Steve Rogers volunteers to participate in an experimental program that turns him into the Super Soldier known as Captain America.
In many ways Captain America: The First Avenger is the Steve Rogers of Marvel’s comic adaptations – straight-forward and likeable but lacking a certain something. In Rogers’ (Chris Evans) case it’s a medical flaw that’s holding him back. Captain America is one of the oldest characters in the Marvel stable and Rogers’ story starts as he continually fails the medical test to enlist in the US Army to fight in the Second World War. Rogers is plucky, brave and never-say-die but he’s also a tiny, asthmatic weakling. He’s picked up by Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) as an ideal candidate for a procedure that will turn him into a super soldier. The procedure works and Captain America is born, but Erskine is killed, halting the project. Initially sidelined as a motivational freak-show, Captain America eventually proves himself as a super soldier and heads up an elite team that takes on super-villain Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). So far so standard.
So what is the film lacking? Time and freedom to develop on it’s own – it has no time for the most interesting part of the ongoing narrative from the comics, where Rogers is frozen for years and revived in modern times (there are variations on how, where and why in different versions of the Marvel universe) and has to adjust to being an early twentieth century man in a new era. In Captain America: The First Avenger that part of the story bookends the narrative in very short sections that line it up to fit with the upcoming The Avengers (where he’ll appear in 2012 with a modern day Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and others who haven’t yet earned their own franchise) and so this is essentially Steve Rogers: The GI Years. The resulting tale is a satisfactory if unremarkable WW2 actioner.
Taken on its own it’s an enjoyable, brisk, coming of age story. Chris Evans brilliantly embodies the noble Rogers with a ‘Boy’s Own’ honour and bravery that makes him both charming and able to drag the film over some of its clunkier plot points (why would the US care about Red Skull if he’s been disowned by Hitler? Or why isn’t Hitler trying harder to take him out?). The supporting cast are great too – Weaving hams it up brilliantly as a German Agent Smith, Hayley Atwell embues a two dimensional character with enough of the ‘Mrs Moneypennys’ as Rogers’ love interest to make her a suitable match and Tommy Lee Jones chews scenery as Colonel Philips, a man for whom the word gruff could have been invented.
Labouring under the necessity of getting from 1940s origin to 21st Century Avenger assemblage in the space of two-hours, too much of Captain America’s history has to be picked up and put down without resolution (Atwell disappears into history with no mention, best friend Bucky dies without pause, Red Skull is barely fleshed out). In short this feels like an excellent pilot for the Avengers series – all set up and no resolution. For Marvel fans the most exciting part of the film occurs post credits with a ‘Next time on The Avengers‘ trailer for Buffy creator Joss Whedon’s long gestating film – the first time major superhero franchises have merged.
Ultimately the constraints that of the origin story mean that Steve Rogers can’t be a man out of time and the need to tie in with the rest of the crossover franchise means it can’t spend enough time with Captain America as a hero for his time. However, a charming cast and a director (Joe Johnston – Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Jumanji) with a history of simple, entertaining family films make it a more than enjoyable taster for next summer’s main attraction.