Saturday, 20 August 2011

Film Review | Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Your enjoyment of Captain America: The First Avenger will most likely depend on what you are expecting before you go in and how you view it as both an individual film and part of the creation of a larger Marvel Comics universe. Because whilst CA:TFA is clearly cast firmly from the superhero movie mould in terms of it's foundations, in spirit it doesn't quite follow the patterns you'd expect. Unfortunate considering I'd sold seeing the film to my fiancée with a sentence something along the lines of "you enjoyed Iron Man, so you're bound to enjoy this", only for her to claim ownership of the next viewing choice at the cinema in recompense for her lack of enjoyment as we walked out of the screen.

In many ways we have your standard superhero origins story: frustrated by his continual rejections from the U.S. Army due to medical health problems and general scrawny stature, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is selected for a top secret "super soldier" programme due to his personality and willingness to fight. After undergoing the experimental procedure, Rogers is transformed into a "perfect" man, with abilities at the peak of human potential, and of course transformed from his puny frame into a towering musclebound adonis.

The development of Rogers' character in the opening act of the film is pleasing and handled well; it reminded me of the way in which Peter Parker is introduced in the first Spider-Man film. Whilst it means that the start of the film doesn't move particularly quickly, I was happy to accept it as a necessary element of the origins tale. However, it's in the film's second act where things begin to stray from what you might have prepared yourself for. Where Peter Parker began climbing walls and swinging through New York City, and where Tony Stark began honing his metallic suit and breaking the sound barrier, Rogers does very little in the way of superheroic activity. We get one action sequence following Rogers' transformation, and then that's it for a while. And whilst this turn of events is explained within the film's plot, it does take some of the momentum away from the film before things have even properly got started.

When the action does finally get going, again it's not quite what many will undoubtedly expect from a superhero film. The action is much more closely related to CA:TFA's war film roots than its comic book roots. The film is less a superhero film set during World War II, more a World War II film that happens to focus on a superhero. It actually feels quite different to most superhero films of recent years, and whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does leave the film at times feeling a little awkwardly placed between two genres that don't often marry.

For all its "not quites", CA:TFA nevertheless has an awful lot going for it. Evans is great as the hero, giving a performance that fits with both who the character is and the time period in which the film takes place. The supporting cast are also consistently solid: Tommy Lee Jones is reliably excellent in his role as Colonel Phillips, required to run the gamut of feelings towards Rogers and his eventual alter-ego; Hugo Weaving somehow manages to toe the line between authentic and comic book maniacal villain with a strong performance; and Dominic Cooper impressed me as Howard Stark, bringing both arrogance and likability to the character. Only Hayley Atwell provides something of a weak link: whilst her performance is fine in many parts, I never found there to be nearly enough chemistry between her and Evans to make their romantic relationship anything more than hinted towards.

Ultimately, Captain America: The First Avenger works as both a standalone film and as a quasi-prequel to The Avengers film which is set to arrive next year (without giving too much away, the closing scene here could almost be the opening to that very film). It's a film that is likely to split opinion, as what some may see as bold, if not entirely successful, attempts to do something fresh and different with the superhero and war genres, others may see as unnecessary meddling to a tried, tested and desired formula. Taking a step back from (over) analysing the film, this is essentially a summer blockbuster made to entertain. And whilst it certainly could have entertained me more, it managed to do so sufficiently far more often than not.


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