Despite concerns about both the character and the decidedly uneven quality of Marvel’s cinematic output, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger reveals it to be one of the most engaging superhero films to grace the silver screen since Sam Raimi’s masterful and genre-defining Spider-Man 2 (2004). Aside from engaging central performances from Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving as Captain America and his nemesis the Red Skull and a perfectly serviceable script by Narnia alumni Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, the film benefits hugely from an impressive directorial turn by Johnston himself.
Johnston began his career as concept artist and special effects technician George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) before going on to win an Oscar for his effects work on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). From there, Johnston graduated to direction but while none of his previous films stand-out as particularly worthy of praise, his work on period superhero flick The Rocketeer (1991) clearly stood him in good stead when Marvel went looking for a director to deliver Captain America from the depths of comics obscurity and into the centre of the media frenzy that will be Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers film.
As might be expected from a director who worked on both The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Johnston delivers a film that walks an elegant line between rich period detail and fantastical anachronism. Unlike the Wagnerian belle époque of Branagh’s Thor (2011) or the muscular modernism and Gee-whizz Californian cool of Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Johnston’s Captain America fails to break new ground but is all the more visually engaging for it. We have seen these sorts of gizmos and sets a dozen times before but Johnston does it better and more beautifully than most.
Aside from its impressive visuals, Captain America also benefits from a well-paced plot buttressed by some well-shot action sequences that help the film’s somewhat excessive 124 minutes slip by almost unnoticed. In an age where every Summer blockbuster feels the urge to edge further and further past the 120 minute-mark, Johnston delivers a film that wears its extended run-time like a well-fitted demob suit.
While all of these ingredients contributed to my enjoyment of the film, what really won me over was Captain America himself. Prior to the film, my experience of the character was limited to (a) the old animated series, (b) a few issues of Cap’s collaboration with the Falcon and (c) Ed Brubaker’s entirely over-rated run on the comic. Taken together, these created the impression of a character completely ill-suited to the modern world. Indeed, Brubaker uses Captain America’s origin story as a means of re-inventing the character as an isolated figure whose memories of the past alienate him from the people around him. However, returned to his original timeframe, Captain America’s old fashioned heroism somehow seems strikingly original and fresh.
Indeed, Captain America: The First Avenger features an origin story whose complete absence of angst is nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, Captain America is the first cinematic Superhero to not be a slave.