The Film: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The Principles: Joe Johnston (Director). Chris Evans. Hayley Atwell. Sebastian Stan. Tommy Lee Jones. Hugo Weaving. Stanley Tucci. Dominic Cooper.
The Premise: Steve Rogers (Evans) is just a kid from Brooklyn who wants to do his part to serve his country in The War. But he’s a teency little guy with asthma who gets beaten up all the time – not a soldier. Not a soldier, that is, until Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci) shoots up your boy with some Super Soldier Syrum.
Is It Good: Oh certainly! But that’s about it. Just good. It could have been great, but we’ll get into that a little bit more later. A quick caveat though – I was never really into comic books as a kid (aside from a brief love affair with the X-Men in middle school) so I kind of came into this clean, at least in terms of the nuances of the character. And the fact is there certainly isn’t a lot of depth – but what is there has its own validity. Little guy with a big heart encounters some super hero magic and his inner strength becomes his outer strength. At the time he was created/introduced to the world, I can imagine this dude with his origin and everything he represented playing surrogate to a LOT of the nation’s little guys. Obviously, in a lot of ways, that’s what super heroes were designed to do, but in this case – in that era – specifically. But you’re not interested in reading that – you already know that. SO – that said, Johnston turns in really good work bringing that surrogacy to the screen here. Between the effects work, Evans’ performance, and the way Johnston frames and shoots Brooklyn – or, well, everything that isn’t Evans – you almost can’t help but project yourself into Steve Rogers. It’s a pretty great setup.
But, it’s a great setup that kinda stumbles a little bit once he gets his powers and has his first Big Hero Moment. What should be this incredible experience for Steve (not just because of his newly acquired abilities but because of who he had just lost) never really feels like anything more than a generic “catch the bad guy scene.” There’s no sense of urgency or excitement. And then, almost as quickly as the sequence begins, it ends. A few cursory lines and now he’s CAPTAIN AMERICA – a propaganda puppet designed and deployed to sell war bonds.
But, clumsy transition aside, this turns into a fairly great sequence because it plays to Johnston’s undeniable strengths in aesthetic and iconography. Not only is it deftly (and at times beautifully) designed, shot and edited (the whole thing plays out as a musical number-slash-montage), it does a great job of selling the shallowness of it all, even if it doesn’t do total service to Steve’s growing feelings of disenfranchisement. You can sense it – you know it’s there, but it seems like Johnston kind of took our sensing it for granted, because he never really put a stamp on it. And he was given a perfect opportunity to when Cap ends up in Italy at the USO. It was plenty awkward, but Johnston never made a point to show us Rogers’ or the unit’s frustration, instead opting to make Cap look like a little kid with stage fright and the soldiers look like bored dudes who wanted to see some skirts. This is extra troublesome once we learn that he’s actually performing for Bucky’s unit – a unit that had just lost a battle (and most of their men) against Schmidt/Red Skull’s forces. And then once again – a few perfunctory lines and the last fumes from Tommy Lee Jones’ one-note performance and we’re off on a different direction. If I were gonna come up with a clever metaphor, I’d say it’s like Johnston learning how to drive a manual transmission and never knowing just quite how far to push the clutch in to avoid grinding the gears.
And after a clumsy plane sequence with Carter and Stark he’s behind enemy lines. And once again we have an opportunity for Johnston to really drive home some of the subtext here and let an emotional moment ring out when, for the first time in the history of their friendship, Steve is tasked with saving Bucky. But no – he gives the situation a few obligatory lines but the moment is shrugged off. And that’s pretty much how we go for the rest of the movie, except that once we get into the meat and potatoes of the story (the raid on the Hydra bases) the iconography and propaganda aesthetic kind of get scuttled off for Generic Action Movie stuff.
It all pretty much cements Johnston’s identity as a great technical director – a guy with a helluvan eye for framing and shot composition and set design and The Hero Shot. But at the end of the day he’s emotionally tone deaf.
He’s basically what Zack Snyder’s gonna be in ten years once he grows out of the whole speed-ramping nonsense.
Is It Worth A Look: Sure! I kinda gave Johnston the business but the fact is Captain America is far from being a bad movie. It’s a movie of missed opportunities, sure, but there’s a lot to like here. Outside of the visual flare there were a lot of good turns in the cast (again, with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones, who ended up coming off more as “bored out of his goddamned mind” than “gruff”) and Chris Evans did a tremendous job playing both sides of the role. No matter how advanced the tech was, if your star couldn’t sell that Little Guy mentality then it’s all a waste and, admittedly, I remember being a tremendously hard sell when that first trailer hit. But Evans delivers, even when he’s not given the best stuff TO deliver.
So, on the off chance you HAVEN’T seen it you should, especially if you’re gearing up to catch THE AVENGERS this weekend.
Random Anecdotes: I mentioned the fact that Johnston was emotionally tone-deaf earlier, and the one scene that really cements it for me is on the Hydra bullet train – Bucky and Cap are fighting against one of the flame thrower guys, Cap’s shield is knocked out of his hands and Bucky picks it up. And in that one moment where Bucky has the shield in his hands, there was the potential for this tiny little profundity about how strength isn’t in one man or one soldier but in America and everything she represents. And for a moment I got palpably excited – after everything he missed, was he gonna nail this one? Sure it was just a tiny little moment of propagandizing but it would have been stirring as shit.
And then Bucky got thrown off the train and died. *jerkoff gesture*
Cinematc Soulmates: The other Avengers movies. The Avengers. The Rocketeer. Rocky.