Rapt in the Flag
History is like spicy food: you always notice when it starts repeating on you. One of the very last films I saw in the summer of 2001 before starting to write for the Post was Jurassic Park III , directed by Joe Johnston. Now I went to see that with rock-bottom expectations - it was a one-trick series, and the first sequel had seemed extremely tired and mechanical. To be perfectly honest, I only went to watch the tyrannosaurus fight the spinosaurus (yes, that's how nerdy I can be).
And yet, I really enjoyed it, and it even made it into the Lassie Awards for 2001 as Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Johnstone's focus on characters, atmosphere, and humour really made the film work much better than it had any right to on paper. As I mentioned, history appears to be repeating itself as I could say practically the same thing about his new movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (possibly trading only as The First Avenger , depending on which country you live in and their geopolitical affiliations).
You might well consider this movie a candidate for our Oh God, Not Another One department as it is the third Marvel super hero movie of the year (to say nothing of those derived from the comics of other companies). I have to confess I had grave reservations about the project, simply because Captain America is a fiercely dull character. It seems to me that his having to serve as the patriotic embodiment of their nation means that writers simply can't give Cap any kind of personality worth mentioning. That's not to say that interesting stories haven't occasionally been told using the character, but they haven't really been about him.
Captain America is, as you'd expect, a tremendously polished and technically sophisticated movie, but its greatest achievement is in making the title character someone you can actually believe in and even care about (a bit, at least). Chris Evans (note to British readers: no, not him – the other one) plays Steve Rogers, a young man desperate to do his bit for the USA at the height of the Second World War. Alas, he is a scrawny little shorthouse with a long list of medical problems and the army will not take him.
Luckily he is offered the chance to serve by a passing boffin (Stanley Tucci), who shoots him full of – er – blue stuff and then attaches him to the local power grid. As luck, and the magic of dubious 1940s superhero origins, would have it, this transforms Steve into a physically perfect adonis! The army brass breathe a sigh of relief (as do the special effects department, as they no longer have to keep digitally transforming Evans into a wimp). But tragedy strikes as a passing Nazi agent guns down Tucci's character, who rather thoughtlessly has neglected to write down the recipe for the blue stuff anywhere. It seems that Steve will be unique as far as American super-soldiers go...
...but not quite unique worldwide. It turns out that a previous test subject of Tucci's is still on the scene. He is the Red Skull (played, as only he can, by Hugo Weaving) and he appears to be in a permanent strop (possibly having no nose or hair and serious complexion issues will do this to a fellow). The Skull has parted company with the Nazis as they are just too moderate and embarked upon his own plan for global conquest. To this end he has got his hands on an ancient occult relic (to be fair, the movie acknowledges what a cliche this has become) and is all set to unleash his nefarious schemes...
Whatever success Captain America achieves – and to my mind it is a considerable amount – all derives from the opening section of the film, which takes its time to establish the characters, the plot, and the tone with great care. This makes for a slightly slow start, but still an involving and enjoyable one. The cast is unusually strong throughout – apart from the people I've mentioned, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper and Neal McDonough all make an impression – and the script neatly plays with various concepts of Captain America as a character. Originally created as a morale-boosting wartime icon, he literally becomes that here for a while, before transforming into a much grittier figure clearly based on the Ultimates version created by Mark Millar (Millar is thanked in the credits). For its first half, the movie is always just a little bit wittier, smarter, darker, more knowing, and more affecting than you really expect it to be, and constantly rewarding as a result. (I was a little baffled by Stan Lee's cameo, obligatory though it is: this isn't a character he originated!)
That said, the rest of the film does see it settle down to become not much more than an effects-intensive action picture: a fairly successful one, but not much more than that. And the conclusion is... well, odd. You can almost sense the writers scratching their heads about which point they should end the story at, and I'm not sure they made the right decision, to be perfectly honest. I'm not saying it's a total failure, but the very last beat of the movie before the closing credits fell rather flat for me.
All of this is, of course, down to Captain America 's status as the latest Marvel Studios picture and the last one before the release of The Avengers next summer. Despite its period setting, this film has quite a few little nods to others in the series – Dominic Cooper is playing Tony Stark's dad, which may explain why Robert Downey Jr had a version of Cap's shield in his lab in the last Iron Man , while anyone who saw Thor will have a good idea of where the central plot Maguffin originated from – and elsewhere. (I particularly enjoyed the fleeting appearance of the original Human Torch, which may well be a reference to Chris Evans' own history playing a different version of that character.) That said, only at the very end did I get a sense of pieces being carefully shuffled around, and this film is quite capable of standing on its own merits.
For me, the Marvel Studios films, while uniformly slick and entertaining, haven't quite hit the same heights as some of the Marvel movies made by different companies (and here I'm thinking mainly of the X-Men and Spider-Man films). I'd hesitate to say Captain America was the best one yet, but for me it was certainly more satisfying than Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk , and quite possibly edged it past Thor as well. It's also one of the most satisfying popcorn movies I've seen this year: full of good-natured fun and interesting characters, and with a near-total absence of weary jingoism and moralising, this may not be the greatest superhero movie ever, but it's possibly one of the best interpretations of Captain America in any medium. Highly enjoyable.