I was born and raised in the Middle East; The United Arab Emirates to be specific. Contrary to popular belief, I was brought up in an environment that allowed me access to almost anything I wanted. Comic books, specifically American comic books, were one of the few things I didn’t get. Yes, I had access to Tintin (which I adore) and a bunch of kiddie stuff but when it came to superheroes, my knowledge was limited to the Holy Trinity – Superman, Batman and Spiderman. It’s only after I began fueling my obsession with movies circa 1998 that I started flirting with the medium. Prior to the onslaught of superhero movies in the early 2000s, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Wolverine and Sabre Tooth or Iron Man and Magneto. Today, I could tell them all apart without breaking a sweat, thanks to the movies and Wikipedia, but I still wouldn’t dare label myself a comic book fan.
In the end, it was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Unlike many fans who’ve spend years, sometimes decades, feverishly anticipating these movies only to have their childhood heroes savagely sodomized by Hollywood suits, I watch these movies as plain cinematic diversions. And let’s face it, barring Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and a handful of others, they are. This summer alone has brought us four super-sized superhero blockbusters. X-Men: First Classexemplified the very best the genre has to offer while Green Lanternepitomized everything that’s stale about it. As for Thor – I think Marvel did the best they could for what I think is a bloody boring character. No studio would have ever green lit that film if it didn’t fit in as a prequel to The Avengers. Captain America is a bit of a different story however.
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the early 1940s, the flag-waving character was created during the height of World War 2 as a propaganda-styled patriotic hero who fought against the Nazis. While it was all fine and dandy back then, on paper, nothing should work about this character in modern times. He’s a glorified Uncle Tom who isn’t relevant in today’s cynical world; He doesn’t have a personality other than his love for America; And he’s not interesting like Tony Stark or the Hulk. For Christssakes, he’s called ‘Captain America.’ How do you take a character like that seriously?
But surprisingly, director Joe Johnston and his team somehow pull it off. Set in the 1940s, Captain America plays like a rousing throwback to cheesy Saturday morning TV serials of the 50s and stuff like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, two of the finest action-adventure movies ever made. With a series of terrifically-staged action set-pieces (one for each of the elements), fabulous production design and a nostalgic vibe, the film is more like Raiders of the Lost Ark on steroids than a Marvel studios superhero movie. While it’s nowhere close to Indiana Jones’ first adventure, the setting and the light breezy tone make them tonal companions. I bet I won’t be the only one making that connection as Captain America is loaded with references to Spielberg’s film – from a couple of the props used in a pair of action sequences to a cheeky reference to Hitler’s obsession with finding trinkets in the desert. Maybe it has something to do with Johnston being a part of the Oscar-winning visual effects team of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or maybe it was his work on the underrated The Rocketeer that got him the gig. Either way, his decision to straddle the line between flag-waving patriotic piece and total camp territory works. He even manages to include a cheesetastic musical number (composed by none other than Alan Menken) that’s played over a colorful war bonds-generating montage.
One of the principal reasons why Captain America works better than most of the other Marvel Studios film to date (apart from Iron Man) is the casting. Chris Evans, who has donned superhero tights before as one of the Fantastic Four may not have been the most obvious choice to play the Captain since his strength lies in playing smartass jokesters (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Losers and the aforementioned Fantastic Four) rather than straight arrow types but his sincere and earnest performance as the eponymous Cap works really well in the context of the film. I can already picture him clashing with and being ridiculed as an honest Abe by the head-strong Thor and the womanizing Tony Stark in next summer’s The Avengers.
When we first meet the Captain, he’s Steve Rogers, a patriotic 90-pound weakling (created through some genuinely impressive visual effects) who’s been rejected by the army five times because of his history with diseases and frail figure. Frail as he is, Rogers is possessed with a fearless “never say die” attitude that few men his or any age possess. It’s this fiery courage that attracts the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, hamming it up to 11), a German immigrant scientist, who along with officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), recruit Rogers to the Strategic Scientific Reserve (later S.H.I.E.L.D.) as they believe he’s the perfect candidate for the army’s top secret super soldier program – to the chagrin of curmudgeon Col. Chester Phillips (a wonderful Tommy Lee Jones).
Thanks to the technology pioneered by Dr. Erskine and playboy industrialist Howard Stark (Tony’s dad – played to perfection by Dominic Cooper and illustrating where Tony gets his persona from), Rogers is transformed into a beefed up superman. But when a spy for HYDRA, the Nazis’ extreme science division, run by the evil Johann Schmidt a.k.a. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, gleefully dialing up the camp) infiltrates the experiment room and causes irreparable damage to the program, we’re treated with the first of the movie’s set-pieces – a thrilling sequence that find Rogers chasing down the HYDRA spy via foot, car and finally, in the ocean!
Stuck with parading as a war bonds-generator since the super serum has been destroyed, Rogers takes it upon himself to save the day when he learns that his childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been trapped behind enemy lines. By single-handedly rescuing a company’s worth of soldiers, Col. Phillips gives Rogers the mission to gather up his own personal team (the Howling Commandoes) in a mission to rid the world of Red Skull and his HYDRA cult. One of the best things about Captain America is how seamlessly Johnston and team manage to set up the character for next summer’s The Avengers. Unlike Iron Man 2and Thor, no element of the story is sacrificed.
If I had issues with the film, they were far and between. I would have liked to see more focus on the Howling commandoes (played by Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi and JJ Field) who are a fun bunch (they apparently have a bigger role in the comic books). His friendship with Bucky Barnes isn’t as developed either. I also would have liked to have seen more of Rogers family life. We know he’s a patriotic guy and has a best friend in Bucky Barnes but some family dynamics would have worked well. I’m guessing this aspect will be explored more in The Avengers and sequels down the line. Finally, the budding love story between Cap and Peggy isn’t really explored even if it ends on a rather sweet note.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a rousing and robust summer blockbuster that plays up the retro vibes to eleven. Perfectly straddling the line between camp and nostalgia, it’s brimmed with fun action sequences and is steered by a strong performance from Chris Evans. In the field of this year’s superhero movies, it stands slightly below X-Men: First Classbut over Thor and Green Lantern. When it comes to the Marvel movies, I’d rank it below the original Iron Man as the second best film in the Marvel pantheon.
3D: Skip the 3D, it’s not worth it. There are barely any projectiles flying towards the screen and the the depth of field amplified by 3D barely registers. This is good-old fashioned blockbuster that needs to be seen in 2D. Besides, 3-D never works well for movies set in the past.