'Captain America': Killin Nazis With Joe Johnston
Who doesn't love to hate Nazis? Especially in Hollywood, the Nazis are perhaps the most prevalent embodiment of evil available to screenwriters. With Marvel's "Captain America: The First Avenger, " director Joe Johnston takes on the Nazis for the third time in his film career.
Johnston got his break doing special effects on the sets of George Lucas' "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back, " directed by Irvin Kershner. This led to working for Lucas and Steven Spielberg on "Raiders of the Lost Ark, " where he was amongst the team awarded an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Enter the Nazis into Johnston's filmic journey, as Hitler's goons stood between Dr. Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant. In fact Johnston and the effects team did such a fine job exploding a Nazi's head, that the MPAA slapped an "R" rating on the film. It was covered up by waves of fire so that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" could find its legacy in PG-13.
It is actually Dr. Ren Belloq's (Paul Freeman) head that is exploded, who is Dr. Jones' archaeological nemesis working for the Nazis. Johnston's formative special effects moment was based around battling a scientist who betrays his knowledge for Nazis. He also melted the face of Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey), a Gestapo interrogator who threatens Dr. Jones' damsel in distress.
Johnston continued a string of skilled visual work on effects driven movies of the 80s, until his directorial debut "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Shortly after, Johnston took on more Nazis in the comic book adaptation of the "The Rocketeer." While "The Rocketeer" disappointed Disney at the box-office, critics propelled it into an underrated gem amongst decades of blockbuster overkill.
In the current frenzy of comic book movies, filmmakers could learn a bit about comic book adaptations from Johnston's "The Rocketeer." That's another article entirely, but "The Rocketeer" marked Johnston's return to "killin Nazis" as Lt. Aldo Raine would say in "Inglourious Basterds." It was the success of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" after all that sold Disney on audience response to a pre-WWII adventure movie.
With "The Rocketeer" the Nazis attempt another heist of scientific knowledge for the propagation of Hitler's rise. Instead of the supernatural Ark, it's a rocket-fueled jet pack designed by Howard Hughes. The Nazis recruit the Mob to pull off the Heist, but it ends up in the hands of an unassuming fly-boy with hero genes. It's an epic death, as the Nazi posing as a movie star (Timothy Dalton) crashes the jet-pack into the "Land" letters that once adorned the "Hollywood" sign, with a flaming Zeppelin full of Nazis trailing behind.
The patriotic overtones of "The Rocketeer" poised Johnston as a choice director for "Captain America, " along with his handling of comic adaptations. It's no coincidence that Johnston was attracted to the symbolism of Captain America's shield protecting freedom from Nazis. Just as the Rocketeer protected the entrepreneurial spirit of Howard Hughes and Dr. Jones rescued all that is sacred from Nazi hands.
With "Captain America: The First Avenger, " we find a Nazi so evil he wants to surpass Hitler's powers: Red Skull. Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is yet another Nazi grave robbing mystical powers to accelerate the emerging explosion of scientific progress. Where Johnston succeeds with "Captain America, " as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Rocketeer" did, is creating a period piece without sentimentality to embrace the immortal universality of Nazi evils.
Red Skull is defeated much like Arnold Toht in "Raiders of the Lost Ark, " as he comes too close to the coveted power and it overwhelms his human form. It's fair to claim Joe Johnston as America's most patriotic filmmaker with heroes that battle Nazis wanting to steal scientific power.
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By Jason Cangialosi - The past meets future for Jason in a nexus fused by creative experiences in music, writing, film and philosophy. A freelance creator and ghostwriter of books, articles and screenplays, he is Managing Editor...