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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2011)

10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Once again, we must consider the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it was much harder than it looked. The public had embraced Iron Man but, as the studio marched towards “The Avengers,” there was no guarantee they would similarly embrace Marvel's other superheroes. Captain America, in particular, would have been an easy character to screw up. Some were fearful about whether the film would be a work of jingostic American propaganda. Marvel was clearly nervous about selling a movie with “America” in the title abroad, giving the movie the unwieldy subtitle of “The First Avenger.” (Internationally, that was the main title, with the character's name as the subtitle.) In order to guide the most patriotic of Marvel's hero, the House of Ideas would recruit Joe Johnston, clearly realizing that the retro setting and gee shucks heroism of “The Rocketeer” was a good fit for the Star-Spangled Avenger.

The year is 1942 and World War II rages in Europe. Nazi Germany's deep science unit, Hydra, is led by Johann Schmit, a madman who has used an experimental serum to turn himself into a superhuman. Schmit has recently recovered an ancient artifact of massive power and intends on using it to destroy all sides of the war. In the streets of Brooklyn, Steve Rogers doesn't know about any of that. He's a sickly, skinny orphan who desperately wants to enlist because he hates bullies and wants to fight against tyranny. Seeing his worthy qualities, the inventor of Schmit's serum chooses Rogers as the next test subject. The scrawny kid is soon transformed into peak human condition, becoming Captain America.

“The First Avenger” understands something very important about Captain America. Despite his name, despite the colors he wears on his uniform, Steve Rogers does not represent America as it is. Instead, he represents the ideas the country is founded on and aspires too. Steve Rogers hates bullies. He rightfully sees the wave of tyranny marching through Europe, all fascism, as a similar thought process. He stands up to assholes when he weighs 90 pounds. Those same principals direct him after his transformation. Captain America is wholesome, even cheesy at times, a hero who does what's right because it's the right thing. This deeply uncynical style of heroism would've been hard to screw up but the film commits to it fully.

A big reason why the audience buys into Cap's old school style of heroism so readily is the actor playing him. When it was announced Chris Evans was playing Captain America, I was skeptical. While he had the look, nothing about the jocko assholes he played in “Not Another Teen Movie” or “Fantastic Four” suggested to me he could be Steve Rogers. Thankfully, I was wrong. Evans isn't just good. He's perfect. Evans is not worried about appearing corny. He embraces the ideas Captain America stands for, playing a deeply ethical soldier who does what's right. Yet these are not easy decisions to make, Evans showing how difficult it can be to stand up for certain principals while the world is going mad around him. Of all the spot-on casting decisions Marvel made when putting together their initial slate of films, this is undeniably my favorite. Evans brings some humor to the role too, delivering a couple of really good zingers about being a captain or punching out Hitler.

While an ideally cast leading man and a certain understanding of its hero are important, “Captain America: The First Avenger” also works because it's a tightly plotted adventure. Like the best film of Marvel's early phases, the film has an extremely clean plot construction. The perfectly balanced first act, showing Steve working through basic training and being chosen to to become Captain America, leads to an action pack middle chapter. After proving his heroism with the prison camp rescue, the film graduates towards a series of action-packed montages. It's all leading towards the final showdown between Cap and the Red Skull. It flows, beautifully, drawing the audience in and not letting go until its given us as much entertainment as possible. This is how popcorn cinema is suppose to work.

As an action movie, “Captain America” is also pretty damn good. Johnston's skill for organizing nostalgia-flavored action sequences have only grown since “The Rocketeer.” The foot chase through New York, which helpfully demonstrates Rogers' newly granted abilities, gets things off on a high note. That middle-of-the-film montage, showing Captain and the Howling Commandos' various adventures from the war, is a joyful blast of comic book action. The rescue of the prisoners is another highlight, concluding with a rocket that flies via spinning turbines. In fact, “The First Avenger” has a delightful love of old-time-y gadgetry. Aside from Cap's boomerang shield, there's a zipline onto a Hydra bullet train, a jet-powered motorcycle with a number of built-in extra weapons, and laser guns that shoot incinerating plasma blasts.

Johnston is clearly in love with the retro aesthetic. The film delights in the pricey production design the 1940s setting allows. Such as the world's fair Steve and Bucky visit in New York, the classic cars driven by heroes and villains alike, and the period accurate costumes. (Which includes both a comic accurate version of Captain America's costume and the more tactical version he wears for most of the film.) The cinematography matches the beauty of the production design. Teaming with Shelly Johnson again, Johnston creates another beautiful film. There are a number of shots here that look as bold and as impressive as comic book splash pages. Such as Cap and the Red Skull facing each other down on different sides of an explosion, Bucky plummeting towards an icy river, or a classic car speeding towards a flying wing.

An underrated element of “The First Avenger” that I don't hear people praising nearly enough is Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. If Chris Evans is perfect as Cap, Weaving is nearly as good as his diametric opposite. Weaving adopts a fantastically sleazy German accent, supposedly based on Werner Herzog. While the character certainly gets his share of delightfully villainous moments, such as executing unworthy henchmen or making grand speeches to his loyal followers, Weaving doesn't really play Schmit like a grand supervillain. Instead, he's a power-hungry tactician perfectly confident in his own superiority. (Weaving's continued disinterest in returning to the part suggests he wasn't a fan himself or, perhaps, he just disliked the make-up.)

The love interests in Marvel films can sometimes feel perfunctory, an element included because it's expected, not because it's needed. However, “The First Avenger” definitely has one of Marvel's better love stories. Because Steve is such a wholesome guy, his pursuit of Peggy Carter is different than your usual romance B-story. Peggy is immediately attracted to him – how could she not be? – but a mixture of Steve's social awkwardness and his personal honor mostly keeps their love unrequited. Yet the feelings that come pouring out before he crashes the Hydra flying wing into the Arctic could not be more earned. Hayley Atwell pairs old Hollywood beauty with a steely toughness, always maintaining an incredible sense of class no matter what she's doing.

The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Changing Bucky from Cap's child soldier sidekick to his best bro was a smart decision. While distinct from what Evans is doing, Sebastian Stan does seem like the kind rough-and-tumble guy a young Steve Rogers would look up too. Dominic Cooper has a cattiness that works really well for a 1940s playboy genius inventor like Howard Stark. Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the film's funniest dialogue as Colonel Philips, the stuffy but sarcastic authority figure overseeing many of the adventures. Getting the Howling Commandos into a “Captain America” movie was a pretty great idea too. A perfectly cast Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan and an amusingly acerbic Kennith Choi as Jim Morita are my favorite of that team.

Because I really care about these things, as “Captain America's” release date drew closer, I hoped Marvel got a pretty decent score together for this one. As soon as I saw Alan Silvestri was composing the score, I knew we'd be just fine. Yes, Silvestri's score is fantastic. He composed an ideal main theme for Cap, a series of brassy and slowly rising notes that read as heroic, patriotic, inspiring, and just the tiniest bit forlorn. All the emotions you'd want associate with this character. Most delightfully, and totally unexpected, was the musical number included in the film. Marvel even got experienced Disney song writer Alan Menken to composed a Cole Porter-esque showtune about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. Insanely catchy, with lyrics and melody that perfectly evoke the period, the song-and-dance montage is another fantastic scene in the film.

Though the films were not quite as interconnected as they are now, by this point Marvel already knew each individual movie also functioned as a stepping stone towards an even bigger event film. “Captain America” came out the summer before “The Avengers.” It's such a prequel to the crossover film that, aside from “Avenger” being in its subtitle, the movie actually ends with a trailer for the next part. While this feels somewhat awkward, the film's period setting allow its hint at a larger universe to feel fairly natural. We do not know that the Cosmic Cube the Red Skull powers Hydra with is an Infinity Stone at this point and we don't need to know that. On paper, the concluding scene that brings Steve into the modern age might read like a gimmicky sequel hook. And it almost is, if it wasn't for Evans' pitch perfect delivery of the last line, which adds an element of grace and melancholy to the film's final scene.

In the overall ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most people place the first “Captain America” pretty low on the list. Many seem to see it as a forgettable origin story, a necessary step on the way towards the more exciting “Avengers” adventures. I suppose a lot of folks only find Cap interesting as a contrast to the modern world, which is why so many seem to prefer the sequel. But, if you're like me and have a taste for retro-leaning adventure stories, you probably love this movie too. Directing a film that is very much a gear in a far larger corporate machine might seem thankless. “Captain America: The First Avenger” probably would've been a hit regardless of who made it. Yet Joe Johnston's particular grasp on this kind of heroics really helped sell the final film, resulting in what is still one of my favorite Marvel movies. [Grade: A]

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