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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston

review by J.C. Hartley
SPOILER ALERT!
For shame Marvel, for insidious monstrosity you've got Hydra beat (chop one arm off and they'll sue your sorry ass)! In the credits one might have expected something on the lines of 'Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby', but no; litigation has taught Marvel to be vigilant and never give an inch that might be used to reclaim intellectual property. So the credits read "Based on the Marvel comic by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby," which is a different thing entirely. No one doubts that Simon and Kirby created Captain America, but Marvel have proved, to the satisfaction of the law courts at least, that they did so as employees of Timely Comics and everything the two did belonged to the latter as the forerunner of Marvel Comics.

Kirby signed a couple of affidavits to that effect, once to get back his artwork and once to further safeguard his livelihood in comics; Simon tried to reclaim his copyrights but the courts have found in Marvel's favour. The venality of publishers is shown again and again in Joe Simon's excellent book My Life In Comics. So, while Stan Lee launches action after action for his share of Spider-Man profits, Marvel squats on its stable of characters from before the days of creator-owned titles and rakes in the merchandising.

Captain America was one of my favourites back in the day. I can only assume he appealed to my own sense of patriotism, or maybe I just liked the shield. He was solid, and out of time, and fought fascism, and in the 1970s his very incongruity made him quite appealing. Nowadays, there's something a little sick-making about his perennial preaching and virginity, itself a little incongruous as he came of age at a time when American servicemen were fucking and fighting their way across Europe.

I wasn't convinced the first time I watched Captain America: The First Avenger. I was drunk of course and that doesn't aid the critical faculties. On a second viewing, I was a bit more positive, and then I got that echoing sound that hints at an ultimately hollow experience. As an 'origins' story it's not bad, the idea of setting the story in WW2 was a risk, and a brave move, but one I had already insisted had to be taken in the pages of this very website. But, oh dear, after a great start, the story doesn't go anywhere; it's just a succession of skirmishes followed by a maudlin ending.

Skinny, chesty weed Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, The Losers) is always 4F when he tries to enlist. His big handsome buddy 'Bucky' Barnes is set to be mobilised overseas. Trying one last time, Rogers is taken under the wing of Dr Erskine, a German refugee scientist, and after being dosed up with a 'super-soldier' serum and bathed in Vita-rays he transforms into a remarkable physical specimen. Unfortunately, a Nazi fifth-columnist sabotages the experiment and shoots Erskine, leaving Rogers as the sole example of the kind of soldier that Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) hoped was going to win the war for the Allies.

Too valuable to risk at the front, Rogers is appropriated by an ambitious senator and, as Captain America, is used as a propaganda tool, selling war-bonds and stimulating enlistment. After a humiliating experience in front of serving troops, and hearing that his old buddy Bucky has been captured, Rogers goes AWOL, drawing on his extraordinary physical prowess to rescue a host of allied prisoners from the clutches of Hydra, a fanatical military cadre loyal to their leader the Red Skull. So far, so good...

The Red Skull, as Johann Schmidt, was a fellow scientist of Erskine's, and the first recipient of the super-soldier serum. Unfortunately, the serum was not ready, and Schmidt was horribly disfigured, and his fanaticism and vanity greatly amplified, so that he now looks beyond the victory of Nazism to his own world-beating ambitions. Armed with the Cosmic Cube, an artefact from Odin's treasure room, the Red Skull is creating weapons of mass destruction.

Captain America, with a multi-national unit of troops drawn from the soldiers he liberated, is tasked with closing down Hydra's various bases of operations and, ho hum, that's what he does before a final confrontation with the Red Skull. Along the way he meets Howard Stark, daddy of Iron Man's Tony, gets a new shield, has a chaste romance with English secret agent Peggy Carter, and sees his best buddy fall down a mighty ravine, which last fills him with obligatory super-hero guilt.

Could Captain America go it alone, like Thor, after The Avengers? Well, not on this outing he couldn't. The character is essentially reactive; stuff happens to him and off he goes like a blunt instrument. There are some issues of interest to comicbook bores. Hodge the bully soldier is given more screen-time than the character merits, is it possible that some serum survived and he would be the first of the second-rank of super-soldiers? Bucky falls off a train, three-quarters of the way through the picture, instead of falling off the Red Skull's plane at the end; does he survive, frozen in an ice-floe like his pal? Nonsensical musings like these filled up the void that the predictable events at the end of the film left yawning.

I can't complain, the film is very faithful to the comic and, with the Cosmic Cube and Asgardian references, has that layer of intertextuality that hooked me to Marvel in the first place. It's just the shoot-em-ups and final slug-fest are so lacking in verve that it seems that the filmmakers themselves said 'OK come on, the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we get to The Avengers!' Cap meets Nick Fury at the end which makes us old comic-book hands smile wryly. Back in 1964 when he emerged from suspended animation Captain America had only been asleep for 20 years. His old wartime buddy Sergeant Fury, was boss of SHIELD, with most of the wartime Howling Commandos like Dum Dum Dugan as his agents. When Steve Rogers wakes up at the end of this film 70 years have passed and this truly is a world he never made. Not bad but not great. Let's see what the main feature is like.

Captain America: The First Avenger



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