I have to admit I was a little apprehensive to see Joe Johnston's name attached to the Captain America film since he was responsible for flicks like the underwhelming Wolfman and Jurassic Park III, but my fears were unfounded since his treatment of Marvel's final film before assembling The Avengers, was more aligned in spirit to one of my favourite films set in the 40s, The Rocketeer, complete with set action thrills, slight comedy and enough visual effects to transport you to a vivid WWII era.
Essentially an origin story, this was exactly how I remembered reading the Captain America comic books when I was younger, mostly sticking around how the sickly Steve Rogers (a CG-ed Chris Evans) became the beefcake he was through a top secret military experiment, and his constant battles with his arch nemesis standing for all things Axis powered personified by the Red Skull, played to perfection by Hugo Weaving with a German accented voice as the Johann Schmidt version. At its heart it's a clear cut battle between good and evil, although in this Marvel augmented reality, Evil is aided by the powers of the Cosmic Cube and the megalomaniacal ambitions of Red Skull and his Hydra shock troops, threatening to conquer the globe unless someone can do something about it.
Hence the first act concentrated on the innate characteristic of Steve Rogers, a determined, never say die young chap from Brooklyn whose enlistment to the US Army has consistently been met with flat out rejections, until the scientist Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) saw something in him that no one else does, and selects him as the first of intended many in the army's Super Soldier project, as headed by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jomes). It's almost a master-protege relationship set up in their short scenes together, but made no less powerful with nice touches about what really mattered in a world that's embroiled in a massive war.
Since there's always nothing too definitive out there as far as origin stories go in the comics world, it's admirable how Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's screenplay still managed to extract the essence of the character, of what made him tick as the beacon amongst the do gooders, and explored how events pushed the man into donning the less than camouflaged colours into combat. Allies like Howard Stark (now played by Dominic Cooper) whom we've seen in the expanded Marvel universe of films in Iron Man 2 as the military's main contractor, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) as Steve's best friend, and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter the British agent and romantic love interest, all factored in to build Captain America's world, which if a sequel is made would be a challenge to try and set it in the 40s again since the events here were pretty much open and close.
Action wise, while Captain America essentially doesn't possess super powers per se, still is the epitome of physical fitness, and Joe Johnston compensates this with large, and I mean large action sequences, coupled with plenty of montage to show the Captain's campaign against evil. And I thought there was a conscious effort to tone down the "America"ness of a one man crusade, and assembled a rag tag group of United Nations typed mercenaries whose loyalty is to the Captain since he busted them out from near death. His trademark Vibranium shield worked out very nicely in the fights, choreographed just as how one would imagine the real Captain America do it, with the shield featuring heavily in all fights designed that it's more than a good looking prop. I'd even appreciated effort to include the original shield Cap America used, together with a more logical reason how he had to don a cheesy looking costume that doesn't make camouflage sense, worked into emerging as an icon to rally behind in the face of adversity.
Subtlety is one of the key strengths of the film, with Captain America's additional and lesser known abilities mentioned in passing but enough for fans to pick up, with numerous references in this film that's set up to reference the other Marvel films from Iron Man to Thor. While the romantic angle was severely limited, I thought the emotional resonance worked particularly well especially if you know how the Cap would eventually end up, in a way fixed by the mythos and unavoidable, being the romance that had potential and room to develop further.
Some may say that a superhero film gets defined by the villain, but this one clearly didn't let its villain upstage the heroic character, which is quite rare. Not that Hugo Weaving did a bad job with Red Skull, but there are little evil deeds the Skull had significantly embarked upon besides pulverizing his opponents with no remorse, and his constant banter with scientist Dr Amim Zola (Toby Jones) to show just how egoistical he could be. Hopefully we will get to see more of the Red Skull in future sequels of Captain America, since Chris Evans signed for a total of 6 appearances. Evans too while being involved in too many comic book films as compared to Ryan Reynolds, will probably be best remembered for his Captain America outing than for his less charismatic Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four, and balanced both the drama and hard hitting action well, believable as the man you'd trust to rally the troops and lead them in the fight against evil.
Captain America: The First Avenger ranks up there amongst the comic book based movies done right even if the storyline comes up as somewhat expected given its necessity to focus on the hero's origins. This is undoubtedly highly recommended, and as always, don't leave before the end credits have rolled off, for the first look at Joss Whedon's The Avengers, and from the looks of it, it's going to be one heck of a ride, especially when mega egos come clashing up against one another. Summer 2012 can't come any sooner!