Skip to main content

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger
(2011)

(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as every other picture he’s directed.


Dr ErskineDo you want to kill Nazis?
Steve RogersIs this a test?
Dr ErskineYes.
Steve RogersI don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.

Actually, that’s a little bit unfair, although you can only see Feige’s priorities in a cold, calculating light when he picked the journeyman director for the job. A little bit unfair because Johnston’s debut, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is a witty, pacy picture exhibiting a sense of fun and energy everything else he’s done – which includes filling in for buddy Spielberg on Jurassic Park III and replacing Mark Romanek on The Wolfman– lacks. It was reportedly his period work on The Rocketeer and October Sky that got him the gig, and there’s definitely a strong link between the former and Cap. Unfortunately, it isn’t a good one. 


I well remember The Rocketeer being touted as one of the big hopes of summer 1991 (Premiere magazine certainly thought so, but then, they had Dying Youngpegged as the season’s champ), and if poster art reflected the quality of a movie, it would have been an all-timer. Unfortunately, it flunked the key test of bringing in audiences in droves. And that’s because it has many of the same issues Capdoes; it’s flaccid, lacks engaging lead characters and completely fails to kindle that period buzz, charm and energy Spielberg made look so easy in the (first three) Indiana Jones movies. As a director, Johnston makes a very good art director.


Steve RogersI’m just a kid from Brooklyn.

Because Cap does look pretty good. The Arctic opening, leading to a flashback to 1942 Norway, is effectively atmospheric in a manner the rest of the movie lacks. Nevertheless, for all it has going for it in respect of bringing to life comic book iconography, Cap is singularly lacking a sense of adventurous fun, of revelling in its pulpy trappings. It’s as po-faced and unyielding as its lead character for the most part; Alan Silvestri’s score follows suit, with strains of the likes of Innerspace and Excalibur but without the wit and playfulness of the first or the grandeur of the second. 


Additionally, I’m very ready to admit I don’t get Cap. I don’t get his appeal. I don’t get why he’s supposed to be interesting, and I don’t care for Chris Evans’ performance (and I like Evans in pretty much everything else I’ve seen him in, so I’m assuming it must be the character). Even when the movie is considerably better – as the sequels are – I’m left unmoved by the main protagonist. 


Guy beating on Steve:You just don’t know when to give up, do ya?

I’m clearly supposed to find Steve Rogers’ unfaltering positivity and dedication to serving his country inspirational, but I don’t. I find it faintly risible. On a purely practical level, the makerz also go a touch too far in making him super scrawny (six stone veers a little too strongly into fantasy territory to be convincingly rendered; his face should be emaciated as well as his body). The effect is a little akin to Marlon Wayans head superimposed on a dwarf actor in Littleman. And his transformation via the super soldier programme, given the casualties we’ve seen (Bronsky, Schmidt) seems to be implicit – and ever-so-slightly worrisome – acknowledgement that it only yields the best results if one’s mind is as pure as one’s body will become (Steve really does embody the master race).


Senator BrandtJeez, will somebody get that kid a sandwich!

And lo, before you know it, Steve’s sporting a ripe pair of glistening man boobs. The bag of bones who uses his brain to win a flag and fearlessly jumps on a grenade – pass the sick bucket – is transformed into an icon of might being right and muscle being might. The problem of Rogers is he’s utterly unrelatable; he’s too assured of what he isn’t or what he is, without foibles and insecurities; he’s all surface. No wonder Tony will take the piss out of him constantly.


Dum Dum DuganYou know what you’re doing?
Steve RogersYeah. I’ve knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.

There’s the occasional bright spot post-transformation, such as Cap being used for propaganda purposes, selling war bonds and so sparking the genesis of his costume (“I’m a great fan of your films” greets Red Skull, about his only good line; despite Red Skull being an entirely rote villain, I find myself rooting for him because Cap is so insufferably moral). At other points, it feels like an opportunity’s been unforgivably missed (his war exploits with the marauders glossed over in a montage sequence). 


Steve RogersI thought you were dead.
Bucky BarnesI thought you were smaller.

Cap’s nearest and dearest are no more compelling than he is. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) goes from being the vanilla pal looking out for Steve to the vanilla POW who needs saving by him (before falling off a train – and we never even got a chance to give a shit about him!); he’s never in danger of developing a character or becoming interesting, at least until he turns bad/brainwashed (and even then, he isn’t especially interesting). 


Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) is likewise a complete non-presence. How did she get a Marvel series out of this? Because she can kick guys’ arses and she’s a rare female playing with the boys? That’s usually a substitute for an effectively written role in the Marvel-verse (see also Black Widow). Also damagingly, there’s zero chemistry between Atwell and Evans, so his virginal standing up (“I had a date”) doesn’t feel like any kind of loss (and means that, when she eventually carks it, it’s based on a false premise of emotional investment in the character). 


Dr ErksineSo, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Stanley Tucci apparently took the part of Erskine the benign German eugenicist (what’s the difference between a bad eugenicist and a good one? The latter works for the US Government) because he wanted to try out the accent. Which is as good a reason as any. Certainly, he’s had better roles in Michael Bay movies. Somehow, Hugo Weaving as Red Skull (at this stage, he was in the go-to-villainous place Ben Mendelsohn is now) entirely misses out on becoming a memorable monster; it seems like a no-brainer, but even scenes with Toby Jones (as Dr Zola) fail to come alive.


Arnim ZolaI don’t eat meat.
Colonel Phillips:Why not.
Arnim ZolaIt disagrees with me.

That brings me to the one scene I like unreservedly, although it’s more about the actors than the content. Zola is captured and interviewed by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and there’s suddenly a sense of the picture clicking into gear as a couple of pros do what they do best, sitting at a table and exchanging small talk. Notably, Cap is nowhere in sight.


Johann SchmidtThe Tesseract was the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.

While Cap is structurally forced to contrive to bring its superhero to the present day to become an Avenger (and thus quickly dispense with his litany of wartime exploits in order to set him up as a fish out of water), the movie at least doesn’t feel overly stuffed with paraphernalia setting up future Marvel-verse characters and instalments. Yes, Howard Stark appears, and apparently has some serious work done at some point if he’s to transform facially from Dominic Cooper to John Slattery. And yes, we get the Tesseract, and implicitly Thor. And yes, there’s the obligatory Nick Fury cameo, but the issues with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay (their first of six Marvel credits to date) are nothing a strong director couldn’t iron out. Really, this was Johnston’s to fluff, and he did.


Steve RogersI can’t get drunk.

Captain America: The First Avenger making just 60% of the first Iron Man’s gross isn’t only because of the charisma vacuum of Cap himself or the issue of his national identity. It’s also because the romance has no fire, the conflict isn’t sufficiently personal, and the third act comes across as disengaged. But mostly, it’s because Johnston does nothing to galvanise the proceedings. Someone with a sharper eye for the period detail, a bit more frivolous (so as to puncture Cap’s shield of nobility when necessary), a bit livelier, with a bit more personality (even if the latter is anathema to Marvel unless you’re James Gunn). The First Avenger is rather flat, static and inert. It most resembles one of those lifeless ‘80s fantasy cash-ins-that-failed-to-cash-in knockoffs (Krull), where big bucks were thrown at moribund material to negligible effect. Still, at least no one could say the next Marvel movie lacked personality…



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…