Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t really have an ending. Around about the point where a real movie would end, it just kind of fizzles out and turns into a set-up for The Avengers. And while the rest of the movies setting up The Avengers had a cool story-driven post-credits cameo from Samuel L. Jackson, this one just drops all the pretense and throws a teaser trailer at you.
And that’s really the only complaint I can dredge up about the movie. Everything else is pretty great. Essentially it’s the movie I wanted The Rocketeer to be, way back when. It feels as though instead of cranking out another franchise movie, they started with the idea of making a solid, old-fashioned WWII-inspired movie. And applying the hundreds of millions of dollars that come from a popular franchise to that idea.
There’s absolutely no doubt that this movie had an obscene budget; I can’t recall a single scene that didn’t have some kind of visual effect going on. The first thirty minutes or so have the star’s face CGed onto a stand-in’s body. (I was thinking that the casting in The First Avenger ruled out the possibility of any Captain America/Fantastic Four crossovers, but there was already so much CG in the movie that I guess anything’s possible). But that’s the best example of why the movie works so well without being overpowered by its visual effects budget: the effects are rarely intended to be the focus, but to be seamless and to further the story.
But when they are intended to be the focus, they deliver. There’s an amazing version of the World’s Fair (pushed ahead a couple decades to WWII) that’s exactly what I want to see in a movie like this. Plus train chases and super ray guns and submarines and dogfights with gyrocopters, not to mention the Red Skull’s totally bad-ass car. Everything’s got a heightened comic book surrealism to it, but it remains part of the aesthetic, instead of taking the lazy route of resorting to “comic book” storytelling. (The Busby Berkeley-like propaganda montage was also fantastic).
It’s a great reminder that fantastic visuals don’t mean the story has to be stupid. It delivered everything I wanted in a movie like, say, Sucker Punch, without my wanting to bludgeon everyone on-screen about the head and neck repeatedly for hours.
Marvel has done such a great job defining what the “comic book movie” can be, I’m starting to feel bad for DC. (And I’ve always been a DC guy). The Marvel movies definitely aren’t all perfect: Iron Man 2 was disappointing, both of the Hulk movies were tedious, Wolverine did everything wrong it possibly could, and the third X-Men movie was such an abomination that everybody on-screen looked like they wanted to be anywhere else. But when they get it right, it’s terrific.
I’m skeptical about The Avengers. Everything that makes the individual movies work so well — focusing on a single character, a single villain, and a simple origin story — doesn’t apply when you’ve got so many characters (and movie stars) fighting for screen time. I loved the first two X-Men movies, but that was primarily because they focused on Wolverine and Rogue, or Jean Grey and Nightcrawler. Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men was pretty good, but that’s because it was essentially Kitty Pride as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
On the other hand, part of how the best of Marvel’s super-hero movies have worked where others have failed is that they’ve matched really talented directors with characters that make sense for them. Sam Raimi did Spider-Man 2 (the best in the series) as campy comedy/horror. Jon Favreau did Iron Man 2 as romantic comedy — essentially Vince Vaughn’s character from Swingers in a power suit. Kenneth Branagh did Thor as ostentatious mythic drama. Bryan Singer latched onto the band-of-misfits/what-does-it-mean-to-be-“normal” parable of the X-Men. And Joe Johnston made an aesthetically beautiful WWII propaganda movie inspired by old serials. The only question for The Avengers is which characters Joss Whedon is going to be allowed to kill off.