The latest Marvel character comes to the big screen in a period fantasy which has its moments but is ultimately diminished by being part of a wider comic book narrative.
Ever since 2008, Marvel Studios has been on something of a roll.
Previously, major Hollywood studios had licensed Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four and reaped huge commercial rewards in the resulting movies.
With Iron Man (2008) the comic book company decided to finance a movie themselves – with major studio just distributing -and monetise their properties more effectively than they had done before.
The resulting film was significant as it was not only a huge hit which rejuvenated the career of Robert Downey Jnr, but the beginning of a connected franchise of films involving Marvel characters.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (it has its own Wikipedia page) includes: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012).
Captain America’s story begins with a present day discovery in the Arctic, before flashing back to the 1940s when a plucky Brooklyn weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is recruited to be part of a secret program headed by expatriate German scientist (Stanley Tucci).
He becomes part of a ‘super-soldier’ program under the command of a Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) and British officer (Hayley Atwell), whilst in Europe his evil German counterpart Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) has a contrasting transformation into the villainous Red Skull.
What follows is a standard superhero origin story, but the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deftly pokes fun at the patriotic origins of the character whilst at the same time largely delivering the action movie goods.
Unlike Iron Man, it is hard to imagine a modern incarnation of Captain America in an age where US foreign policy has angered so much of the world, but the period setting is a smart move, as it allows us an ironic distance from the character and the story.
Director Joe Johnston was presumably recruited because he made The Rocketeer (1991), another period superhero film set around World War 2, and to a degree that pays off, as the old fashioned look, witty dialogue and romantic angles are well realised.
But there are some underlying problems to this version of Captain America, which stem from the underlying blandness of the character, the uneasy mix of period design and CGI, and the creeping familiarity of the Avengers universe.
Steve Rogers is still a fairly one-dimensional hero and although there are nice recurring motifs (such as his use of a shield), he’s still the archetypal loner surrounded by characters who initially doubt and then come to respect him.
The actors do their best: Chris Evans has a steady, innocent charm in the lead role and Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones are also good value, but the underlying material doesn’t really provide them with anything truly substantial.
The production design by Rich Heinrichs features some good use of sets and real world locations (with various UK places standing in for Brooklyn and World War 2 Europe) but for many of the more expansive action sequences CGI is used in a distracting way.
This is a problem that plagues many modern action films and in crucial sequences the mix of real actors and CGI enhanced backgrounds just doesn’t look right.
The 3D compounds the problem as it not only reduces the brightness of the film, but the post-conversion process used here doesn’t provide images of sufficient depth or detail.
In contrast, the sound design supervised by Howell Gibbens is first rate and gives the action sequences a real kick, especially in the action sequences and the moments involving Captain America’s iconic shield.
Alan Silvestri’s old fashioned score also adds the appropriate lift to the proceedings.
But the wider Avengers universe is always hovering in the background: we see Tony Stark’s father (Dominic Cooper) and there’s a climax involving the now obligatory cameo from a certain S.H.I.E.L.D agent, along with a post-credits scene for hardcore fans.
This is all part of leading up to next year’s Avengers movie, which will combine the characters of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, but the whole approach of the franchise so far has made the Marvel films up to this point feel like watered down prequels rather than standalone movies.
Captain America: The First Avenger has its moments but ultimately makes you pine for a superhero movie which has a proper resolution and doesn’t feel part of some brightly coloured, never-ending franchise.
But don’t panic: The Dark Knight Rises is out next summer.
Captain America: The First Avenger opens in the UK on Friday 29th July