The run-up to Marvel Entertainment's The Avengers hits an enormously satisfying stride in Captain America, a whiz-bang, retro-futuristic adventure that mercifully eschews the brooding Dark Knight trend to offer an exhilarating thrill ride that perfectly captures the enduring optimism of the 1940s. Eye-catching set and vehicle designs, crackerjack pacing, and a talented, highly watchable cast all help director Joe Johnston create an impressive alternate reality in which Nazis with laser guns seem perfectly logical.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was a 98-pound weakling with the heart of a lion and the spirit of a hero. All he ever wanted was to serve his country by fighting injustice overseas, but as World War II rages and his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), prepares for deployment, scrawny Steve can't even pass a standard Army physical. Steve gets the opportunity of a lifetime, though, when Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) gets a glimpse of his true bravery and invites him to take part in a top-secret test to create the perfect soldier. Immediately transformed into a stalwart super-human by a serum that enhances his inherent goodness, Steve earns the nickname Captain America and becomes a piece of government propaganda before answering a higher calling -- teaming with military contact Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and brilliant engineer Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to rescue a group of American solders trapped behind enemy lines. During the clandestine mission, Captain America discovers evidence that rogue Nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is secretly using an ancient artifact to power a revolutionary weapon capable of bringing the world to its knees, saves Bucky from certain death, and finally gains the respect of gruff Army Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Later, Captain America uses the intelligence gathered during that daring rescue to plan a mission that will defeat Schmidt and permanently disable Hydra -- the undisclosed arm of the Nazi regime dedicated to harnessing mystical powers and using them for evil. Meanwhile, Schmidt reveals himself as the Red Skull, a frightening villain whose powers are only exceeded by those of Captain America. With the soldiers he rescued and his best friend Bucky by his side, the fearless super-soldier invades Hydra headquarters and wages the ultimate fight or freedom.
In The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston established himself as a filmmaker capable of creating an atmosphere that was simultaneously antiquated yet tantalizingly futuristic. By ramping up the sci-fi elements considerably and creating a hyper-stylized portrait of the 1940s, he perfects that unique tone in Captain America. Though rooted in our familiar reality and set during a crucial point in world history, Johnston's take on the classic comic seems to exist somewhat out of time. But it's precisely those constant technological contrasts and contradictions (Hydra has surveillance cameras in its headquarters, yet the countdown clocks on their self-destruction devices are flip-number analog) and occasionally sketchy special effects that in the long run will likely make Captain America feel less dated than its moodier contemporaries, even if it doesn't appear to represent a major leap in special-effects technology. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Ford and Robert Dalva's quick-cut editing reveals Captain America as a contemporary action film even as cinematographer Shelly Johnson's fluid camerawork harks back to the era before filmmakers began relying on jittery handheld camerawork to create a sense of urgency. Comparisons to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas are inevitable given both the serial-style nature of Captain America as well as some of the content (namely a motorcycle chase that echoes the speeder bike pursuit from Return of the Jedi, and a climactic scene that recalls the face-melting finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark); however, in borrowing from the best, director Johnston and company turn out an adventure that also stands shoulder to shoulder beside them.
When it comes to a hero's saga, everything else will buckle if the main character's story arc doesn't ring true. With screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely in charge of script duties and the capable Chris Evans behind the shield, though, fans can rest assured that this take on Captain America is built on a solid foundation. Not only do the writers manage to pace the story so that it still feels brisk even while crossing the two-hour mark, but Evans' physical transformation from famished bully-bait to hulking hero is just as convincing as it would have been on the pages of a comic book, and the way he co-opts the costumed character originally created to sell war bonds comes off as entirely natural. Likewise, the romantic spark between the Captain and Peggy (looking every bit like the iconic pinup models of the era) is apparent even before the fuse of the main plot is lit, and the rest of the script is filled with memorable one-liners delivered with zeal by Jones and Cooper, in particular, who truly make the most of their supporting roles. And though he only gets a fraction of the screen time of his other co-stars, Tucci, too, is a major standout as the deeply humanistic Dr. Erskine -- who seeks to atone for creating a real-life monster.
Whether you're a devoted fan of the character or just an average moviegoer seeking to beat the heat with a solid action-adventure, Captain America is that rare blockbuster that offers a little something for everyone (though some of the action may be slightly too intense for preadolescent viewers) while also building impressive momentum for Marvel's forthcoming all-star comic-book adventure that has rabid comic fans everywhere champing at the bit.