Captain America: The First Avenger; PG-13, 124 minutes; Carmike Cinema 6

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Actually, yes, the United States did flirt with eugenics for a while, and Nazi Germany did try to vaporize whole populations. But the end results of those experiments were a lot less wholesome than the plot points in Captain America: The First Avenger.

 

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a schmoe too wimpy to serve in World War II—until the government turns him into a red, white and blue superhero in Captain America: The First Avenger.

 

Even having the word “avenger” in the title at all seems bold for this movie, whose emotional baseline is so safe and neutral that for a while the hero might as well be Captain Switzerland. (Consider also the Swiss cheese plot.)

Have a little faith with my writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeel), avers director Joe Johnston. Maybe you can get a good summer blockbuster from a comic book based on 70-year-old propaganda, just like you can get a metabolically enhanced “super-soldier” from a wimpy kid.

Chances are better than average if the kid’s played by Chris Evans, who got into superhero movies as the man on fire in Fantastic Four but here inhabits a more suitable element. Evans plays Steve Rogers, a puny but eager World War II enlistee whose M.O. is best described by Stanley Tucci’s character, a sagely-schmaltzy German scientist: “A weak man knows the value of strength.”

However weird it is to behold those early scenes with Evans’ head digitally grafted onto somebody else’s much less brawny body, his face and voice are reassuringly feeble. Swerving away from self-pity and into plausible humility, passing tests of character with declarative pluck, Rogers is as ready for this particular promotion to captain as anybody can be. He is ready to stand up and sacrifice himself for a stylized, spiffy, square-jawed America. It’s twice-filtered nostalgia, really, as Johnston draws much from the vintage Lucas-Spielberg playbook, itself a study of the pulp serials those directors grew up with.

In Captain America, every Allied soldier is a decent guy, every woman a pin-up-worthy beauty, every authority figure an avuncular wit and every villain a faceless monster—be he a bondage-hooded foot soldier or, well, the aptly named Red Skull. Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving pose very naturally in these respective categories, each enjoying and enlivening the proceedings considerably. The film’s moral reductiveness affords a certain popcorn-compatible clarity of presentation.

But affability can’t last forever, and doesn’t, in a film so willing to neutralize personality for the sake of a humdrum plot. Overall Captain America does compare favorably with recently reviewed YouTube snippets of the draggy 1979 Captain America TV movie, which plays like educational film-strip kitsch, and the 1990 big screen attempt, which apparently just plain sucked.

The newest version works as another component of a now familiar franchise. Iron Man’s father is here, as is the inter-dimensional portal that brought us Thor, and so on. As to that bold extra bit of title (The First Avenger) it too obviously sets up next summer’s The Avengers—encouraging us to wonder how the good captain’s super-square valor and virtue will play in the (comic book movie version of) today’s America.

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