Gregory Bull/AP Images
Darren Franich
July 21, 2011 AT 10:15 PM EDT

As previously announced, Captain America: The First Avenger is holding a day of preview screenings at the UA Horton Plaza in San Diego — just a hop, skip, and a jump from Comic-Con, which is otherwise pretty low on new Marvel Studios fun. At the special 10 a.m. fan screening for Captain America, attendees were treated to a special performance by a gaggle of USO-style dancers dressed in red, white, and blue. They were performing a 1940’s-style song about a “Star-Spangled Man” that actually plays in the movie while Captain America is zooming around the country shilling for war bonds. Obviously, selling a film using patriotism is an incredibly thorny moral quandary and opens up a whole host of ethical questions about movie salesmanship, which is exactly what I’m mumbling to myself while I’m getting my picture taken with the USO girls.

“You guys are the first audience to view this movie in the world!” says the theater’s MC. It’s not true, and everyone in this audience knows that — the film had its world premiere earlier this week. But it’s a nice lie, a Comic-Con lie, so everyone cheers deprecatingly. Chris Evans, Cap himself, strolls in, wearing a blue hoodie and looking exceedingly confident that he is preaching to the converted. “I gotta be honest,” says Evans. “I love this movie. I know it’s been kind of a superhero summer, but I believe we have something special. I can’t always be this enthusiastic ’cause I don’t always love my movies.” Everyone laughs. Evans strolls out, the USO Dancers throw T-shirts into the audience, and someone yells “I loved you in Cellular.”

The film appears to go over well — there is much laughter in all the right places, occasional cheering, and a hushed silence during the film’s (MILD SPOILER) hushed, sacrificial climax. Afterwards, I ask a group of teenagers what they thought. They all enjoyed it. Claire, the lone girl in the group, specifies that “the ending after the credits was pretty awesome.” (The post-credits sequence is an Avengers teaser, which earned loud cheers and possible some Beatles-style crying from the audience.)

When asked how Captain America compared to other superhero films, Josh says, “I’d say it’s about the same level as Thor. I think it’s almost to the top. Not Dark Knight level, that’d be crazy.” Claire notes, “I think Captain America was better, but superhero-wise, I think Thor was pretty kick-ass.”

I talk to a slightly older, more comic-savvy group of fans — a pair of married couples, Ashley & Ryan and Mallik & Tamara. Ryan seems to echo the teenagers’ feelings that Captain America falls squarely in the upper-middle class of superhero films. “I’d say between the top and the middle. Not quite top, but pretty good.” The couples single out the film’s decision (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) to tweak the death of Bucky, a legendary part of the Cap origin that actually becomes rather surprising in the film. Ryan: “It was very nonchalant. It didn’t have the feeling like I thought it would.” Mallik: “Yes, whenever I fall out of a train at 1000 feet, I always think to myself, ‘Very nonchalant.'”

Okay, but lets get down to the important thing here: Who wins in the battle of shirtless superheroes, Thor or Captain Am —

“Captain America,” says Tamara quickly. Ashley disagrees, saying Thor. Ryan: “I’m secure, and my wife [Ashley] is standing right here. I’m gonna say that I thought Hemsworth was a little jacked.” Mallik, do we have a tiebreaker? “For my wife, I’ll say Steve Rogers.” Well, it’s the patriotic choice.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:

Comic-Con: Chris Evans talks his hopes for more Captain America

‘Captain America’: Time to talk sequel?

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