'Captain America': Nostalgic Fun, With Muscles

Captain America (Chris Evans, center) was actually the first Marvel avenger, conceived in 1940 to do battle with  Hitler.

hide captionCaptain America (Chris Evans, center) was actually the first Marvel avenger, conceived in 1940 to do battle with Hitler.

Jay Maidment/Paramount Pictures

Captain America: The First Avenger

  • Director: Joe Johnston
  • Genre: Action
  • Running Time: 121 minutes

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action

With: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Sebastian Stan, Hugo Weaving

Unlike many other middle-aged moviegoers, I don't groan at the prospect of every new comic-book-based movie. I grew up adoring stuff a lot tackier. The problem is that modern superhero movies cost $100-plus million and use up studio resources that could be better used for ... almost anything. And they seem bogged down instead of liberated by their expensive computer-generated effects.

But I like the new Captain America, or, as it's officially titled, Captain America: The First Avenger, which is meant to remind us that the Captain will be an ally of Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor in the upcoming Marvel Comics epic The Avengers. No, it's not destined to be a classic: Material so pulpy just isn't worth doing at these prices. But the movie has an easy, classical pace and a lot of good, old-fashioned craftsmanship.

The musclebound jock Captain America with his mighty shield, born Steve Rogers, actually was the first Marvel avenger, conceived in 1940 to do battle with Hitler. Rogers began his life not as a jock but as a 98-pound weakling who couldn't get into the Army. Rogers is classified 4F until he is overheard vowing to keep applying by Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, a German scientist who defected to the Allies. Erskine thinks Steve, despite his asthma and poor muscle tone, has the strength of heart to become the first biochemically enhanced U.S. soldier — which puts Erskine at odds with Tommy Lee Jones as a brusque colonel, whose choice is a more obvious candidate, a soldier named Hodge.

The early section is the best part of Captain America: You watch Jones with his acid deadpan bicker with a shining-eyed, lovable Tucci while anticipating little Steve Rogers' transformation into a superhero. I caught a faint whiff of one of my favorite films, Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero, also about a weakling who dreams of fighting in the war — but who doesn't have a German scientist to pump him full of super-sizing chemicals.

The super-villain in this case isn't Hitler but a breakaway Nazi named Schmidt who was the first recipient of an early version of Dr. Erskine's serum — which has, with the help of a supernatural glowy thing, transformed his head into a red skull. He's played to icy perfection by Hugo Weaving, but the dialogue is generic megalomaniac stuff. Even more disappointing is Chris Evans' Captain A when he gets put into his own muscular body. Evans isn't physically inventive enough to suggest a nerd's surprise and then elation with his new abilities. This would have been a good role for a wittier hunk like Ryan Reynolds — who got cast, alas, as the Green Lantern.

Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers' girlfriend in Captain America. i i

hide captionHayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers' girlfriend in Captain America.

Jay Maidment/Paramount Pictures
Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers' girlfriend in Captain America.

Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers' girlfriend in Captain America.

Jay Maidment/Paramount Pictures

But Captain America is good fun anyway. It's deftly directed by Joe Johnston, who did special effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark before making such graphically strong fantasies as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer. Johnston learned his sense of economy from Spielberg: He doesn't waste a shot. The production design by Rick Heinrichs is bold and unfussy, the palette monochromatic with splashes of comic-book greens and reds, the compositions evocative of World War II newsreels. And there are hints of futurist designs in Schmidt's souped-up storm troopers with their disintegrating ray guns. Every frame reads. The score by Alan Silvestri is a marvelous pastiche with a life of its own, and there's a wonderful song-and-dance montage in which the Captain is trotted out along with leggy chorus girls to raise patriotic spirits: It's both satirical and exhilarating.

So is the film, in its retro nostalgic way. Early scenes at a World's Fair remind you of how this whole superhero mythos was born, out of patriotism, utopianism and hucksterism — out of the belief that science, the military and nerdy messianic dreamers could free the world from evil. OK, that didn't work out so well, but Captain America proves how grand it once was to have faith.

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