Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan
2011 saw director Joe Johnston providing us with the final piece in the Marvel Studios ‘Avengers’ puzzle with Captain America: The First Avenger.
Much like Iron Man three years previously, Captain America was one of those superheroes that the general public were vaguely familiar with, but they didn’t really know much of the detail of his story. However, with the MCU already storming down the tracks like a runaway freight train, the unveiling of Cap in all his glory felt less like a roll of the dice than a can’t-miss prospect.
Crucially, the first act is absolutely fantastic, managing to be poignant and humorous while simultaneously telling you everything you’ll ever need to know about Steve Rogers. And whether it’s the back-alley fight with the cinema lout, the repeated futile attempts to enlist in the army, the flagpole ingenuity, or that scene with the dummy grenade, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that The First Avenger isn’t going to be one of the familiar ‘redemption arc’ origin stories that we’ve already seen with the likes of Iron Man or Thor.
Evans is tremendous here, infusing the scrawny, 90-pound Steve Rogers with just as much presence as a rippling Hemsworth or a cocky Downey Jr. The supporting cast also do a solid job of emphasising that strength, from an understated performance from Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes (more on him later) to a dryly comic turn from Tommy Lee Jones’ Colonel Philips. It’s Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter however that really helps Evans to shine, with his humility and anxiety during his interactions with her making him an instantly likeable protagonist.
Their relationship runs throughout the course of the movie, and while I’m still not convinced there was enough on the screen to warrant such a fiercely intense romance, the chemistry between the two actors managed to make it work. So from the humble introductions to the heartbreaking finale, Peggy is used skillfully to help us develop a deeper investment in Steve Rogers, while also planting her own emphatic flag in the MCU (bring back Agent Carter, amirite?)
It’s not without its flaws, however, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a lot of that falls at the feel of the villain. Don’t get me wrong, Hugo Weaving’s performance as Johann Schmidt – aka The Red Skull – is typically strong throughout, channeling his inner Christoph Waltz while becoming genuinely menacing on occasion. The scene where we see him first getting his hands on the Tesseract, for instance, is an emphatic demonstration of both his presence and the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to get what he wants.
Unfortunately however, after this storming introduction he quickly regresses into the role of typical mustache-twirling baddie, complete with faceless army of punching bags and vague motivations about obtaining unlimited power, resulting in a fairly underwhelming showdown with the now fully heroic Captain America.
There are other forgettable moments along the way too, such as the awkward series of misunderstandings between Rogers and Carter where they each think the other is interested in someone else, as well as the somewhat uninspiring introduction-then-rapid-abandonment of the (brilliantly cast) Howling Commandos.
Ultimately however, the good far outweighs the bad here, and while the Asgardian gravitas of Thor may slightly nudge it ahead, this is still one of my favourite origin movies in the entire history of the MCU. Johnston infuses everything with a sense of excitement and adventure that makes it feels like a Saturday afternoon serial, as well as kick-starting what would become one of the best trilogies in the history of comic book movies.
Yes, Captain America: The First Avenger is very much a film of two halves, and while the latter stages may feature a lot of flat, uninspired punching and shooting, the opening act is one of the best that we’ve seen to date in a comic book movie, and introduces a man who would go on to become the undisputed beating heart of the MCU. Fantastic stuff.
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