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.

Have You Seen… ‘The Rocketeer’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton star in ‘The Rocketeer’ (image credit: Disney).

Year:  1991

Starring:  Bill Campbell, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Terry O’Quinn

Directed by:  Joe Johnston / written by:  Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (story by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo & William Dear.  Based on The Rocketeer, created by Dave Stevens)

What’s it about?

Test pilot Cliff Secord comes into possession of a prototype rocket-pack that allows him to soar into the skies as the heroic ‘Rocketeer’…

In review: why you should see it

An unfortunate financial disappointment for Walt Disney Pictures on its theatrical release (barely recouping its budget of around $40 million) in the summer of 1991, The Rocketeer has thankfully earned more appreciation in the years since to become something of a cult favourite.  Based on the graphic novel by the late writer/artist Dave Stevens, itself inspired by 1940s adventure serial King of the Rocket Men, The Rocketeer is a charming film of a more innocent and less cynical time and is a fun, heroic adventure taking place in late 1930’s America.  With lots of heart, an adventurous spirit and a nostalgic magic it’s impossible not to fall under its spell.

A charismatic and likeable Bill Campbell (recognisable by fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation from his guest role in the 1988 episode “The Outrageous Okana”) plays Cliff Secord, a daring young stunt pilot who comes into possession of a hi-tech rocket-powered jet pack invented by Howard Hughes (a fictionalised version of the real-life aviator portrayed by Terry O’Quinn), lost by its creator and desperately sought after by both Nazi agents and the FBI.  Unaware of the origins of the rocket pack and the danger he faces, Cliff uses it to rescue his friend, who runs into trouble during an aerial performance at a local air show.  His deeds witnessed by the crowd, the mysterious helmeted hero is celebrated by the media as “The Rocketeer”.  Needless to say it isn’t long before Cliff is embroiled in troubles of his own as enemies who will stop at nothing to possess the rocket-pack begin to close in on him.

The ever-stunning Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Cliff’s actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake, who is more than just the token love interest or a mere damsel in distress and comfortably holds her own as she gets involved in the action.  There’s great chemistry between Connelly and Campbell and together with Secord’s friendship with his mentor, “Peevy” (Alan Arkin) helps drive the emotional core of the story.  Played with a seething menace and maniacal intensity, Flash Gordon’s Timothy Dalton (following his all-too brief and undervalued stint as super-spy James Bond in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) is brilliant as the central villain, arrogant box office star Neville Sinclair with a sinister agenda and a true identity that only enhances the threat he poses to not just Secord and his friends but also the entire world.

Cliff Secord blasts into the skies in ‘The Rocketeer’ (image credit: Disney).

Director Joe Johnston (later to helm Jurassic Park III and Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger) is the perfect fit, his experience working with Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones films lovingly infused into the retro-pulp action adventure of The Rocketeer.  Johnston skillfully directs the aerial sequences and delivers some solid action set-pieces, including a climactic duel between Sinclair and Secord aboard the airship Luxembourg which provides a suitably exciting finale that tops things off nicely.  The high-flying action is facilitated by Industrial Light & Magic who produce some commendable special and visual effects work.

The Rocketeer is something of a lost gem, a film that is incredibly entertaining with likeable characters, a good script and decent special effects.  It’s disappointing that the film’s lack of success (despite receiving favourable reviews) nixed the prospect of any sequels and sobering to think that Disney might have ever had a comic book flop on their hands, but this was some years before the corporation would acquire Marvel Studios and reap the benefits of the popular and lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Still, despite the further adventures of The Rocketeer appearing in comic book form and an animated series aimed at young viewers (for which Bill Campbell would reprise his role), it’s a shame that the property has not been revived for the big screen, something it is more than ripe for.

Geek fact!

Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo had another comic book property under their creative belts, the writing duo responsible for the development of the short-lived 1990 television series of DC’s The Flash, featuring future Henry Allen, John Wesley Shipp in the lead role of Barry Allen.

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