Back in 1991, on holiday in America, I dragged my tired then-girlfriend into a San Francisco cinema to see director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer on its opening night. This thrilling, retro comic book movie was set to launch a new Disney franchise and whilst the story of an unexceptional 1940s US test pilot who stumbles upon an experimental jetpack and uses it to foil a Nazi conspiracy was full of thrills, spills and derring-do, there was an undeniable sense that there was something missing, that little bit more which turns a ‘nice try’ into a ‘must see’. The general consensus was that The Rocketeer was a pleasant bit of fluff but ultimately eminently forgettable. Then all eyes turned towards Terminator 2 which opened the following weekend and poor old Rocketeer never stood a chance…
But that was then and this is now. Twenty years later Johnston gets to return to 1940s America and this time he gets it right - and how - in the best superhero movie since Iron Man, a non-stop balls-to-the-wall extravanganza bursting with astonishing spectacle, brilliant action sequences and blessed with a sharp sense of humour, something very often right down at the bottom of the script shopping list in some of our more po-faced superhero movies (cough, Dark Knight cough). This is Captain America: The First Avenger and, as the last movie in this particular sequence until next year’s Avengers mash-up, I’d go as far as to say that Captain America gets so much so right so often that, as someone with only a passing interest in comic books these days, I’m genuinely quite excited about the prospect of The Avengers for the very first time.
Like Thor and Iron Man, Captain America isn’t exactly major league superhero stuff in the UK and there was always a worry that the wartime setting and the potential for a bit too much jingoistic ‘America is great, we won the war ya limeys!’ sloganeering might be too much for an international audience to bear. But Johnston’s slick movie avoids all that by sticking resolutely to the source material in its story of puny weakling soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who is enlisted into a US Government ’superserum’ project which turns him all muscley, super-strong and super-athletic. But instead of pitching their new superstar into the field of battle, he’s togged up in a tacky costume, dubbed ’Captain America’ and dispatched around the US to rally the spirits of the population and later, the troops on the frontline. When Cap realises his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is effectively a prisoner of war, captured by vicious Nazi spin-off movement Hydra headed by the sinister Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he sets off on an explosive rescue mission which turns him into America’s greatest war weapon.
Captain America is terrific, joyous fun pretty much from rousing start to slightly-downbeat (and yet powerfully exciting) ending. The script has a great time with the scrawny Steve Rogers (I don’t know how they made Chris Evans look so weedy and I’d really rather not know, thanks), setting up his ongoing sneery relationship with Tommy Lee Jones as Rogers’ deadpan commanding officer Colonel Phillips and sewing the seeds for his slowburn (and ultimately doomed) romance with British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Attwell). Once Cap takes on the mantle of supersoldier (rather than superhero) leading the fight against Schmidt (now revealed as the evil Red Skull) and his Hydra hordes with their devastating death rays the gloves are off and the film kicks into high gear with set piece after set piece as Cap penetrates deep into Hydra’s strongholds, his trusty and virtually indestructible supershield demolishing everything in its wake. The action scenes are breathless and relentless - and surprisingly graphic - and the final battle with Red Skull as he attempts to destroy the major cities of the world is the sort of climax a modern-day Bond film can only dream of. With the Red Skull defeated Cap has to wrest control of a powerless armed aircraft as it hurtles towards Manhattan and faces the ultimate sacrifice if he is to save millions of lives…
With its uncharacteristic 1940s setting and distinct Indiana Jones action vibe, Captain America is a real superhero breath of fresh air in a genre which has become a little bit stuffy of late, despite successes like Thor and the underrated Green Lantern. Big and blousy, brash and loud and with a distinct twinkle in its star-spangled eye, it’s the action movie to see if you really can’t stomach any more wand-waving wizards and transforming robots.
Expected rating: 7 out of 10
Captain America: The First Avenger is out now.