Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Watcher Retrospective - Captain America: The First Avenger

by Jack Meldrum

As of writing it's been just over 24 hours since I saw Captain America – The First Avenger in cinemas for the first time. Not that it was the first time I saw it, as I've had the movie on DVD since roughly six months after it first came out.

But seeing it on-screen reminded me just how good this film is. 

The ultimate strength of Captain America is that it fully embraces the message delivered by Doctor Abraham Erskine – that a 'weak man knows the value of strength' and that, to steal a quote from Disney's Hercules, 'the strength of a hero is the strength of his heart'. It's an absolutely unironic celebration of goodness, of honesty, of courage and idealism. There's no jingoistic nonsense because Steve Rogers (played to perfection by Chris Evans) is not a jingoistic man. He's not even a patriot, if one considers how patriotism so often plays out. He's a man who believes wholeheartedly in the values his country is supposed to be about. And the movie believes in him in the same way.

Joe Johnston (who also did the sublime Rocketeer and the really underrated Jurassic Park 3) opens the film with the present-day discovery of the frozen Cap and then uses the prolonged flashback that is the rest of the picture as justification for montage after montage – an approach that delivers surprisingly effective results. It's the Second World War as we know it in movies, not necessarily as it was, and because the Captain is such an impossibly fictional character, it works. Johnston's clichéd beats aren't clichés, because he's using them to absolute best effect – embracing the impossible nature of the material and selling it to us as he knows we'll understand.

Hugo Weaving is the standout, though. His Red Skull - a man so evil the Nazis said 'maybe he's a bit much, ja?' - is a glowering menace and somehow totally believable, even when he's fondling the Cosmic Cube and shooting laser beams at Hitler's cronies. Toby Jones' Armin Zola is equally terrific, with a curious amoral/moral bent that suggests he's not totally comfortable with the Asgardian-derived superweapons he's asked to churn out. Skull and Zola form the backbone of the film's narrative and structure, driving the plot forward with their sinister 'kill everyone, remake the world' super-scheme. Their sublime construction and performance means that any time the film's jovial WWII stuff feels a little flabby, we cut right back to these tight, taut interactions between man and monster and it all feels fine.

The movie is, frankly, an impossibility – made less so now by the presence of the totally incredible sequel, but still something so honest and heartfelt it's unbelievable it dropped in the cynical year of 2011. It's a film I never expected to work, and yet it does, and it does it by kneecapping cynicism from the word go and going out of its way to treat what it does as what it is. It's silly, stupendous stuff.

So when I say the sequel is a total masterpiece, you know where I'm coming from.

Jack Meldrum volunteered for the super-soldier programme, but they said he was too super already. 

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