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The First Avenger or Final Piece of a Jigsaw?

Captain America and the Rule of Thirds

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston. Screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

Very light, general spoilers included.

Captain America is an iconic character in many ways. Not only is he Marvel’s patriot extraordinaire, bearer of the flag and embodiment of his country’s best intentions, but when handled badly he becomes simply an icon, more of a flagpole than a character.

Cap is Marvel’s Superman. Not in power but in nature and difficulty to write. Both characters are the ultimate expression of virtue in their respective universes and both can become cyphers when not written with a full understanding of what makes them enduring.

Superman is a template for how to handle an unambiguous “good guy” effectively for cinema. Richard Donner contrasted the “Big Boy Scout” with flawed, morally ambiguous characters and made that interaction interesting (Miss Tessmacher using Superman’s inability to break a promise to force him to choose which missile to chase for example).

The mistake when approaching such an archetypal hero is to attempt to add complexity through contrivance. Bryan Singer tried to add depth to Superman’s character by emphasising his inner turmoil of wanting to be human but always feeling alien. Instead of crystallizing that conflict, he merely complicated the character, adding a son to anchor him to his adopted home but also indelibly adding deceit to his nature (Lois was oddly untroubled by the unexplained yet obvious connection between her son and the man she never, to her knowledge, slept with). The character arc became just another soap-opera conceit in a situation more suited to daytime scandal detritus.

Thankfully the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, as well as the direction of Joe Johnston, recognises that the story of Captain America should focus on what makes Steve Rogers different to the average person, not his physical prowess but his moral certitude.

"I'll take the salad and a shirt"

The Steve Rogers that the audience is introduced to is a painfully emaciated weakling. The illusion of a 90 pounds-when-wet Chris Evans is incredibly effective (Evans insisted that whenever the character was moving, his own figure was used and altered to ensure he retained ownership of the performance), which makes Steve’s bravery all the more endearing.

Captain America: The First Avenger is most successful when showing the audience the facets of Rogers’ character. He stands up to a loudmouth bully and gets a split lip for his trouble, but refuses to back down. When others around him refuse to make a noise due to fear of reprisal, Steve Rogers’s first instinct is to do the right thing. The audience knows this as he is given the opportunities repeatedly to act in a consistent manner and create a sense of his motivation and will. Other films in recent memory (Green Lantern glaringly comes to mind) tell the audience about the characters, expect leaps of faith by the audience between introduction and denouement based on scenes of brief exposition. Joe Johnston spends time with the main character before his empowerment in order to show not only how he deserves his elevation but to ensure that the audience wants to go on the journey with him.

More than just a girl with a gun

Supporting characters are used to emphasise and consolidate the meanings in each scene, not used to replace the narrative work necessary to make the audience feel involved. Hayley Atwell is superb as Peggy Carter, her fondness for Steve is palpable before his transformation and it always comes from a place that makes sense. As Steve sits with her in a car, recounting the various places he has been beaten up, her admiration for his bravery and understanding of right and wrong has been developed already, in other films this entire scene would have been viewed as enough to ensure she was ready to fling herself at him as soon as he had the physique to compliment his virtue (even Thor is guilty of this to a degree and I had a lot of fun watching that film). Instead Peggy falls for Steve over a period of time and due to his actions in a series of events, Steve falls for her (along with the audience) not just because of her obvious beauty but because she is genuinely intelligent, kind, brave and heroic and is shown acting in such a way.

The entire film stands or falls on the relationship between Steve and Peggy (the final shot only works if you buy their relationship) and thankfully Evans and Atwell are excellent in both roles, bringing both fun and poignancy to their performances. It is a tremendous pleasure watching both characters develop, particularly in seeing Rogers overcome the various difficulties he encounters  to stand alongside fellow soldiers, including Peggy Carter, not as a hero, but as an equal.

This picture doesn't do justice to the richness of colour in this scene

Joe Johnston does a wonderful job to ensure the tone of the film is as charming as the main character arc. Fans of The Rocketeer will no doubt be happy to indulge in the same authentic, but warmly stylised nostalgia of Captain America. It certainly feels like a different time, but this is no Saving Private Ryan, the color palette is full of warm hues alongside the bold colours of the propaganda posters of the time. The lighting gives a softening, romantic tint while stopping short of being dreamlike (which is a strong reason not to see this in 3D, the darkening of the process would harm the enjoyment of the spectacle with little positive trade-off).

The film looks wonderful and has strong character development through thoughtful storytelling but in some ways it is hampered by its place in the Marvel cinematic canon. The action sequences and the film’s crescendo produce some stumbling blocks to the overall success of the film. As in most action films, a confrontation between hero and villain is set up early in the film. Hugo Weaving as Johann Shmidt (aka The Red Skull) is full of menace and arrogance. The villain’s lust for power as both means and end is the perfect antagonist for Rogers’ virtuous despiser of bullies. However the fight with Red Skull is all but pushed aside in order to get Captain America to the place he has to be by the end of the film.

Grrr. Arrrgh.

The clash that is built up between the villain and hero is almost sidestepped completely to allow for both The Avengers film next year and possible sequels for the Captain America franchise. In fact the challenge that Rogers faces and the choice he makes because of it is an apt expression of the character, there just needed a little more time spent on ensuring that his fight against the villain is more satisfying, whereas it falls short in fulfilling expectations.

In summation, Captain America: The First Avenger is a very enjoyable, almost old-fashioned tale of one man making a difference. By not adhering to some of the recent narrative tropes of action films it finds great success in developing a charming story with an endearing main character. Though not always comfortable with the conventions of the genre, while perhaps not as unabashedly fun as Thor, it is much stronger thematically and slightly more successful in creating a memorable hero. Which, essentially, is the film’s purpose.

If you are reading this then I doubt you will need to be given the following advice: stay until after the credits, it really is worth it.