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Saturday, 3 December 2011

DVD Of The Week: Captain America - The First Avenger (2011)


Heavily tied into next year's Joss Whedon-helmed Avengers movie, Captain America: The First Avenger is a disappointingly mediocre montage of images that starts off promisingly enough and ends superbly (with the much publicised 'Cap wakes up in the 21st Century scenes') but is weighed down by erratic pacing in between.

When we first meet Cap he is still Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), serial 4F reject from the US Army in the mid-years of World War II, but his determination - despite his puny frame and ill health - catches the eye of scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci).

Erskine gets Rogers enrolled in a top secret super-soldier project under Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and soon the scrawny dude is zapped by super-science and transformed into a bulked-out combat machine.

At this stage things are still looking promising and the special effects to "shrink" Chris Evans to "puny" are incredible, even though at one stage when he is riding in the back of a cab with government agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the perspective is a bit off and he looks like Frodo riding next to Gandalf in the cart at the start of Fellowship of The Ring.

The Nazis - of course - also have their eye on Erskine's super-science and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), head of Adolf Hitler's deep science research unit Hydra, and a a recipient of Erskine's drugs before they were perfected, is using a magical cube (aka Marvel Comic's "Cosmic Cube") to power his own research into building advanced technology.

However, this is when Johann (before he reveals to the audience he is the villainous Red Skull) declares he is breaking away from the Nazi party and going freelance with his legions of cult-like followers and his armoury of magically charged weapons... and the Nazis seem okay with that.

From this point on, Germany disappears from the picture and the Americans are locked in a war with Hydra and its goons. So what became of Hitler and co.? 

Is the Fuhrer not at all bothered that this new superpowered player has entered the arena of global warfare (armed with advanced technology that was destined for his troops)?

Steve Rogers becomes a frontman for the sale of war bonds as the cartoonish Captain America, making personal appearances, campy war movies and nightly punching "Adolf Hitler" in the face... and this segment of the movie (while initially amusing) goes on for way too long before Rogers discovers his best friend from back home, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured by Hydra.

Aided by Peggy Carter and industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) - future father of Iron Man - Rogers, as Cap, parachutes in and single-handedly takes out the base, liberates the prisoners and generally makes a nuisance of himself for the Red Skull.

He is then put in charge of a hand-picked team of commandos (the Howlin' Commandos, all wacky individuals that we're never introduced to) to take out a series of Hydra weapons' factories that Cap learned the location of during his raid.

Eventually - after one rather unexpected death (that to be honest has to be pretty much glossed over because there's so many plot points to hit and only two hours to tell the story) - it comes down to the final confrontation between Red Skull and Cap, the disposal of the Cosmic Cube and Cap's inevitable freezing (so he can be woken up 70 years in the future, in time for The Avengers movie).

Swamped with story and padded with a surfeit of characters (for instance, the Howlin' Commandos didn't really add anything, except a bit of fanservice for comic book readers, and Peggy Carter had nothing to do the entire movie), there are inevitable comparisons to the Green Lantern movie (although that had a whole raft of other problems).

Captain America feels like two movies worth of story squashed down into a single film, hence the speed and rapidity with which beats are ticked off (and why the overly drawn-out "war bonds selling" sequence jars so noticeably as it slams the brakes on the action).

The majority of the action set-pieces are, naturally, superb - although not all work quite as well (the battle on the train stands out as a particular let-down, even though it eventually served as important turning point in the tale).

However, the script around these set pieces isn't really given room to breathe and we barely get to relate to people before we're moving on to the next moment of high-excitement. The way it is structured, Captain America makes the "puny" Steve Rogers more interesting than the supercharged one because we get to a chance to know him and (speaking for myself) relate to his inadequacies.

It is as though director Joe Johnston surrendered control to Michael Bay about a third of a way in.

Puny Rogers is actually quite an inspirational character while Cap is just some guy in a fancy costume who goes round shooting people; he soon forgets his earlier words to Erskine that he "doesn't want to kill people, he just  wants to stand up to bullies".

Captain America is a complex character, but all we see in this superficial popcorn movie is a soldier with superpowers (and a gun), and very little of what makes him special.

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