Captain America: The First Avenger is stolidly corny, old-fashioned pulp fun. Directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer), the picture is nothing, really, that you haven’t seen before, but it’s the definition of a square, competent, deliver-the-goods blockbuster. It’s set in 1942, and the World War II trappings — gimlet-eyed Nazis, patriotic newsreels, high-stepping USO shows, the whole earnest spirit of pitching in — are no mere backdrop. The movie is so wholesome it could almost have been made during World War II. Captain America (Chris Evans), the strapping, bionically enhanced U.S. Army soldier-turned-superhero (a character first introduced by Marvel Comics 70 years ago), runs like the Six Million Dollar Man and flies through the air on a motorcycle like Machete. Mostly, though, he doesn’t do much that Bruce Willis didn’t do in the Die Hard films. He leaps, darts, sneaks around, and socks bad guys in the jaw. He just does it fiercer, faster, with more lightning invincibility. In his winged helmet and leather-patch uniform, he’s a one-man commando-squad fighting machine who wields his stars-and-stripes shield — made of the toughest metal on earth! — like a battering ram and a lethal boomerang.
Before any of that, though, the movie reaches back to the original seed of all superhero fantasy: the myth of the 98-pound weakling transformed. When we first meet Steve Rogers, who will go on to become Captain America, he’s a sawed-off asthmatic runt from Brooklyn who’s obsessed with enlisting in the military and serving his country. Through the miracle of digital technology, the face of Chris Evans has been melded onto what appears to be a skinny, flat-as-an-ironing-board-chested teenager who stands around 5 foot 4. Steve may not look like soldier material, but he’s got ”heart,” which is why he’s first spotted by Abraham Erskine, a scraggly German-American scientist played by Stanley Tucci in a Hogan’s Heroes accent, who decides to give Steve his untested cell-enhancement serum. Evans, with serious eyebrows and a shock of blond hair, has the Olympian-jock look that appears to be in favor in superhero movies this season, but there’s a melancholy cast to his features. He’s like the young Richard Gere with a touch of Norman Mailer’s super-aware, furrowed-brow poker face.
Injected with the blue serum, then pelted with a maximum dose of ”Vita-Ray,” Steve emerges from this vaguely Frankensteinian experiment looking like Adonis and ready to serve. At first, Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), the growly officer in command of the top secret project, doesn’t know what to do with his lone-wolf super-soldier. (He’d wanted an entire army of them, which didn’t quite work out.) So Steve, dressed at first in the original, now rather froufrou-looking costume from the 1940s Captain America comics, is put to work as a performing mascot in kitschy stage shows designed to sell war bonds — a funny sequence that has the effect of emasculating Steve all over again. Which, of course, just intensifies our desire to see him break out and kick ass.
The Nazis, or at least their deep science division (known as HYDRA), have their own secret weapon, a series of nuclear-style bombs designed to be dropped on American cities. It’s a project masterminded by a rogue officer named Red Skull, who looks like Hellboy crossed with Michael Jackson and is played by Hugo Weaving with the gusto of a James Bond villain. He keeps nattering on about having harnessed the powers of the gods, which is all very occult and Teutonic, though it’s also supposed to be a dark mirror of Steve’s own transformation into a godlike hero who more or less resembles the ideal of Aryan manhood. I wish the movie’s script, which is pretty bare-bones, developed these ideas a bit further. More than that, I wish the dialogue had a higher dose of wit. Chris Evans, best known up until now as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films, is an appealing actor, but his Captain America could have used a bit of deadpan hipness. He’s so straight he’s like a Boy Scout on steroids. Then again, that’s the appeal of a movie that takes you back to a time when America didn’t have to be remotely ironic about believing in itself. B