Flashback: ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Before The Avengers would assemble, audiences were introduced to perhaps the team’s most crucial member…

Chris Evans leads as Steve Rogers/Captain America in director Joe Johnston’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Year:  2011

Starring:  Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by:  Joe Johnston / written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Rejected from enlisting in the U.S. Army, Steve Rogers, a physically weak but strong spirited young man from Brooklyn is recruited for a secret programme that will see him transformed into the ‘Super Soldier’ Captain America, to lead the fight against the forces of Hydra…

Retrospective/review

In July of 2011, Marvel Studios edged closer to the culmination of ‘Phase One’ of its plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it approached The Avengers, with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger introducing audiences to Steve Rogers/Captain America, the classic Marvel hero who will be the keystone of the eponymous comic book superhero team.

Directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), and starring Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger is predominantly a period piece bookended by scenes taking place in modern day.  The bulk of the narrative unfolds at the height of World War II, where Steve Rogers (Evans), a physically diminutive but noble spirited young man from Brooklyn, repeatedly refused enlistment in the U.S. Army, is selected for a top-secret programme where an experimental serum transforms him into the tall, muscular and agile Super Soldier ‘Captain America’ who will lead the fight against Nazi lieutenant Johann Schmidt – aka ‘The Red Skull’ (The Matrix trilogy’s Hugo Weaving) – and the forces of Hydra as they seek to unlock the powers of a mysterious and powerful artefact known as the Tesseract.

The casting of Chris Evans in the lead role may not have seemed an obvious one (even though he was a highlight of 20th Century Fox’s not-so-great Fantastic Four films, where he played The Human Torch) but any fears where quickly allayed with an instantly likeable and grounded performance as Steve Rogers, prior and post-transformation and it’s now difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role.  It helps that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide Rogers with a strong character arc, from the frustrated underdog and determined recruit to subsequent propaganda performer (the stage shows and movie serials with accompanying costume providing nostalgic homages to the history of Marvel’s ‘Star-Spangled Man’) and his eventual first real mission as Captain America, it affords Evans with rich material to invest in.  Kudos also must be given to costume designer Anna B. Sheppard as Cap’s World War II battlefield uniform is a standout example of creating something that is both faithful and unique and looks great onscreen.  The use of doubles and digital effects trickery also proves convincing in presenting viewers with the smaller and more slight pre-serum Rogers.

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull, one of the MCU’s more memorable villains (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Evans is ably supported by Sebastian Stan, making his first appearance as Steve Rogers’ best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (later to become the Hydra-conditioned assassin known as The Winter Soldier) but it’s undoubtedly the superb Hayley Atwell who proves his equal as the no-nonsense and dutiful British Agent Peggy Carter.  Evans and Atwell have wonderful chemistry and Carter is a great addition to the MCU, so it’s little wonder that Atwell would reprise here role in subsequent films and earn her own short-lived tv series (the sorely overlooked Agent Carter).  As the main antagonist, Hugo Weaving (who had previously worked with Joe Johnston on Universal Monster remake The Wolf Man) effortlessly delivers one of the MCU’s more memorable villains as the iconic Red Skull.

The cast is rounded out impressively with the participation of Oscar Winner Tommy Lee Jones (earning the prestigious award for Best Supporting Actor in The Fugitive) as Colonel Phillips, Stanley Tucci as the Super Soldier serum’s creator Dr. Abraham Erskine (who also has a great rapport with Chris Evans, with some great character-building scenes between the two), Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of future Iron Man, Tony Stark), Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan (one of the infamous “Howling Commandos”) and Toby Jones as Hydra scientist Dr. Arnim Zola.  Lest us also not forget that there’s another enjoyable cameo from late Marvel Comics legend, Stan Lee as well as an appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Much like he demonstrated on The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston balances story, character and action brilliantly, weaving touches of Raiders of the Lost Ark into the nostalgic and adventurous fantasy period piece.  Of the film’s action set-pieces, they are numerous (and enhanced by Predator and The Abyss composer Alan Silvestri’s music score) and expertly staged, whether it’s Rogers’ rescue of imprisoned soldiers from the clutches of Hydra or the tense and gripping flying-wing finale.  Said finale of course sees Captain Rogers attempting the ultimate sacrifice to save the free world from annihilation.  Luckily, he is frozen deep in ice, to be discovered and revived in present day, leading to a poignant dénouement that paves the way for Marvel’s expanding film and television universe.

Captain America: The First Avenger is an underrated early effort from Marvel Studios that firmly establishes Marvel’s Golden Age hero and puts the final pieces in place before unleashing their ambitious and highly anticipated team-up, The Avengers.

Geek fact!

Actress Laura Haddock, later to play Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy makes a brief appearance in The First Avenger as an autograph seeking admirer of Captain America.  Subsequent Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman can also be seen in a small role as Bucky’s date at the Stark Expo.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

It’s a Classic: ‘Predator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“If it bleeds, we can kill it”

Predator a

A deadly foe – the technologically advanced and lethal hunter of ‘Predator’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  1987 

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, R.G. Armstrong, Shane Black, Kevin Peter Hall

Directed by:  John McTiernan / written by:  Jim Thomas & John Thomas

What’s it about?

An elite special forces unit find themselves being hunted by a deadly creature in the jungles of Central America…

In review:  why it’s a classic

An adrenaline induced and suspenseful science fiction actioner, Predator is the first – and indisputably best – entry in what would become 20th Century Fox’s other iconic SF creature franchise.  With a cast lead by action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John McTiernan (who would helm another classic the following year – Die Hard), Predator is highly entertaining.

The set-up is simple: a crack military team are sent into the guerrilla-infested jungles of Central America on a mission to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter.  Discovering the skinned bodies of their comrades, the team soon find themselves in a fight for survival as an alien creature, which collects the skulls of its victims as trophies, begins hunting them down.  The execution is superb, writers Jim & John Thomas, together with the cast, provide a troupe of tough but likeable characters:  team leader ‘Dutch’ is played assuredly by Schwarzenegger (quickly reaching the height of his superstardom at this point), ably supported by Carl Weathers as Dillon, a former colleague turned-CIA man with the roster filled out by Bill Duke as ‘Mac’, Jesse Ventura as Blaine, the late Sonny Landham as Billy, Richard Chaves as Poncho and Shane Black – future writer and director of 2018’s The Predator (and who also provided uncredited contributions to the script for Predator) stars as Hawkins.  Caught up in the terror is Elpidia Carrillo as Anna, a captured guerrilla who joins Dutch and his unit as they attempt to reach extraction.

Predator b

Action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger leads the cast of ‘Predator’ as ‘Dutch’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

John McTiernan directs with confidence and skill, delivering scintillating and satisfying action.  Yet it’s the slowly unwinding element of suspense that makes Predator so engrossing, like Ridley Scott’s Alien, time is taken for events to unfold creating an increasing sense of unease.  The unrelenting heat of the jungle coupled with the conflict fermented by the interference of Weathers’ Dillon adds further to the tension.

Of course, Predator is nothing without its central threat and the Predator itself – created by the legendary Stan Winston and his studio (saving the production after a failed, laughably bad and unconvincing prototype was abandoned) – is as unique and memorable as the Xenomorphs of Alien and Aliens, remaining incredibly formidable and one of the greatest and most iconic creature designs in the history of film.  Just as Predator unfolds at a steady pace, the appearance of the lethal 7 foot-plus and muscular extra-terrestrial (played by Kevin Peter Hall), masked and equipped with an invisibility cloak, shoulder laser, razor sharp gauntlet blades and heat vision sensor is slowly revealed – the final unmasking saved until its climactic one on one showdown with Dutch in an exciting and rewarding finale.

Alan Silvestri’s thrumming, atmospheric and intense music score proves the perfect accompaniment to a true genre classic that would spawn numerous sequels, comic books, novels, video games and slews of merchandise that add up to a pop culture phenomenon.

Standout moment

After storming the guerrilla camp, Dutch and his team prepare to depart and head for extraction.  As Hawkins shares a joke with Billy, unbeknown to them someone, or something is observing…

Geek fact!

Martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally brought in to play the Predator and participated in test-shoots before the initial creature design was abandoned.

If you like this then check out…

Alien : 20th Century Fox’s original lethal extra-terrestrial makes its debut in Ridley Scott’s equally suspenseful masterpiece.

The Terminator : Arnold Schwarzenegger plays another kind of hunter as the deadly time travelling cyborg in James Cameron’s landmark science fiction thriller.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).