Marvel is assembling a mighty team. Under the guidance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon, they will be unleashed upon cinema screens the world over in the summer of 2012. Already, key players have been introduced: Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor. The last piece of the puzzle, however, is lost in a snowy wilderness.
Recalling the crashed flying saucer of The Thing, the outline of the object frozen in the ice below is marked out above while a nervous joke is made about weather balloons, but descending into the frozen vessel it is found to be of earthly origin and unexpectedly patriotic, a shield displaying a white star on a background of red, white and blue frozen in place beside its perfectly preserved owner.
While preparing for a summer yet to come, this story begins long ago, in 1942 in Tønsberg, as the besieged Norwegian town is scoured in search of an artefact by agents of Hydra, the deep science division of the Nazi Third Reich. Their leader, Johann Schmidt (The Wolfman’s Hugo Weaving), is dismissive of their distant leader. “What others see as superstition you and I know as science,” he says as he discovers the object of his quest, an ancient power source known as the Tesseract. “And the Führer digs for trinkets in the desert.”
It is not an archaeologist who is the unlikely hero who will stand in the way of Herr Schmidt; in New York City, a beaten but unbowed man attempts to enter the US army for the umpteenth time, and once again is turned down. Scrawny and having succumbed to every childhood illness going, Steve Rogers (Sunshine’s Chris Evans) watches in dismay as his best friend Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes (Black Swan‘s Sebastian Stan) prepares to ship out to England, but first they have a night out on the town in the company of two young lovelies.
A neon-lit vision of tomorrow, the centrepiece of the 1943 Expo of the Future is Howard Stark (The Devil’s Double’s Dominic Cooper) and his floating car. Making a final attempt to enlist, Steve’s plea is overheard by Doctor Abraham Erskine (Margin Call‘s Stanley Tucci) who asks him: “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Steve’s answer is not the expected but it is a truth spoken from experience. “I don’t want to kill Nazis. I don’t like bullies.”
Seeing him as “a weak man who knows the value of strength,” Doctor Abraham argues for Steve to be accepted into his supersoldier programme which will – via a series of false starts, diversions and setbacks – put him on a path face to face with Johann Schmidt behind enemy lines, fighting for the future of the planet.
The First Avenger is unlike anything which Marvel have done before, though director Joe Johnston famously made his name with period recreation in 1991 on perennial favourite The Rocketeer and that infectious spirit of adventure is once again captured as the baddies get a jolly good thrashing.
Scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who have adapted three Chronicles of Narnia, their point is that it is not the procedure which made Steve Rogers into a hero; through his bravery, determination and willingness to lay his life down for others, he was that already, but the path to Captain America is more than just Erskine’s serum and procedure. After being used as a promotional tool to sell war bonds – in the original comic costume – he must convince the US Army of his worth, even if that means disobeying orders.
With the help of Stark and Strategic Scientific Reserve officer Peggy Carter (The Shadow in the North’s Hayley Atwell) Captain America becomes not just a goody-two-shoes caricature, his empowerment far beyond the physical transformation. He does not simply do as he is told; instead, he does the right thing, whatever the circumstances.
Having proved his charisma in Push, his ability to hold a film together in the worst circumstances in two lamentable Fantastic Four films and his actual talent as an actor in Sunshine, Chris Evans has finally come to the role he was made for. Like Chris Hemsworth as Thor, he plays the part without guile, an absolute honesty which he never allows to slip into parody which would undermine the strength and charm of the character.
With the stone architecture of Manchester and Liverpool doubling for classic New York, in contrast the Hydra base and technology reminds of nothing so much as the retro future of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and while some of the compositing is not perfect (the sight of Rogers running through the streets in pursuit of an assassin is actually less convincing than “skinny” Steve of the previous scenes) it is still vastly superior to anything seen in the Star Wars prequels.
The film is not without problems; Captain America penetrates the Hydra base with absurd ease, the second half is rushed, leaving a feeling that it has only just got going when it is over, and as the prelude to something yet to come it never becomes more than an action film when it has the potential to be something more, yet despite this it remains hugely enjoyable and not only bodes well for the imminent future of Marvel but is liable to be one of the high points of the summer.
Captain America: The First Avenger is on general release now