Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Steve Rogers wants to sign up for the army during the Second World War, but repeatedly fails the medical. Then a scientist encourages him to take part in an experiment that will transform him into a super-soldier…
The director of this fifth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has very good genre credentials. In his early career, Joe Johnston worked on the special effects for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was the art director of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That’s some CV. It’s not surprising, then, that the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg strongly influences this film. In many ways, Captain America: The First Avenger is pleasingly, reassuringly and unashamedly old-fashioned.
The central storyline of good guys fighting Nazis who are obsessed with supernatural powers echoes the Indiana Jones series, of course, while a motorcycle chase through a forest recalls both Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The lighting schemes, framings and camera moves are often reminiscent of 1980s cinema, and the terrific score by Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Predator, The Abyss) is stirring and exciting in the John Williams tradition; it even has deep, dark motifs for the bad guys.
The story, characters and settings also pulse with an arch, movie-serial 1940s-ness: sepia cinematography, dieselpunk stylings, retro sci-fi, dashing derring-do and swashbuckling adventure. It’s therefore jarring when it sometimes steps outside that tone and does something, you know, modern. An early scene at a New York Expo is one of the most green-screen-iest bits of cinema you’ll ever see, with actors floating against CG backgrounds.
Much more successful, thankfully, is the special effects used to make six-foot-tall and muscle-bound actor Chris Evans seem short, skinny and wiry. It’s very impressive stuff, which is vital set-up for when Steve Rogers is artificially strengthened by science. (Anecdotally, I know of people who were fooled and thought Evans had done a Robert De Niro and lost weight for the early scenes.) Steve is an all-American character, a man who’s brave and “doesn’t like bullies”. He’s the heart of the film, and this is a film with a lot of heart. But after he’s been turned into a super-soldier, rather than go off to fight Nazis he’s forced to tour US theatres selling war bonds. It’s embarrassing and frustrating for him, and he has to wear a cheesy costume as he takes on the comical role of ‘Captain America’. Of course, on a storytelling level, this segment is the trough from which our hero has to climb out. It’s dramatised via a fun musical montage as we cut from show to show: the longer it goes on, the more Steve grows in confidence and the more the dance routines grow in complexity. His persona becomes popular, and even appears in comic books. (There are also cute foreshadows of scenes we’ll see later in the film.)
The theatre shows also reflect what the movie’s doing generally. It’s showbiz, it’s entertainment. It’s age-old storytelling and genre conventions. This is a film where the villains have an enormous lair in the Alps (full of Stormtroopers marching up and down corridors, and the longest runway ever constructed), while the good guys’ HQ is an underground base with a secret entrance in a Brooklyn book store. (The red-brick Brooklyn was actually shot in Manchester, by the way.) The supporting characters, meanwhile, are a great mix. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a British officer who works on the project that transforms Steve’s body. She looks like a posh-totty pin-up, but is probably the smartest and most able person in the whole film. She has Princess Leia levels of confidence and charisma, and is an unapologetically brilliant female character. (Her appearance here was so successful that she returned for cameos in later films and even got her own spin-off TV show: Agent Carter, which lasted for 18 excellent and stylish episodes before being axed.)
Howard Stark – Iron Man’s dad, of course – is played by Dominic Cooper and is a Howard Hughes-style showman and industrial genius. He’s the film’s equivalent of Q from the Bond movies. The villain, meanwhile, is played by a fun Hugo Weaving. Schmidt is the Nazis’ head of advanced weaponry and also the leader of the militant Hydra group, terrorists who will recur throughout this series and its spin-offs. We also get a succession of interesting actors in secondary roles: Stanley Tucci as the scientist who invents the super-soldier process, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s toady, Tommy Lee Jones as a typically gruff, grouchy army colonel, Richard Armitage as a spy, Natalie Dormer as a flirty private, and even Jenna Coleman as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her girlfriend.
Then series regular Samuel L Jackson shows up in a coda scene after Steve wakes up in 2011, having been frozen in ice for nearly 70 years. He ends up trapped in that ice because he sacrifices his life to save New York City from a deadly attack. His final conversation with Peggy over a two-way radio reminds you of similar scene in 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death, and while maybe not as instantly tear-jerking as David Niven and Kim Hunter, it comes pretty close. A triumph of popcorn cinema.
Nine army generals who thought he’d be taller out of 10