Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The question on the lips of every major studio executive with decision-making power over the projects that may be slated for release as a “summer blockbuster” is: what makes a good summer blockbuster? I guess, if you could put the magic formula in a bottle, those executives would batter down your door with wads of money to buy the bottle. It’s one of the great unexplained mysteries of modern society. Some films fit the bill, drawing crowds like bees to a honeypot. Others lie like rotting corpses and even the flies stay away. At one level, you could view the phenomenon as simple bean counting. The films that race to a billion dollars are the blockbusters regardless of their genre. They may be as exciting as toys coming to life or schoolboy wizards fighting to the death. This is a not unfair measure because, if the film really does a massive gross take, it must have mass market appeal. Yet there have been films launched as the next blockbuster only to be major commercial flops. They may have appeared to have all the right fast-paced action to qualify, but lack the magic ingredient to give them the appeal across the widest possible market. What makes this all the more fascinating is that, more often than not, the US market now delivers significantly less to the gross than the rest of the world. Take Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as an example. At the time of writing, this has earned $1,032.8 million worldwide, but only 23.1% was box office in the US. That’s right: 76.9% of the revenue came from us folk living overseas! This has profound implications for the nature of a blockbuster. The script, casting and anything intended to catch the market must now reflect world taste (including the product placements). Hollywood on its own can no longer cut the mustard.
This has been a year of alleged plenty with major studios lining up films, drumming out the loud message that each one was going to be the next “big one”. For me, this list has included some reasonably enjoyable efforts, but until Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I’d not felt I’d seen a blockbuster. Yes, I was thinking as I walked into the cinema, yet another Marvel Comics superhero brought to the screen. All this effort just so we can get to the first of what the studio intends to be the next big franchise: The Avengers — a group of superheroes hunting as a pack. And this is another grey-haired effort with our patriotic hero kicking off into action way back in 1941. What on Earth can a modern film make of a superhero fighting the Nazis in WWII?
Well, unlike Inglorious Basterds which went sideways into an alternative history so that Brad Pitt could win the war for the Allies, Captain America: The First Avenger makes it clear we are fighting Hydra which, for these purposes, is an organisation born out of the Nazi obsession with occultism, even prepared to bomb Berlin if it becomes necessary to achieve world domination. The leader of this Norse-inspired cult is the Red Skull or Johann Schmidt (poor Hugo Weaving, continuing his performances through layers of prosthetic make-up, from behind a mask or as a transforming truck) who was enhanced in an early experiment by Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). This all leaves us with a series of actions fought alongside the conventional war against the Nazis. So we telescope geography to move us effortless around Europe and have major scientific advances courtesy of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) on our side and Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) for the other team.
At this point, I could say the entire project collapsed under its own weight as ponderous backstory and over-the-top CGI hit the screen. Except it doesn’t. It’s saved by three major elements. The script, the performances and the humour. For once, this avoids feeling like an artificial origin story. It has the same, more naturalistic feel that the first Nolan Batman had. It grows reasonably organically. Now we come to the script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This could have been “Captain America” as the worst of US chauvinism, yet the writers have elected to show him as a diffident man, rather gentle and certainly not in the rather triumphal spirit of US imperialism that would have killed its box-office appeal abroad. Indeed, as if to prove the point, the US government first elects to use him to pimp War Bonds. There’s no greater indignity to heap upon a superhero than to dress him in tights, have him prance in front of dancing girls, and shill for money. Even when he does start fighting for real, he remains a rather modest gentleman, content to take on a school bully and do no more harm than is strictly necessary to set the world to rights.
Secondly, the cast. Chris Evans as the titular Captain Steve Rogers is wonderfully reduced in size. Indeed, at one point sitting in the back seat of a car beside Hayley Atwell as the perky Brit agent Peggy Carter, I think the special effects team rather overdid the shrinking man bit. At other times, he really did look as if he would benefit from eating your last sandwich to bulk him out a little. Once enhanced, he’s taller. Fortunately Evans is able to put the awfulness of Johnny Storm behind him and deliver a performance of real sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones is intentionally hilarious as Colonel Chester Phillips which leads me to the third point. The entire cast looked as if they were enjoying themselves on the set. The chemistry between Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones sets the trend of laugh-out-loud moments throughout. It significantly enhanced the packed cinema’s enjoyment of the film, avoiding the problems afflicting Thor which took itself far too seriously. All credit to Joe Johnston who directs with a sure, light touch emphasising the absurd with a series of knowing winks. The quality of the cast is also in its depth with seasoned pros turning up in the supporting roles — like Neal McDonough hiding behind an enormous moustache as Dum Dum Dougan. To complete your enjoyment, all you have to do is ignore the incompetence of the Hydra minions who couldn’t fight their way out of a soggy paper bag. Their inept reliance on superweaponry gets a little monotonous towards the end.
That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is quite simply the best of the summer blockbusters so far. For those who want uncomplicated fun while watching a story told well, you can’t improve on this.
This film has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.