CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (Joe Johnston, 2011)

As the notional “youth” would notionally “have it”, Marvel have Owned this summer, a summer of low expectations that only Thor, X-Men: First Class and now Captain America have surpassed. That this one actually ends (not a spoiler, really) with a literal trailer for The Avengers as its obligatory post-credits Easter egg may be considered pretty brazen, but I’m in the “well-founded confidence” camp; these characters, and their world(s), are in good hands.

Not that you’d think so if applying the only-as-good-as-your-last-movie rule to director Joe Johnston’s last movie, The Wolfman. But twenty years ago, Johnston directed another Indiana Jones-inspired wartime comic-book romp, The Rocketeer, to which this is a true spiritual follow-up. Like First Class, it returns its heroes to their original 20th-century contexts for a spot of alt-history fun and games (first person to mention the moon landings/Chernobyl stuff in Transformers 3 gets an incoherent, hyperactive CGI blur intended to represent an awesomely violent metal-machine beatdown). The setting is 1942, but the heart’s about as close to 1991 as anywhere else.

That was also the year of Terminator 2, the film that put CGI on the map, and it roughly represents the tail end of first-generation blockbuster cinema, before it all got quite so antiseptic (among other things). Observing Robert Zemeckis’s dictum that you can get away with scene-setting for 20-odd minutes if you win the viewer’s confidence that something will happen around that point, Johnston takes his time establishing valiant but ineffectual patriotic weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), desperate to enlist but classed 4A at every turn. Until he volunteers to guinea-pig a new super-soldier serum, emerging ripped and ready for action.

Which is where the WW2 setting really comes into its own, addressing an ongoing comic-book bugbear. See, serious-minded folk have long suggested an uncomfortable parallel between the beyond-human superheroics of our funny-papers favourites and the pernicious, half-baked Nietzsche-for-dummies that informed Hitler’s Aryan-superman ideal. So Captain America’s opposite number Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a high-ranking Nazi official until they expel him mid-film for being too villainous, has been enhanced by the same steroidal stew.

Ample opportunity to go through the whole “we are very much alike, you and I” duality bit, but professor Stanley Tucci is on hand to explain the difference; as (I think) William Golding said about success, so too the serum doesn’t alter so much as magnify the subject’s existing characteristics. Good becomes great, bad becomes worse; the subjectivity of which (not to get too relativist on y’all) brings forth the other, closely related elephant in the room. That being our literally star-spangled hero and the way the last dozen years (at least) have made that traditional conflation of truth, justice and the American way a somewhat tougher sell, internationally, that it used to be.

WW2 to the rescue again, modern history’s most unambiguous clash of good and evil; but with an earnest, lantern-jawed pulp decency befitting its hero, Captain America rises above the “we beat Hitler single-handed and saved all your sorry butts” petty jingoism that’s too often prevailed, explicitly or implicitly, elsewhere. (Though is a historically improbable task force that includes soldiers of Afro-American, Asian and English origin a triumph of diplomacy, or just Benetton-tokenistic?)

I’m neglecting the hefty fun factor. So, special mention: Tommy Lee Jones essaying yet another gruff commander hardly set the pulse racing on paper, but unexpectedly given some decent lines and a reasonable chunk of screen time, he’s at his funniest. More broadly, this is as proudly pop-art as Spider-Man 1 and 2, but goes at its period setting and narrative with a dignity and attention to detail that’s altogether Raiders-worthy. A hugely satisfying pillar of the comic-world community.

(A version of this review appeared in last Saturday’s Cumberland & Westmorland Herald.)

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