t interesting or entertaining. The idea of the physically disadvantaged runt with a courageous heart being given the opportunity to be the ultimate soldier and then being surprised by the reality of the situation explores several interesting narratives. We get both the American superficial ideal narrative – skinny wimp becomes powerhouse – and the loss of innocence.
I cannot imagine why any comic-book fans will be disappointed. The cast is populated by minor and supporting characters found in the comics. It is quite satisfying seeing the rich resources of the character's back-story being used. A common mistake with adaptations that has small tolerance in today's fan-driven industry, is to create pointless new characters when there is a dense tapestry already established. Think "Superman III" and "IV" and the many TV adaptations.
Like the original “Iron Man”, this film was a pleasant surprise and we can only hope that the long awaiting team-up picture is now going to pay off.
I thought this was a better film than the overrated Thor but still not in the same league as, for example, the first Iron Man film. I hope the upcoming Avengers film isn't a disappointment. I have a feeling it will be as I can't see how it can do justice to the number of characters featured, but I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
hogsflesh 26.01.2012 17:44
So they decided not to make Bucky a twelve year-old boy in a blue leotard? Wonder why... I actually remember seeing the TV movie version as a kid and rather enjoying it. But I must have been pretty young.