Monday, August 1, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

A couple of weeks ago I had a minor rant about the over-reliance on Origin Stories in superhero movies, especially this summer. Thankfully, I also commented that this doesn't precude any of these films being good, just makes them moderately unoriginal in concept. There is a craft in doing something familar well, in making the un-original seem fresh, and I can think of no better example than Captain America: The First Avenger.

It could all have gone so badly wrong. "Cap" is one of those classic superheros that seems to have lingered beyond any creators ability to do anything fresh with him, sadled with with a patriotic name and back-story that has been co-opted and parodied and made, at best, quaint and at worst trite, but the passage of time. And they set the movie in a historic period, the graveyard of many good genre films (The Shadow, The Rocketeer) where wider audiences never engaged with the faithful reproduction of the characters "proper" environment. And our view of World War 2 movies has changed too - for a long time we stopped making them at all, then Saving Private Ryan and it's followers refocused the war as a backdrop for telling stories about the real experience of combat, rather than as backdrops for high adventure.

But whoever took that leap; whoever decided to just go for it, properly, fully, and all the way; whoever thought that we needed a Captain America in context, a film that like its hero, is comming into the modern age from a different time; that person deserves a medal. Because in many ways it was brave, and because above all else, it works.

In fairness there isn't a lot else about Captain America that you won't have seen before. The story beats are mostly predictable, the characters you've seen plenty of times before, the set pieces are reminiscent of the great war-adventure movies of the past; Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, countless more. But they don't make films like that any more, and the unrestrained joy of the film, to make a film like that, shines of the screen. It's not just nostalgia, its a reminder of why these films were so popular in the first place. 

Any everyone in this is great. Tommy Lee Jones steals every scene he's in. Hayley Atwell is probably the most kick-ass female lead i've ever seen in a Supers flick. Hugo Weaving and his sidekick, Toby Jones, are good old-fashioned Evil Nazi Villians, complete with superweapons, faceless henchmen and secret underground lairs. Chris Evans is probably better as the slightly gollemised pre-super soldier but certainly keeps up both sides of the character pretty well. The rest of the ensemble run around looking like they're having a great time. Heros are heros, villians are villians. Things explode. Extras get shot or disintergrated bloodlessly and in their dozens. There's loads of references to the wider Marvel Universe and even a good Indiana Jones gag.

In fact, I liked it so much I can't see how a sequal can fail to suck. As anyone with either a passing knowledge of the Marvel Universe, or awareness of the Avengers film out next year with know, Cap ends up in the modern day being pestered by Sam Jackson with an eyepatch. This means that all that ensemble, all the period joy, all those relationships, are gone. Thats pretty much everything I liked about the film. And the little section in the modern day? Well I'm glad it was short was it was badly written, badly put together and made a cheap gag out of the stories big emotional punch. Great way to end guys. 

But lets not let that spoil the vibe. Captain America is unashamedly one of these films like they don't make any more. It's slick, confident, totally unironic and enormous fun. It is also so old school it feels fresh and exciting, just pure, solid entertainment.