Another week, another guy in tights. But is a surprisingly nifty, witty, action-packed adventure, writes Donald Clarke
RECENT EVENTS suggest that the market for superheroes is bottoming out. Thor did reasonably well, but Green Lantern, The Green Hornet and X-Men: First Class spluttered at the box-office. The screens have all gone red on the super-trading floor. Sell, sell, sell!
The slump is bound to make the folk at Marvel Comics film division feel distinctly uneasy. Since the early 19th century (or so it seems), that company has been using its films as massive trailers for the orgy of crimefighting – everyone in tights is invited – that will be next year’s The Avengers. This latest bout of Kerpow! even manages to sneak an Avengers reference into its title.
Are we already bored? Will the “rest of the world” overcome prejudice to attend a film with America in the title? More worrying still, doesn’t Cap (as we veteran Marvel fans know him) belong to the Pleistocene era? Created during the second World War – the first golden age of comics – Captain America hasn’t been properly fashionable since Richard Nixon was in the White House. Sell, sell, sell!
But hang on a moment. Insofar as I can tell, Captain America turns out to be the most enjoyable Marvel spinoff since the first Iron Man film. I say “insofar as I can tell” because, at the screening this writer attended, the dulling effect of 3D rendered the screen so murky that it was often difficult to discern who was pummelling whom with what. The regular flat version is the one to catch.
Taking its cue as much from cheapo movie serials as from the ancient comic book, the film returns Cap to his roots in the war years. Chris Evans (confusingly, also the Human Torch in the idiotic Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers, an asthmatic seven-ounce weakling – as brave as he is puny – who longs to join up and defend the world from “bullies”.
After several failed attempts to enlist, a kindly government scientist (Stanley Tucci) takes pity on Steve and arranges for him to participate in an experimental programme that aims to transform ordinary men into invincible behemoths. Assisted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father to the future Iron Man, Steve’s new pal places the frail kid in a steampunk sarcophagus and twiddles a few dials. With a few buzzes and a smattering of fizzles the operation is accomplished. Tom Thumb has become Tom of Finland.
After the vulgar CGI orgy that was the latest Transformers, it’s a delight to see those effects used in an original and discombobulating fashion. The tiny version of Evans is brilliantly effective and allows the actor, who’s always exhibited respectable comic chops, to break free of his customary beefcake shackles.
Speaking in a classic Hollywood German accent – he has vays of making you tahlk – Hugo Weaving is terrific as key villain The Red Skull. Tommy Lee Jones is wry as the expected gruff colonel and, though hardly stretched, Hayley Atwell hits the right screwball rhythms as the English love interest. If that wasn’t enough, we are treated to a genuinely touching pastiche of a famous scene from Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death. You didn’t get that in Rise of the Silver Surfer.
If Joe Johnston’s film has an obvious precursor, it is the same director’s nicely nostalgic The Rocketeer from 1991. Captain America, shot in (I think) earth tones that hint at sepia, has the same passion for uninhibited action and the same enthusiasm for honest pulp sensibilities.
The only real bad news is that – and a framing device spills the beans, so this is no spoiler – the picture leaves us no possibility of a sequel set in the same timeframe. Oh, well. A 21st-century Captain America can only add charm to that bleeding Avengers project.
An unexpected delight.
Fire power: Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger