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If there were one familiar director working in the Hollywood system that Marvel Studios could trust to bring an origin story of Captain America to the screen it would be Joe Johnston. Twenty years ago Johnston showed his appreciation for golden age superhero adventure when he directed The Rocketeer, proving that a brave superhero always cut a good figure when he wore a leather bomber jacket.
So Johnston was the man of choice when Marvel and Paramount stepped up $170 million dollars to make Captain America: The First Avenger. They hired an actor that seemed to possess the good looking, square-jawed frame of Steve Rogers, the man who's turned into America's super soldier. They got the right people to visualize the look of World War II, populating it with war bonds artwork and slighty futuristic but retro technology. But in the end Johnston's one flaw as a filmmaker still holds true with Captain America: he's never able to push a good film into becoming a great film.
The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely seems to have precisely the right tone to achieve a great film. There's small character moments, good lines of self-introspective dialogue, action that moves from scene to scene and the origins of Cap and The Red Skull (played by Hugo Weaving) are both updated so they're the right mix of comic book escapism but just enough believability to carry you with it. The actors are all well chosen and great in their roles on down, from Weaving's menacing Nazi obsessed with deep science and occult technology to Evans' nice guy charm. Tomme Lee Jones makes a great Army soldier; Hayley Atwell is a pretty but tough British agent; and in his supporting role as Cap's best friend-turned-soldier Sebastian Stan makes a great, if slightly older than the comics' version, of Bucky. Even the Howling Commandos are all well cast, especially Neal McDonough as "Dum Dum" Dugan. The only one that seems to be holding back a little is Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, the father of Iron Man's Tony Stark, but that's only because Robert Downey Jr. plays the character in excess.
Johnston clearly loves WW2 superheros. He gives us all the right elements that should be in a Captain America movie including three different costumes (which nicely show the evolution of the suit), mad science tech, laser guns alongside machine guns, a scary Red Skull, plenty of action and a nice character arc for the Captain. The problem is, with all these right ingredients we should be getting a fist-pumping, leave the theater on a high note great movie instead of simply a good one.
The problem I think lies in Johnston not letting the audience breathe it all in. He's playing it so safe that there's not much room left to just simply enjoying the introduction of Captain America fighting alongside the Howling Commandos, or enough play between Bucky and Steve post-super soldier serum for more comedic moments. There's just enough there to open the door and leave you wanting more of this lingering feeling, to really let yourself get carried away in the emotion of seeing good guys fight bad guys, but not enough to elevate you from your seat and carry you away. Even with all of its simplicity, Transformers: Dark of the Moon does more to take your hand and bring you into the story emotionally.
Making a Captain America movie work is a hard job. Johnston certainly did it and his film is going to be a box office success and open the door for a sequel, which is great. Still, I was hoping for something that exceeded the sum of its parts by a wider margin. The First Avenger is worth to see on the big screen but it's still not Marvel's Superman: The Movie or The Dark Knight that we're still waiting for.
Review Score: 65 / 100
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