Packing a patriotic punch, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a note-perfect tribute to an All-American hero.
BACKGROUND: Horrified by the atrocities being committed by Nazi Germany during World War II, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Steve Rogers, an red-white-and-blue-wearing hero for the ages. “Captain America Comics No.1” debuted in December 1940, a full year before the United States entered the war. Even then, the America public seemed hungry for an American solution to the problem — Cap’s debut, the cover depicting Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw, sold over a million issues. Sales remained strong through the war era, topping news magazines like Time.
As superheroes’ popularity waned in the 1950s, so did the appeal of Captain America. By the mid-1950s, he had disappeared all together from the pages of comic books.
Rogers was revived by Kirby and the legendary Stan Lee in “Avengers No. 4” in March 1964, and he has remained a cornerstone of the Marvel universe since as a leader of the Avengers and symbol for uncompromising good.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” is the first time Cap has graced the big screen, though there have been a few ill-fated television movie attempts.
It is the fifth is a sequence of films leading up to next summer’s “The Avengers.’ Like “Incredible Hulk,” the two “Iron Man” films and “Thor” before it, “Captain America” lays the groundwork for one of the most anticipated comic book films in history.
SYNOPSIS: The only thing Steve Rogers wants to do is serve his country in World War II. His 90-pound frame, asthma and bevy of other ailments keep him from enlisting, but don’t stop him from trying. His tenacity, inner strength and compassion draw the attention of Abraham Erskine, the head of secret government program dedicated to creating a super soldier. Rogers is selected for the program and transformed into a superhuman hero. When Hydra, an evil organization under the command of the Red Skull, kills Erskine in an attempt to steal the serum that gave Rogers his strength, Captain America is forced into action to defend not only America, but the world.
THE GOOD,THE BAD AND THE UGLY: The biggest question going into “Captain America” was whether Chris Evans — perfectly cast as the cocky, wise-cracking Johnny Storm in the “Fantastic Four” films — could transform himself into the serious and superhuman Steve Rogers. Early photos answered the physical part of the question — Evans put on plenty of muscle. But could he generate the wholesomeness and solemnity the role required?
In every way, he did and ultimately he is the reason this film works as well as it does. Evans, who reportedly battled with writers over lines he thought Rogers would never say, is Captain America in much the same way Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark.
Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones also deserve recognition for their performances. Atwell, as Agent Peggy Carter, has great chemistry with Evans and their romance is refreshingly innocent and restrained, making the conclusion of the film all the more powerful. Tucci, in his short time on screen, creates such a deep character with Erskine that fans who know his fate will increasingly feel sad that his time is growing short. And Jones is splendid in his gruff, surprisingly funny portrayal of Colonel Chester Phillips.
Dominic Cooper is also a pleasant surprise as Howard Stark. He puts just enough Downey into his Howard to make him really believable as Tony Stark’s father.
But what are great performances without a great story?
Fortunately, “Captain America” was supplied with one of those as well.
Origin stories are often overdone, but the key to knowing Captain America now is knowing who he was then. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is set in the 1940s, the era that defines Cap’s actions. Joe Johnston, whose “The Rocketeer” may be the most underrated comic book film out there, transports us back to the era with sepia tones and period-accurate clothing, sets and music. Like “The Rocketeer” and the Indiana Jones films, the time period is as much a character as the actors and settles us into a foreign but familiar place. And the backdrop of World War II supplies plenty of battles for some great action scenes where Cap flings his shield with ferocity.
Add a beautiful score and you’ve got a perfect tribute to a character that embodies the best of this nation.
THE FINAL SCORE: “Captain America” exceeds even the highest of expectations, delivering a powerful story, fantastic action sequences, a touching romance and plenty of goodies for comic book fans.
EXTRAS: In the absolute best extra of the summer, fans who stay through all the credits will be treated to a button (film speak for a trailer following a film) for next summer’s “The Avengers.” Completely worthy of the huge ovation it got in this reviewer’s theater.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" is rated PG-13 and has a run time of 125 minutes.