Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
125 min., rated PG-13.
There's something appealingly corny and old-fashioned about the spirit of "Captain America: The First Avenger" that it cannot be lumped with the noisy, flashy superhero releases oversaturating every summer season. Also, it's in 2-D and looks super. It's the final Marvel Comics set-up for the superhero jamboree (that will include Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk) in 2012's "The Avengers," which Comic-Con fanboys have already marked their calendars for. As a stand-alone tapas, it's still a lot of fun.
Captain America came from another time (the 1940s during World War II to be exact), where he started as Steve Rogers. Through the miracle of seamless digital effects, the already-buff Chris Evans has his face CG'ed onto a shrimpy bod of the asthmatic 98-pound weakling. Steve dreams of enlisting in the Army and serve his country, but a laundry list of physical disabilities keeps him down in 4-F status. In a twist of fate, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, who's a kindly eccentric hoot) sees something special in this "kid from Brooklyn" and enlists him for a Frankenstein experiment. After being injected with a blue serum, Steve comes out a different man—a bulked-up, bionically enhanced soldier. Before, people would say "Get a kid a sandwich!" and now, "Get that man his protein shake!"
To crusty, skeptical Colonel Phillips (an amusingly crabassy Tommy Lee Jones), he's just a lab rat and a propaganda road-show star, but to British officer Peggy Carter (Haylet Atwell), he's a star-spangled hero who can take the bullies out with the trash. In his Captain America suit (and with his red-white-and-blue vibranium shield), Steve must enter enemy territory to save a platoon, including best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and overthrow a Nazi organization led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull. Schmidt's madman plans basically come down to taking over the world, or something of that nature, but it comes close to one-upping Adolf Hitler: building weaponry equipped with the power of the gods with his Igor-like scientist sidekick (Toby Jones).
Directed by Joe Johnston, "Captain America: The First Avenger" is most enjoyable from its setting of tone and period. It has a pulpy, gee-whiz earnestness that salutes Saturday matinee serials (think "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"). There's a retro, sepia-toned look, gorgeously rendered by Shelly Johnson's cinematography and Rick Heinrichs' textured, detailed production design, and the reliable Alan Silvestri's patriotic-march score adds to that whole '40s feel. An excellent cast always helps too.
Evans' charisma never comes out like it did when he played Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" movies, but that's just fine. As Steve, he's a squarely likable Boy Scout of an underdog with a big heart. Then as Captain America, he has the square jaw and physique to own up to the title. Atwell is no damsel-in-distress, even with her red smudge-free lipstick making her look like a military pin-up, but a dame with as much pluck and beauty as Kate Beckinsale. Nothing against Atwell or Evans but from what was written in the script, the romance between Peggy and Steve is too pro forma to make us weep. Red Skull's evil plans are undernourished on the page as well, but Weaving plays the sinister villain with hammy gusto and looks like a relative of Darth Maul. Dominic Cooper is also fun as inventor Howard Stark, yes, Iron Man/Tony Stark's Daddio (something fanboys could answer in Trivial Pursuit).
Johnston never jams special effects down our throats or at our retinas, and moves everything at a steady pace (not too roller-coastery, not too frenetic). Where the movie does slightly disappoint is in the middle. Once Rogers recruits his team (including actors such as Neal McDonough and Derek Luke), the taking down of Nazis is shortchanged into a single, compressed montage.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" is essentially prep work for the bigger picture ("The Avengers"), bookending itself in the present-day with an Arctic-set prologue and a finale that goes out with a fun cameo from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Even so, when it comes down to it, it's all about the scrappy underdog even when he's all juiced-up and dressed to fight in those U.S.A. tights. Like the little-guy hero himself, "Captain America" proves itself . . . as solid popcorn entertainment. "Green Lantern," eat your heart out.