Joe Johnston knows how to direct adventure films but watching his growth as a director has been a pleasure. His first offering, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was a visual effects feast, thanks to his training at Industrial Light & Magic. He followed up in 1991 with his first comic book adaptation, Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer and while the movie is far better than the critical reaction or box office would indicate, it still lacked that certain spark of delight for a summer blockbuster. Over the intervening years, Joe has continued to direct films that has shown steady growth as he has more subtly integrated effects with characterization with the family friendly Jumanji and the heart-warming October Sky. It was all good training as he took on what has become his highest profile project yet, Captain America: The First Avenger.
Clearly, he has learned his lessons as the critics – both mainstream and geek alike – have raved over the film while the $65 million it earned over the weekend proves he delivered a film people wanted to see. There were many obstacles challenging Johnston so that he managed to overcome them with aplomb is quite impressive. First of all, he had to turn a brief origin story from Captain America Comics #1 into a story that was plausible for modern day audiences. He had to fill it with winks and nods to the comics continuity that has been built around that Joe Simon & Jack Kirby tale of a man being turned into a super-solider. Then there was all the spadework that was required to prime audiences for the next installment in the Marvel Film Universe, next summer’s The Avengers.
Joining me for the Saturday matinee were two neighbors who only knew the character by name so while I sat there geeking out like the rest of you over the little touches, they were thoroughly satisfied with the story from beginning to end. (I had to spend dinner annotating it for them which was a fun test of memory.)
Steve Rogers was 4F despite his desire to serve as America was entering World War II, the script adaptation by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely wisely took the time to show exactly why it was Rogers who was selected for the experimental serum. Retrofitting in Howard Stark, played with verve by Dominic Cooper, helped tie things to the greater Marvel continuity and made perfect sense. But it remained Professor Erskine’s show and Stanley Tucci did a nice job giving him a world-weary personality with more than a sense of humor.
Rogers still had to prove his mettle and was signed up then put through basic training showing that he had the courage and brains that made up for his physical limitations, much to the chagrin of his commanding officer, Col. Chester Phillips (played by Tommy Lee Jones, who stole every seen he was in). Carefully, Johnston built things up to the transformation and once Rogers, all nice and buff, stepped out of the transformation chamber, the movie ignited.
Chris Evans was utterly convincing as Rogers, both Before and After, thanks to CGI trickery. He made Cap feel like the Everyman he was always intended to be, the heart and soul of the country that stood for freedom. In a nicely original touch, since he was the sole example of the project, he was used a symbol, put on tour to raise war bond funds and kept away from combat. The montage sequences here were superb, aided by a swell Alan Menken song that perfectly fit the patriotic era.
When his best friend, James Buchanan Barnes (Sebastian Shaw) was reporting MIA, Rogers puts friendship ahead of country and goes on a solo mission, with the support of Stark and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), to rescue Bucky and any other soldiers.
Where were they? Held by Hydra, established in the film lore as the scientific division of the Third Reich led by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Once more, a Hollywood alteration adds a connection between hero and villain that is not necessary but someone in power keeps insisting it happen. So, the Skull was actually an earlier Erskine test subject whose basic characteristics were amplified making him crueler than – to me, a thoroughly unnecessary touch.
On the other hand, among those rescued with Bucky are the soldiers comic fans recognize as the Howling Commandos, with Bucky taking the Nick Fury role since the movie Fury is based on a different line of comics using the same Marvel mythology and is a black man (Samuel L. Jackson). Since a film featuring a costumed teen sidekick wouldn’t play as well as it did in the 1940s, this tweak worked quite well.
Overall, the story has touches of humanity and humor, placed the fate of the free world at stake, and introduced us to the Cosmic Cube (a Cap comic touch now retrofitted to Thor’s film continuity). Cap’s developing feelings for Carter remind us he’s an average Joe who is awkward with women, as seen in a humorous moment with luscious Natalie Dormer. As a result, as Cap seemingly sacrifices himself to save the US, his final radio conversation with Carter is heart-wrenching.
Those final moments of Cap’s miraculous resurrection in modern times is straight out of the comics and sets up his future role. Still, any additional flashback sequences to a simpler time would still be welcome.
The production design was excellent throughout with the exception of the Hydra agents who appear to be proto-Stormtroopers and as a result was more distracting than menacing. It had that retro feel and art deco look. Johnston got the best from his cast and delivered a satisfying adventure tale for all ages accompanied by a most excellent score from Alan Silvestri.
All too infrequently do we get a comic book-based film that transcends its source material and becomes plain and simple, an entertaining movie, blending various elements into a concoction that leaves you walking out the theater feeling good.