Joe Johnston is a director who has been overlooked and unfairly dismissed far too often, as far as I’m concerned. His first directing gig was on the highly enjoyable Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and since then he’s had a few misses along the way but his hits always seem to receive relatively short shrift. The Rocketeer, from what little I can recall of it, was a nice adventure romp with some wonderful nostalgia and a number of great actors, Jumanji holds up today as an entertaining slice of FX-heavy adventure, Jurassic Park III was a hell of a lot better than the second movie and The Wolfman was actually a very good film badly treated by most audiences and critics who wanted something else, something . . . . . . . . . . well, something that I couldn’t even begin to guess at, to be honest. It was a nice blend of the classic and the very modern and it became one of my favourite modern werewolf movies. Which brings us to Captain America: The First Avenger (an unwieldy title I have used here to keep it separate from the many other movie outings that the titular superhero has been allowed). It certainly wasn’t a despised film, doing well with many critics and ringing the tills nicely at the box office. But the variety of opinions and comments I’d already heard about it didn’t prepare me for one thing – this is one of the finest comic book superhero movies that I’ve seen in a long, long time. I wasn’t expecting much from it (much like Thor, the Captain is a character I have never really read up on or been all that interested in) and I got one of the best blockbusters of the year. Or even recent years, come to that.
Chris Evans is puny Steve Rogers, a man as physically weak as he is mentally strong. He keeps trying and trying to get into the army so that he can do his bit during WWII but keeps being refused. Thankfully, a doctor (Stanley Tucci) sees what qualities he has inside his weak frame and gives him the chance to join an army training program and then become part of a risky, but potentially rewarding, experimental procedure. Let’s not dwell on the fact that the first time the experiment was tried it resulted in Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) becoming Red Skull, a German who wants to overtake both Adolf Hitler and the entire world. Tommy Lee Jones is the Colonel who really isn’t sure about Rogers, Hayley Atwell is the strong and beautiful woman who has faith in the man, Dominic Cooper is Howard ‘father of Tony’ Stark and Sebastian Stan is ‘Bucky’, a good friend to Steve. Steve becoming Captain America is a great success but he is frustrated by the fact that he is then used for nothing more than propaganda and raising money for war bonds. Captain America wants action, he wants to help his fellow countrymen. When ‘Bucky’ is lost behind enemy lines, action is definitely required.
There’s so much right here that I don’t know where to begin and how to put over my enthusiasm in a way that will still allow people to think me sane, or as sane as they might normally think me. The cast are all great. Chris Evans is an actor I’ve personally always enjoyed ever since his great turns in Not Another Teen Movie and Cellular and I’m glad that he’s finally getting some great roles that use his personality and energy while also allowing him many great moments (he was also an undeniable highlight in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World – a movie full of undeniable highlights). Evans is believable and likeable in both weak and muscular incarnations, the former achieved with some superb computerised tweaking. Hayley Atwell is not someone I’m overly familiar with but her great performance here has certainly encouraged me to keep an eye out for her in the future. Hugo Weaving is always watchable and here he makes for a great villain, especially as he channels the voice of Werner Herzog through his vocal chords. Stanley Tucci is another actor who rarely puts a foot wrong, Tommy Lee Jones is fun to watch, Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper are both just fine and Toby Jones has a fair amount of screentime, another actor I’m all too happy to watch in almost anything (he first came to my attention in this superb music video by Gomez). And Neal McDonough joins in with the fun.
The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is very good, albeit hampered by the usual superhero origin story limitations – setting up the main character and his evolution, referencing things to come, etc. The most pleasant surprise, however, was just how it managed to feel jingoistic and patriotic at times while also never becoming something to make you roll your eyes. The Captain is initially used as a symbol to help and entertain Americans and so the audience is allowed to enjoy the spectacle while also recognising how ineffective it all seems in the grand scheme of things. A very smart move.
The design throughout is just superb, with some great 1940s period recreational work that contains plenty of retro-cool, and the mix of practical effects and computer work is the best of its kind that I can recall seeing in this kind of movie. Even in the more frantic and over the top set-pieces I felt as if I was watching all of the actors playing their parts as opposed to simply viewing a number of busy, busy pixels.
Everything just works, it comes together to form something old-fashioned in a way yet with cutting-edge visuals and modern, fresh eyes. And that’s why I started this whole review praising Joe Johnston, because he shows here that he’s an absolutely fantastic director and one who really knows his stuff when it comes to action spectacle mixed with heart and some drama. The man who started way back in the 70s as a member of the effects unit on the first Star Wars movie has come a long way since then but hasn’t forgotten just what makes the movie screen an arena of fleeting magic.
DIRECTOR: JOE JOHNSTON
WRITER: CHRISTOPHER MARKUS, STEPHEN MCFEELY
STARS: CHRIS EVANS, HAYLEY ATWELL, HUGO WEAVING, STANLEY TUCCI, TOMMY LEE JONES, SEBASTIAN STAN, DOMINIC COOPER, TOBY JONES, NEAL MCDONOUGH
RUNTIME: 124 MINS APPROX