Holding out for a hero... Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans in Captain America (2011)
Joe Johnston is indubitably the most underrated director in the popcorn business, and it's about time he got some recognition. Ever since the classic Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989) he's been delivering high-profile movies to the masses which somehow get lost amid the rush, yet they rank amongst the best out there. The Rocketeer (1991), with its Metropolis (Lang, 1927) inflected Art Deco design, is a rousing superhero flick in the mould of a classic adventure-serial. Jumanji (1995) is about a board game come thrillingly to life, where stampeding elephants and mustached huntsmen take over New Hampshire. 2009's The Wolfman (a remake of Universal's 1941 classic, with Lon Chaney Jr.) was a romping Gothic treat, boasting some excessively hammy acting from Sir Anthony Hopkins. All in all, Johnston makes slick, exciting summer movies, and he does them like nobody else. So, enter Captain America, his latest, based on the classic Marvel character - and would you believe it? He's turned in another corker...
It's 1942 and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to enlist in the US Army, but is deemed unfit because of his skinny physique and asthma (some nifty CGI reduces Evans in size, and despite some glitches we buy it). He uses fake identities to reenlist time and time again, but is continually turned away on account of his health problems. That is until Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices the courageous youngster and recruits him into a super-soldier program, the technology division of which is run by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Rogers soon bulks up to become Captain America, while he also falls in love with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell; utterly charming), a superior officer who helps to oversee his training. At first he's seen as something of a sideshow, and is recruited into a theater troupe, performing shows across the country to raise spirits ("I've knocked out Adolf Hitler over two hundred times"), but he soon takes military matters into his own hands and proves himself a capable hero. From here he determines to take down the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who is - as ever - planning some kind of non-specific world domination. It's kinda predictable, but this matters little. It's the getting there that counts.
The greatest thing about Cap has always been his humanity. Steve is an ordinary guy with those rarest of qualities - humility and dignity. He's specifically chosen to carry the responsibility of strength because as a weak man he understands its importance, and has the moral fibre to be trusted with such weight; to serve his country, which is a loftier calling than dating the girl next door (looking at you Spidey). This is where Johnston's film scores most brownie points (or should that be Eagle Scout?), because it really spends time building our hero as a genuinely likable guy, and somebody who is able to endure and persevere. He gets the shit kicked out of him in a back alley but continually gets back up; not because he enjoys the pain, but because he understands that if you run away from a fight you'll spend the rest of your life running. You have to stand up for what you believe. When all's said and done, Rogers has heart.
Something which really surprised me here was the film's sense of humour, and the fact that Captain America is actually very funny. Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones - pedigree actors on excellent form - are given some really great dialogue to work with, and they clearly relish the chance to exercise their comedic chops and work on a slightly higher level than exposition - they exist to move the plot along, sure, but they're also defined characters, and we believe in them. Tucci is especially good as Dr. Erskine, and scored more laughs in his screen-time than any mainstream comedy has accumulated so far this year. But the film isn't all laughs, of course. In fact, it balances tone perfectly; this is another trademark of Johnston's cinema, and something he's given not nearly enough credit for.
What most will give him credit for, however, is action, and there's plenty of that on offer here. A mid-film rescue mission is thrillingly realised, and cut with precision - thank the lord, an action movie with coherent set-pieces! - but what I really admired here is the design. None of the action sequences are especially original, but they certainly have charm, and that's largely because they take place in steel-built underground bunkers and weapons trains, and our heroes are using Smith & Wesson's, M1 Carbine's and Thompson's; classic military weaponry. The action has a real Boys' Own feel, especially in the final fight which sees Cap face off against Schmidt. It's... shall we say... electrical. There's also a great chase through the streets of New York, and the period 1940's design really impresses here - the shop windows, classic cars and cracked pavements. The colour palette is spot-on, and architecture geeks such as myself will have a great time, especially in the first half. I'm not an expert, so maybe not all of this is accurate, but it certainly feels authentic, and that's what's import.
But the film's ace card is Weaving, playing the megalomaniac (he's even overtaken Hitler) Johann Schmidt / Red Skull. As in Johnston's Wolfman the actor is having a whale of a time here, chewing through the ripe dialogue and this time delivering what appears to be a rather fine Werner Herzog impression; his sub-Bavarian tones actually become quite chilling, and for once I found myself really hating the villain in a contemporary blockbuster. So many of them seem like cardboard cutouts, but this one's the real deal - he's evil personified, and there's little sense that he'll encounter a change of conscience anytime soon. Some may find the performance a little camp, but then, this is a film which presents its most impressive set-piece in the form of a musical sequence.
The perfunctory 3D (retrofitted) is, again, entirely useless, but on the whole Captain America is worth recommending. It's smart, funny and a whole lot of fun. Oh, and the ending is absolutely note-perfect, packing a surprising emotional punch. I wasn't welling up or anything, but I certainly felt a tug on the heartstrings, and found myself wondering about the fate of a relationship in a Marvel movie. Turns out The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) has a lot to live up to...