At the height of the Second World War, plucky patriot Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) attempts to enlist in the army alongside his best friend 'Bucky' Barnes (Sebastian Stan), but proves too puny to pass the physical exams. Recognising Steve's innate heroism, brilliant scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recruits him for the top secret Project Rebirth being prepared in war-torn Britain where his courage, wit and selfless decency impress beautiful English agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and grouchy Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Working with flamboyant billionaire inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Erskine's experimental super-serum transforms scrawny Steve into the muscular superhero, Captain America, whose exploits inspire his countrymen and infuriate the Nazi regime, including the covert Hydra organisation fronted by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving - with an impeccable German accent) a.k.a. the hideously deformed madman, the Red Skull.
Created by Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby in 1941, Marvel Comics' star-spangled superhero previously had a checkered career on the silver screen. Aside from a supporting role in the tacky Turkish oddity 3 Dev Adam (1973), there were two terrible TV movies starring Reb Brown in 1979 as well as the infamous Cannon-produced Captain America (1990) directed by Albert Pyun with Matt Salinger in the title role, which was never released in American theatres. Little wonder many felt the character was too kitsch to translate for the cinema or else too ideologically outmoded to engage a modern audience. But what the earlier films lacked was charm and sincerity, qualities Captain America: The First Avenger delivers in spades as well as an admirable intention to engage our emotions besides dazzle us with superhero action.
With Marvel now forging close ties between all their film franchises, this follows the trend set by Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) and lays groundwork for the forthcoming Avengers movie, which curtails a few promising plot strands even though the film can stand on its own merits. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the duo behind the Narnia films) is beautifully crafted with many subtle touches (note Steve's use of a trashcan lid in one early scene) alongside more overt flourishes (e.g. the "World of Tomorrow" exhibit where Howard Stark exhibits his latest inventions), but crucially takes time to establish engaging characters so that when the breakneck sci-fi thrills and outlandish action erupt onscreen we have a backbone of human drama to make us care. Markus and McFeely also add an interesting satirical layer to the Captain America mythos, as Steve is initially used not as a superhuman commando but a tacky, moral-boosting campaign figure encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. Amusing parodies of propaganda from the period include red, white and blue chorus girls, tie-in movies and, yes, comic books, until our hero is mocked by real servicemen. He wins their respect by rescuing a platoon trapped behind enemy lines, who include his old pal Bucky, and then assembles a winningly multiracial strike force to take the fight to the Red Skull.
Having already been the best thing in the otherwise lacklustre Fantastic Four (2005), Chris Evans delivers a charismatic and surprisingly affecting performance as a valiant but humble hero who defines what real American patriotism is all about. When asked whether he wants to kill Nazis, Steve replies he does not want to kill anyone but hates bullies. No matter where they come from. While Evans is outstanding, the film remains an ensemble piece with Atwell cast an agreeably gutsy and resourceful heroine. Instead of the usually tepid English Rose stereotype that usually occurs when a British actress is cast in these sort of roles, Atwell enters the film punching out a sexist soldier and holds her own from thereon. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as the growling military man, Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper find grace notes amidst the action, and the film finds room for snappy character work from Toby Jones as a conflicted Nazi scientist (look out for a well-scripted scene between him and Tommy Lee Jones), Michael Brandon as an oily senator and the ever-villainous Richard Armitage.