Full of exciting action and earnest emotion, "Captain America: The First Avenger" is perhaps the most superhero-ey of this summer's superhero movies true to the spirit and iconography of Marvel Comics' red-white-and-blue Nazi-stomping character.
Captain America is a creation born in World War II (the first issue was printed in December 1940, before the United States entered the war), and the movie's smartest move is to stick to that era. There's no ambiguity or ironic distance when it comes to fighting Nazis or fighting Hydra, the Nazi-endorsed supersoldier program whose ambitions for global domination are even nastier than the Nazis'.
When we meet our hero, Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans, who earned his superhero stripes playing The Human Torch in two "Fantastic Four" movies) is not exactly leading-man material. Rogers has tried to enlist several times, but is stamped "4-F" (unfit for combat) because he's a scrawny, short asthmatic. (Some of the movie's most clever special-effects work involves putting Evans' head on a tiny body.)
But Rogers has a fighting spirit, something exiled German scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recognizes when he accepts Steve in a secret Army program that is developing a supersoldier. The program's commander, Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), reluctantly agrees, and Rogers is injected with Erskine's super-serum, which turns him into a 6-foot-tall muscular superman.
But when the experiment can't be repeated, Phillips wants to ship Rogers off to a lab for testing but a glad-handing senator (Michael Brandon) instead turns him into a recruiting-poster figure (clad in the comic book's ridiculous original costume). Rogers, though, wants to engage in some real battles.
Helped along by lovely British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and industrialist Howard Stark (played by Dominic Cooper who slightly resembles Robert Downey Jr., who portrays Howard's son Tony in the "Iron Man" films), Rogers gets a more combat-ready uniform, complete with trademark shield, and takes the battle to Hydra and its leader, Col. Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, who got his supervillain powers from an unstable early version of Erskine's serum.
Director Joe Johnston must have dusted off his notebooks from making "The Rocketeer," because this movie carries much of that movie's period charm with meticulous detail including a Rockettes-style musical number (composed by Alan Menken). Also, Johnston's hyper-saturated color in the action sequences is the most faithful evocation of comic-book art since Ang Lee's "Hulk" (the one we're supposed to pretend never happened), and fanboys will ooh and ahh at the in-joke references embedded throughout.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" also sets up Cap's future, as he's brought into the modern world and next year's "Avengers" movie (whose trailer appears at the end of the closing credits). It's a jarring moment for Rogers, but even more jarring for the audience because we are forced to stop enjoying "Captain America" as an old-fashioned rousing entertainment and start thinking about it as part of Paramount Pictures' grand marketing plan.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel Comics' red-white-and-blue hero shines in this rousing World War II action film.
Where • Theaters everywhere
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
Running time • 126 minutes.