Sunday, July 24, 2011

Joe Johnston: Saturday Matinee Menagerie (Captain America: The First Avenger)

Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

The Film School Generation grew up on the popcorn-fueled highs of Saturday morning matinees, the thrills and chills of Flash Gordon and the Falcon . . . . they've been delivering their own loving blockbuster homages ever since. The most obvious examples of this movement include Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Dante and Milius. Boy's adventure tales streamlined and lovingly brocaded for the big boys of the Baby Boomer set and beyond. Among the more low-key, yet unmistakably adventitious of their ilk are arguably the most recently novel in this vein: Stephen Sommers and Joe Johnston. Together they have crafted some of the most unabashedly nostalgic, serial style studio fare ever.

Johnston started out as f/x guy on the Star Wars/Indiana Jones flicks, and his organic adoration for hijinks and mysterious calamity. The Spielberg/Lucas touch is in his DNA. From his debut, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and his subsequent projects The Rocketeer, Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park 3, Hidalgo and The Wolfman, Johnston has not only proved himself to be the greatest unsung studio craftsman, but also an auteur with a glorious subtext of Americana and pure cinema coursing through his veins.

His Captain America is a lovingly fisticuffed valentine to the audiences of the world, a paean to a bygone era and an invitation to his contemporary helmers that the future of cinema need not treat it's viewers as dull dolts seeking punishment at the movie palaces of the planet. The best super hero movie of the Summer steps into a magical past, reconfigures the Second World War even more imaginatively than X-Men did the Cuban Missile Crisis or Transformers 3 did the American Space program. Captain America has a vulnerable American boy yearning for adventure, heroism and patriotism inside of him, and the emotions Johnston transfuses are palpable.

Shelly Johnson's camera captures the glossy browns and tans of a fantasy American past while Alan Silvestri's majestic score has Williams in its heart. The story sucks you in from the start, a rousing adventure involving the physiological evolution of supermen, Nazi scientists, battle circuses and true love transcending time and space. Beneath the Summer popcorn veneer, Johnston raises issues of American hero-worship, biological ethics and masculinity.

Chris Evans is ideally cast as the vulnerable strongman, backed by a superb cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper, all fitting their archetypal roles to a tee.

The median of past popcorn pleasures and future blockbuster bliss has never gone down as well. The joy of American movie going and making is our hand in Johnston's Saturday morning glove, floating among his nostalgic matinee menagerie.

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