Marvel Studios’ master plan is going well. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Thor have each made the jump from page to screen, their adventures paving the way for ‘The Avengers’. All that remains is Captain America, the last to be adapted before the characters can be assembled next summer.
It is World War II, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is deemed too small and too weak to join the Army. He keeps trying, and eventually he finds himself in an experiment to create super soldiers. Meanwhile, Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) steps out of Hitler’s shadow with his own plans for world domination.
Captain America was conceived as an unapologetically American symbol, designed to boost wartime morale. After the war, the character faded into obscurity, aside from a poorly planned revival labelled ‘Captain America: Commie Smasher’. To most people he seems like a relic, a dated caricature of overzealous patriotism. Turning him into a proper character, relevant to today’s audience, was always going to be an immense challenge, especially when America’s popularity seems to be in constant debate.
Thankfully, the film takes inspiration from the more sensible Captain America stories, the ones that focus on the man rather than the mask. Like any superhero origins story, this is indeed a ‘zero to hero’ tale, but the film is far more interested in the ‘zero’, leaving it to the inevitable sequel to focus on the capes and the colours.
As it was with Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’, the protagonist spends most of the film not in costume. Viewers are given time to get to know the weakling Steve Rogers as he goes up against bigger, stronger men and proves his dedication to the values of courage and selflessness. This approach ensures that he always seems like the“brave little guy”, regardless of how he later looks.
By taking its time with the character development, the film demonstrates that it is more about ideals than it is about America, which makes the character more universally appealing. The title of ‘Captain America’ is more of a formality than an accurate description. In fact, a solid segment of the film is devoted to ridiculing and dismissing the character’s flag-waving origins.
Chris Evans does a great job as Steve Rogers. His performance is consistently understated; despite the increased muscles and colourful clothes, it is always ‘skinny Steve’ that the audience sees. A special mention goes to the special effects team, who have done remarkably well in making the physically beefed-up actor look convincingly small and weak.
Hugo Weaving is just as watchable in his role. The Red Skull is the most interesting villain in the Marvel films so far. His obsession with the creation of ‘the superior man’ makes him a creepy echo of Hitler. Weaving’s performance is a mix of German Agent Smith and Bond villain, which works very well.
‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ is a very solid piece of entertainment. There is a good balance of drama and cheese, of action and humour. The 1940s setting is convincing and there is an old school, Indiana Jones vibe to it. It succeeds as another adaptation of comic-book property, fitting in perfectly with its companions. After this, and the post-credits tease, ‘The Avengers’ cannot come soon enough.