Joe Johnston is not much of a director, perhaps because his heart lies outside of the modern sensibilities of film and he has proven unable to scrounge up the money to make the passion projects that lie in his dreams, and the dreams of so many children who went to the movies in the 1940s and 1950s. This is a reach, but his two best films are of a kind: 1991’s off-hand ode to old-school matinee thrills The Rocketeer and its spiritual successor, 2011’s Captain America, suffixed with the unfortunate subtitle The First Avenger. It isn’t a particularly exploratory or demanding film, or even a particularly fun one, but its mild geniality and melodramatic sense of charisma and fascination with comic book panache combine for a somewhat indifferent but well-meaning and usually well-playing exercise in pulp. It doesn’t always work, but unlike so many other superhero movies in the 2010s, it tries to work not by playing to the rafters, but to the matinee.
Especially after the middleweight Thor, the sins of Captain America are atoned a great deal by that old filmic standby of originality. Although, in this case, originality happens to involve not doing a single original thing in its entire body, but rather moving backwards in time. Backwards to a decidedly everyday form of filmmaking, at that. Only, it was “everyday” a hefty 70 years prior to Captain America’s release, and because it has been absent for so long, it approaches the audiences of the 2010s with a lie of originality. Even if it is in fact a trick, it is a pretty good trick, and a refreshing one at that.
Essentially, Captain America feels earnest, approaching its streamlined comic book glee with a cheerful smirk and a gee-shucks sensibility that is naïve in a lightly charming, innocent sort of way. Even Johnston’s generally muted direction functions well in the context of recreating the lightweight aesthetic of attending the matinees and getting lost in the relaxed sincerity of a film that just plain doesn’t try too hard.
We are introduced to young, wimpy Brooklynite Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, in a role that fits his limited range and All-American features perfectly) who wishes to join the US army on the eve of WWII. Because he has faced a fairly obvious malnourishment throughout most of his life, he is declared unfit for service until his heart wins over his entrance into a program to inject him with what functionally amounts to a super-soldier serum. He is initially held back in the US to sell war bonds on the military’s public relations tour (which results in the film’s best scene, a tour-de-force of editing and music in the “Star Spangled Man” montage as Cap becomes a hero to the public and Johnston proves that he has a decent enough eye for the whimsy of Main Street USA war-time propaganda). It isn’t until Cap eventually whistles his way into the piranha pit of Europe that he truly gets what he wants though.
Which is, coincidentally, when the film grows a bit weary with its aww-shucks sensibility and loses a touch of its heart-on-its-sleeve honesty for something a little too mechanical and corporate, ultimately exposing the film’s matinee personality as something of a blanket covering up the generally hollow core of the material and Johnston’s no-longer-endearingly-stilted direction. The genius of the film’s earlier segments are in turning the fundamental superficiality of the Marvel films into a strength by openly addressing and playing with the superficiality by exposing the material as matinee fluff. When the film becomes, essentially, just another Marvel film in the second half, those accidental strengths start to become actual weaknesses, and when the film rushes to its nonplussed conclusion, it doesn’t even seem to care anymore. At some point, Captain America starts to feel like filmmaking by spreadsheet, but there is, all things considered, enough of a personal touch here at the hands of its director, enough of a no-frills giddiness about its bubbly sensibilities, that it sometimes feels to be running at its own pace, rather than towards Marvel’s carrot.