"Captain America: The First Avenger" is the rare movie that earns its earnestness. It's honest, spirited, humble and even unironically patriotic — and yet it's rarely hokey.
In part, this is because the movie is set during World War II, when patriotic sentiments came easier. But it's also because the movie accepts its hero's sincere national pride without question or condescension. Rather than distance itself from its title character's country of origin, "Captain America" drapes itself in the flag — and looks good doing it.
It helps, of course, that the Captain is played by a super-buff Chris Evans. He's not much of an actor, but he doesn't have to be: The role demands little more than a prominent display of ab muscles — and he's as perfectly sculpted a male physical specimen as you're likely to find.
As characters go, Captain America is as simple as they come, and he knows it. "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn," Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) tells his archnemesis, power-mad Nazi commander Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) in a final showdown.
Of course, he's also the product of a massive military experiment designed to create what the experiment's commander, Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), calls a "new breed of super-soldier" tasked with a single mission: to "personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of hell."
The experiment, orchestrated by Dr. Abraham Erskine (a gentle, disheveled Stanley Tucci) takes a skinny but strong-hearted wimp and transforms him into an all-American superman. But just as the experiment is complete, Erskine is murdered, leaving Rogers as his experiment's sole success.
At first, Rogers is exploited by a conniving senator to help raise money for the war effort. But eventually, with guidance from lovely fellow officer Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell), he begins to run real wartime missions on his own.
Those missions are aimed at taking out HYDRA, a secretive Nazi splinter group led by Red Skull, a leather-clad tyrant with cherry-red bones for a face and a lust for ancient occult power. Mr. Weaving brings a bit of magic to the role himself, imbuing a generic villain with an eerie sense of dastardly purpose. No one can top the sneering verve he brings to a villainous monologue.
Director Joe Johnston doesn't fare quite as well. His sepia-toned sci-fi world gives the movie an art-deco adventure vibe, but he's a better set-designer than action-scene choreographer. Midway through the movie, he launches into an awkward montage of heroic action beats that look nifty but lack any narrative context — as if he'd dreamed up an array of iconic action-scene images but couldn't find anywhere to insert them in the story.
The script comes across as a hodgepodge of superhero-origin story elements — the early foray into commercialism, the death of the father figure, the burden of power and responsibility. Timeless? No. Effective? Close enough.
These stars and stripes may not last forever. But they'll keep you pleasantly entertained for a couple of hours at the movies this summer.
★ ★ ★
TITLE: "Captain America: The First Avenger"
CREDIT: Directed by Joe Johnston, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
RATING: PG-13 for patriotic violence, occult science
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS