Captain America: The First Avenger is an imperfect movie with a perfect hero. Sure, the battle sequences grow monotonous after the first half dozen or so, and the final scene feels more like an advert for The Avengers (2012) than a proper conclusion (I’m not even referring to the post-credit sequence, which consists of an actual trailer for Joss Whedon’s mash-up), but I can’t imagine anyone able to help rooting for brave, earnest, goodhearted Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the man destined to wear a giant A on his forehead without a hint of irony.
It must have seemed a daunting task to adapt a figure so devoid of cynicism in this day and age, even discounting the poor international grosses ensured by his jingoistic moniker. At a time when half of all Americans think the other half is destroying the world (and I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you which half represents the Republicans or the Democrats), the very concept of Captain America seems anachronistic to me. This perhaps explains why Joe Johnston set Captain America: The First Avenger deep in the trenches of an alternate World War II, when the nation’s “greatest generation”, to quote Tom Brokaw, went on to fight a laser-carrying offshoot of the Third Reich.
The nineteen-forties context also allows the director to create a different aesthetic for his film. So far, Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), The Incredible Hulk (2008), and Thor (2011) have all adopted the same Marvel house style to maintain the impression of a shared universe. More reminiscent of Johnston’s second feature The Rocketeer (1991), Captain America: The First Avenger comes off like a breath of fresh air. I love, for example, the stylised splendour of its World Fair, the romantic juxtaposition of post-depression art deco with pulp science fiction elements like a flying car. As a bonus, those familiar with comic book heroes of the time may spot the original Human Torch in the background.
As I mentioned, though, what truly captivated me about Captain America: The First Avenger is the titular character himself, whose good will and courage are tempered only by physical limitations (the digital effects used to shrink Evans’ body prove nothing short of spectacular). Otherwise unable to enlist in the army and serve his nation, Steve volunteers for an experimental super solider program, handpicked by Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who hopes that, unlike the other candidates, “a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion.” Their friendship, the warmth with which the doctor guides our hero, constitutes the most affective part of the movie.
In theory, the notion of a perfect protagonist without a single moral fault ought to put audiences to sleep, but somehow we perceive the human treasure Erskine envisioned. The key lies in a tour de force performance by Chris Evans, who plays Captain America as a full-rounded, self-effacing man struggling to understand his own worth. Even after he gets his powers, Steve finds himself unable to aid in the frontlines, caught in a glorious propaganda machine that helps justify his ridiculous outfit. Nothing comes easy to the guy, you see. We admire Captain America because he too aspires to become a hero. The fact that he succeeds proves incidental.
In fact, Captain America: The First Avenger loses its way the minute Steve gains the recognition he deserves, leaving us with a series of generic action sequences that somehow tell us less about his relationship with love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and life partner Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) even though they’re all working together at this point. It doesn’t help that the climactic battle fails to address any of the personal themes established for the character, paying off only one trait when the villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) asks, “You never give up, do you?” Unfortunately, our hero’s reply turns out so forced and its pertinence so tenuous that it generated a collective groan in the audience.
Compare that exchange with the film’s closing line of dialogue (again, I don’t mean in the post-credit Easter egg). I mentioned at the beginning of the review that the final scene largely comes across as a tacked-on piece of cross-promotion. Indeed, part of me wishes Captain America: The First Avenger had ended on the preceding montage illustrating Steve Roger’s impact on his nation, but then I would’ve missed this last bit of insight into his character. You see, even though the sequence itself belongs to another story, the throwaway comment still engaged me for the simple reason that it pertains to our hero’s unassuming values.