Sometimes Captain America really works, and sometimes he really doesn't. He worked in the '40s, when millions of Americans got their first look at the Sentinel of Liberty as he socked Hitler right in the piehole on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 (a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor). He didn't work in the '50s, when he all but disappeared from the spinner rack, but he worked again when he was successfully revived in the '60s. Cap has been going strong in comics ever since, but he most certainly did not work in a rather embarrassing direct-to-VHS film adaptation in 1992.
Surprisingly, he works remarkably well on the big screen in 2011. Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger was arguably the toughest of the Avengers prequels to pull off, but it's also one of the most successful—if you need to rank such things, you can safely put it behind Iron Man but ahead of both The Incredible Hulk and Thor. Captain America is perhaps the most straightforward of them all, opting for the two-fisted, innocent patriotism of Cap's early adventures in comics and Saturday morning serials over current comic book scribe Ed Brubaker's worldlier, more complex take on the character.
The plot in a movie like this doesn't matter quite as much as the spirit, and Captain America has plenty of that. The story focuses on Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who has the heart of a warrior but the body of an asthmatic runt. Thanks to a CG effect that is seamless but still more than a little creepy, Evans' head is digitally grafted onto a body that looks like the "before" picture in a Charles Atlas ad—if there were any sand around, you can bet some jerk would be kicking it in Rogers' face. Repeatedly and emphatically stamped with a 4F disqualification and denied admittance to the Army, Rogers finally gets his chance when he meets Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a brilliant German scientist who fled his homeland when his work attracted Hitler's attention. With the help of dapper industrialist (and Iron Man progenitor) Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Erskine enlists Rogers as the first American test subject for his Super Soldier Serum. It works, Evans gets his own beefy body back, and much ass-kicking ensues.
The main ass in need of a super-kick belongs to Johann Schmidt (a pitch-perfect Hugo Weaving), head of a Nazi occult research division known as HYDRA. Thanks to an unfortunate experience with a prototype of Erskine's serum, Schmidt has been transformed into a supervillain known as the Red Skull. Schmidt steps out of Hitler's shadow and takes matters into his own hands when he comes into possession of the Tesseract, a magical Norse paperweight that gives him the power to destroy every major city in the world unless—well, you know. Rogers, who has been shanghaied into pimping war bonds as a costumed posterboy for the American way, enlists a few Howling Commandos and sets off to put Schmidt in his place.
The film is charming and entertaining, and it neatly defies any attempt to write off its appeal to mere nostalgia. The filmmakers haven't recreated the '40s as they were—they've reshaped them into what they could have been. It isn't set on a faraway planet or in another dimension, but Captain America is nonetheless an example of cinematic world-building at its very finest. Much of this is thanks to Johnston's sensibilities and production designer Rick Heinrichs' retro-futuristic sets, props, and costumes, but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have also done their share of the heavy lifting, more or less successfully condensing Cap's sometimes convoluted origin story into a two-hour, whiz-bang adventure populated by dashing G.I.s, leggy dames, wise-cracking knuckleheads, mad scientists, and jackbooted Nazis. Some liberties have been taken with the comic book storylines—Cap's sidekick, Bucky Barnes, is now Rogers' childhood friend and protector, and love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is an amalgamation of a couple of Cap's numerous girlfriends—but for the most part, it hews close to the source.
Johnston more than redeems himself after last year's flat Wolfman remake. The action sequences that comprise much of Captain America's second half sometimes fall a little flat, but the first half, which culminates in a terrific musical montage that gently pokes fun at the inherent absurdity of the superhero mythos, more than makes up for it.
By the way, the Village Voice lied. There is something after the credits, so stay put.