For fans of oiled manly chests and/or flamethrowers only
I originally intended not to review Captain America: The First Avenger, because the film just seemed too nondescript to be bothered with. But upon seeing that it seems to have obtained a five-star rating on Comic Vine, I thought I ought to, just for balance, seeing as my first reaction was something along the lines of 'WHAAAA--?!'. Anyway, there be no spoilers here, so no reader peril is required.
Captain America: The First Avenger is this year's last outing from Marvel Entertainment in terms of the big screen. Meaning, it's the last movie they had to get out of the way before the superhero-ensemble Avengers movie. And it feels like just that - like something the studio felt they needed to get out so that people would be familiar with the character. Cap features Chris Evans (needs more oiled chest) as the eponymous character and Hugo Weaving (needs more flamethrower) as his arch nemesis Nazi Red Skull, as well as Tommy Lee Jones for comic relief and a slew of other well-known chaps ('chaps' being the operative word here, as Hayley Attwell is pretty much the only lady in the film). With the bad taste of director Joe Johnston's The Wolfman still lingering from last year it wouldn't be out of the question to go into this film with poor expectations.
In the 1940s, Steve Rogers is a wee lad who just wants to join the army more than anything else, but can't because he's just too wee. For this, Evans' gigantic head was digitally grafted onto some small fellow's body. As a result it is rather hard to focus on anything other than Chris Evans' melon face but get over that hurdle and you'll be just fine. Rogers tries again and again to be accepted into the army but they just won't let him, until Stanley Tucci takes him aside because Steve has such great morals and character that he'd make a great subject for the Super Serum that will give him super powers and thus Captain America is born except this takes 124 minutes to happen. The pacing of this film is its weakest point. Somewhere around the middle it feels like it's about to end, only to begin again. When it finally does end, it is clumsy and abrupt.
Generally speaking, the writers didn't make the most of their characters. The Red Skull (who speaks English with an inconsistent German accent to his fellow Germans because that is a normal thing for German people to do) in particular feels hammy and underdeveloped, not to mention the fact that at no point does the evil organisation HYDRA feel like any sort of real threat. There simply is no sense of conflict. Add to this the exceptionally shoehorned love plot and predictable deaths, as well as clichéd dialogue and most of these scenes become unbearable. The film tries very hard indeed to keep with the lighthearted tone of previous Marvel films by inserting jokes at various intervals but these, too, are poorly paced. Much of the beginning is really rather dry and could have done with an injection of wit and charm. Other jokes simply feel like they're trying too hard.
The look and feel of the film is very harsh and bleak, unlike the visually stunning Thor or even the brightly coloured Iron Man films. Fair enough, Cap is set during World War II, but it gets to a point where you're dying to see some warmth and colour in the palette. The film's green screen shots are often painfully obvious and a lot of the action sequences just look like videogame cut scenes. Unfortunately, Captain America is an ugly-looking film (although scenes lighten up when Peggy Carter appears in them).
Speaking of officer Peggy Carter, Atwell does a pefectly acceptable job of the material but it's sad to see yet another decent female character pigeonholed into the hot love interest role. Even though she's supposed to be an officer (did they even have women officers in the '40s?), it is of utmost importance that she always looks totally hot all of the time, which is a shame because, again, Peggy is a decent character, reduced to a pretty thing to look at who occasionally shoots people (because that's hot too). The rest of the casting is fine, too, although many of the actors seem underused purely because there is such little character development in the script.
As the film tries its darndest to plow through decades of material you may find yourself becoming fidgety, or planning what to have for dinner tonight, or wondering whether you left the iron on. It's true that Captain America has a number of factors working against it. One of the biggest is the question of how to adapt material in the 21st century that is so deeply ingrained in the culture and politics of the 1940s. Captain America was created as a patriotic symbol, an expression of disgust for Nazism which was borderline propaganda. Setting the film in the 1940s was a fair start of making this work, but one can't help but wonder, what is the point of this? We know Nazis are bad, and actually, the film does a pretty good job of attempting to address the issue of why Hitler rose to power and why Steve doesn't just want to 'kill Nazis' by joining the army, but this is brief. Where Captain America fits in this day and age seems like a more interesting premise which will hopefully be explored in the sequel.
Meanwhile, Captain America is a largely dull, baggy and fairly tedious ordeal that rates way below Thor and only marginally above X-Men Origins: Wolverine (at least the plot made more sense). Having said that, Marvel probably hasn't lost its steam quite yet, the character will probably do much better in The Avengers, it's just a shame that his debut was so underwhelming. Honestly, the Avengers trailer at the end is much more entertaining than the film itself. If you're looking for a Nazi-themed WW2 superhero movie, just go and rewatch Hellboy.