Captain America: The First Avenger is one of those old-fashioned, red-blooded adventure tales, in which the pure-of-heart hero is pitted against the megalomaniacal villain out to destroy the world. There is no level below this story in the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and there doesn't need to be. The film's opening half-hour establishes the erstwhile values of its hero, then the rest shows us how he earns the eponymous moniker by defending purely American values. That is all it needs to do, because the film, like its hero, has no patience for other nonsense.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately wants to join the American military to fight the Nazi scourge, but his small frame (awkwardly combined with what is apparently the actor's actual head, a visual effect that is never not distracting) and asthma preclude him from even being considered by recruiters. That is, until a German doctor named Erskine (Stanley Tucci, leaving a huge impression in a role with limited screen time) approaches him with an opportunity: to take part in a scientific experiment that will increase his strength and muscle mass, thus giving him the tools to be the best soldier he can possibly be.
The experiment works. Steve's build becomes the muscular kind more befitting of a soldier in intimidating shape, and his endurance causes him to run so fast that, during one chase, he crashes straight into a shopfront. He defies the expectations of Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones in his usual mode of bemusement) and catches the eye of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British agent. His failure to bring in a German spy alive, which also inadvertently causes the loss of the super-soldier serum, causes Peggy and Phillips to turn their noses up at him, and Steve takes on the identity of Captain America, a singing-and-dancing mascot, while awaiting the right time to do something heroic.
Eventually, of course, that time comes. His best childhood friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is captured as a prisoner-of-war alongside his unit, the very group Steve wanted to join. They are the prisoners of Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, adopting an accent uncannily like that of Werner Herzog), a minion of Hitler's who believes his Fuhrer's vision is too short-sighted (charming fellow, obviously). In search of a glowing cube that warrants unstoppable power (because of course it does), Schmidt underwent the same procedure as Steve. Its effects, though, were different, morphing his features into a red skull, the source of his nickname.
Schmidt's presence is, obviously, mostly a counterpoint to Steve and, consequently, a device for director Joe Johnston to bring us a handful of classically choreographed, handsomely executed action sequences and an eyeful of production design that can best be described as "era-specific, with a twist." The plot hums along, smooth as clockwork, until a finale that is appropriately rousing. Only the lack of any surprise in that plot, which of course hinges a little too much on the location of that glowing cube of power, is a real limitation. Even as it doesn't stretch to do anything new, though, Captain America: The First Avenger is swift fun and, by the time it reaches a bittersweet denouement, surprisingly heartfelt.
Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Tommy Lee Jones (Col. Chester Phillips), Hugo Weaving (Johann Schmidt/Red Skull), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), Toby Jones (Dr. Arnim Zola), Stanley Tucci (Dr. Abraham Erskine), Neal McDonough (Dum Dum Dugan), Derek Luke (Gabe Jones), Kenneth Choi (Jim Morita).
Directed by Joe Johnston and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi violence/action).
Released on July 22, 2011.