Ensemble support in Captain America: The First Avenger
by Tony Dayoub
One of the most unexpected pleasures of some of the recent crop of superhero blockbusters is how adjustments to period and setting have freshened up what was fast becoming a moribund subgenre. Nearly half of Thor takes place in the mythological Norse realm of Asgard. X-Men: First Class isn’t just set in the 1960s; it takes place in a jet-set imaginary ’60s right out of the 007 films. The backdrop for Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the most recent of these films to come out on Blu-ray and DVD, is an art-deco-by-way-of-steampunk version of the ’40s not seen onscreen since Johnston’s last superhero film, The Rocketeer (1991). Such application of period and locale legitimizes what for many is an inherently childish class of film. (Personally, I prefer to think of superhero films as escapist but, nonetheless, my kneejerk stance when discussing one is to come out of the gate defending it.) This affords the filmmakers the ability to attract a higher caliber of actors or technicians while generally making it a tougher sell to general audiences. (2005’s noir-ish Sin City, based on a graphic novel series, comes to mind.) What it also does, though, is allow the knowledgeable helmer (such as journeyman Johnston) to have some fun with cinematic conventions, and not just the comic book in-jokes that have become de rigueur in these films.
The most pronounced attribute of WWII movies (or just war movies, period) on display in Captain America is its ensemble cast of freedom fighters. I’m not just talking about Haley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones or Stanley Tucci, all of whom offer star Chris Evans — uncharacteristically earnest as the Sentinel of Liberty — fine support. No, think more along the lines of films like The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963) or The Dirty Dozen (1967), movies which united a group of unconventional Allied heroes, each with a unique expertise in some form of combat, for a series of missions against the Axis, usually in Europe. In Captain America, Johnston surrounds Cap with just such a group fairly quickly in order to, I surmise, establish his reluctance (as a result of the untimely death of one teammate) to work with such teams in the future — or at least in the upcoming Avengers movie. But whatever the story demands might require, Johnston also takes advantage of their appearance to pay tribute to Captain America’s cinematic predecessors...
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