Captain America: The First Avenger may be the most wholesomely straightforward and good-natured superhero movie ever made. That includes even 1978’s Superman, which was similarly uplifting but more tongue in cheek, and director Joe Johnston’s own 1991 The Rocketeer, which felt more like a winking pop-culture homage to the FDR days than this sentimental celebration of the era.
Too sincerely corny to be campy, this retro feel-good fable is more about character and virtue than comic-book violence (although there’s definitely plenty of action in the second half). What’s unexpected is how well this unabashedly uncynical approach works. The movie’s moral simplicity may sometimes seem as bland as a loaf of Wonder Bread, but nobody goes to a Fourth of July picnic expecting exotic cuisine.
The Marvel Comics icon is played with earnest charm by Chris Evans, who gained previous superhero experience as Johnny Storm the Human Torch in two Fantastic Four movies. He also has gained a lot more muscle since then, but you won’t be able to tell right away.
Through the magic of completely convincing digital head-replacement, Evans first appears as a skinny runt named Steve Rogers, a self-described “kid from Brooklyn” who is desperate to join the WW2 war effort. The sort of pathetic physical specimen who is told he would be ineligible based on his asthma alone, Rogers is so determined to enlist that he tries signing up five times under different names. His persistence pays off when he comes to the attention of the compassionate and twinkly Dr Abraham Erskine (the excellent Stanley Tucci), who needs candidates from which to select a test subject for a super-soldier serum.
“Do you want to kill Nazis?” Erskine asks Rogers to entice him into the program. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Rogers forthrightly replies. “I don’t like bullies.” If Gary Cooper never said those words, he should have.
Boot camp proves the scrawny Rogers has more heart than hoo-rah, which turns out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Before Erskine fled Germany, his serum transformed Nazi Johann Schmidt into the very appropriately nicknamed villain the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Because the formula magnifies both physical and character attributes, Erskine wants to make sure he doesn’t create another murderous monster.
Not to worry. Rogers bulks up into the kind of golden-god perfect Aryan specimen who could be a Third Reich poster boy, although that irony never is mentioned. More important, he’s still Eagle Scout brave and true.
The screenplay’s attempt to give Rogers a reason for donning the Captain America costume at that point instead of an army uniform is more clever than consistent. It’s hard to believe the gung-ho Rogers would consent to being sidelined as a stage-and-film performer hawking defense bonds and entertaining the troops. He eventually gets a chance to prove himself behind the front lines against the Red Skull, a guy so bad that he and his disintegrator-ray-wielding Hydra division have split from the Nazis to form their own world-domination organization.
Dominic Cooper appears in a small role as the dashing inventor Howard Stark, a hybrid of Howard Hughes and Errol Flynn. Thanks to the enjoyable cross-continuity that ties many Marvel universe movies together, fans know that his character eventually will be the father of Iron Man Tony Stark.
Other well-cast characters are the gruffly sarcastic Col Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Captain America’s beautiful but initially all-business military liaison Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and his steadfast best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).
The movie’s title foreshadows next summer’s feature The Avengers, the name of the Marvel Comics all-star team that will include Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor. Waiting that long to see Captain America in action again after this dynamite debut may require superheroic patience. Three cheers for the red, white and blue!