Captain America: The First Avenger is the first major motion picture based on the venerable Marvel Comics superhero character that first debuted in print over 70 years ago. Since then, there have been largely forgettable cross-media interpretations, including a 1940s movie serial and an aborted attempt at a television series in the late 70s that left two telefilms in its wake. With the power of Marvel Studios (now wholly owned by Disney and partnering with Paramount Films for distribution), Marvel attempts to return the luster to its onetime flagship hero that matches his mighty shield.

Here, Chris Evans (Fantastic Four, Cellular) plays heroic shrimp Steve Rogers, who in 1942 wants to enlist in the military but is determined to be a 4-F. Still, the little guy has heart, as displayed when he keeps confronting local bully. His gumption impresses military scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and gruff Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). They put him through the paces of boot camp, and finally reveal that he’s the perfect test subject for their ‘super soldier serum’—if it works (this shouldn’t be a spoiler) then Steve’s musculature and reflexes will be boosted to virtual perfection.

Alas, the experiment’s aftermath has a tragic end, which poises newly buff Steve to be the sole super-soldier for the Allied Forces—thus, ‘Captain America’ is born. Soon, he is pitted against the nefarious Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull—an ambitious Nazi scientist who heads up ‘Hydra’, a super-science-weapons division of the Nazi army. Schmidt searches for an ancient artifact of power, called the ‘tesseract’, allegedly giving its wielder the power of the Nordic gods themselves. Heady stuff, this.

The film’s remaining supporting cast is capable, including Sebastian Stan as Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes and Hayley Atwell as British agent (and nominal love interest) Peggy Carter.
The script, credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, features an anti-ironic sensibility here, being fairly straightforward in its depiction of patriotism and earnest heroism as exemplified by Cap. This could have easily diverted into self-satire or camp, but the filmmakers, including director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3, the Rocketeer), wisely avoid this.

Presumably to keep its comic-book-reality bonafides intact, the movie plays fast and loose with the fictional history it represents (the Red Skull’s Hydra troops feature no swastika iconography, and Cap’s Howling Commandos team is racially integrated without a blink.) Still, the period designs are convincing enough, including a nod to Frankenstein with the Super Soldier laboratory.

Captain America is poised to be the first in a franchise of solo adventures as well as the introduction to the character’s featured role in next year’s The Avengers. Time will tell whether Cap regains his former fan-favorite glory: his stalwart shtick may seem quaint compared to brooding avengers like Batman and Wolverine. Still, the film gets enough right to stand out from the crowd and in a time of political contention provides plenty of flag-friendly good will.


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