Let Tony Stark make the wisecracks and Nick Fury give the intimidating commands.
As Steve Rogers, Chris Evans brings an earnest dignity and intelligence to “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the final Marvel Comics set-up for next summer’s all-star blockbuster “The Avengers.” There’s little humor here outside a few moments in which this superhero discovers the full breadth of his powers and the presence of Tommy Lee Jones, who shows up and does that bemused, condescending thing he can do in his sleep.
Director Joe Johnston’s film feels weighty and substantial, even in the dreaded and needless 3-D, and it has a beautiful, sepia-toned, art-deco look about it. The lighting, production design, costumes, even the perfect shade of red lipstick on retro-chic Hayley Atwell all look just right. Plenty of action awaits, but it’s not empty or glossy. You are not in for a giddy, winking, high-flying summer fling. And that’s OK — there’s something appealing about such an old-fashioned approach.
Evans, who previously played a Marvel comic-book hero as the smart-alecky Human Torch in both “Fantastic Four” movies, takes a very different tone here as the World War II fighting hero. Rogers is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn with dreams of military glory who keeps getting rejected each time he tries to sign up for service. (In a creepy but seamless special effect, Evans’ head is placed on a skinny body; that deep, serious voice of his gives the character gravitas and heart.)
Scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) sees something special in him, though, and enlists him for a daring experiment. Through some high-tech injections, Steve is transformed into a super soldier known as Captain America. Despite his newly buffed physique, the government believes the best use of this human weapon is to send him out on tour selling war bonds.
But Rogers isn’t the only one who’s been juicing: Hugo Weaving plays the former Nazi leader Johann Schmidt, who will reveal himself to be the villainous Red Skull. He’s formed his own splinter group, Hydra, and insists that his minions greet him with a Hitler-style salute. He’s built some formidable weaponry with the help of Toby Jones as his put-upon scientist assistant.
The rest of the abundant supporting cast includes Jones as Col. Chester Phillips, who’s skeptical of the kid’s abilities; Dominic Cooper as the clever and charming inventor Howard Stark; and Atwell as British agent Peggy Carter. Atwell’s gorgeous looks make her a great fit for the part, but her character is better developed than you might imagine; she’s no damsel in distress, waiting for Captain America to save her, but rather a trained fighter who’s very much his equal.
But “Captain America” is far more engaging when it’s about a scrappy underdog overcoming the odds than it is about generic shoot-outs and exploding tanks. It only scratches the surface in trying to examine the perils of premature fame. And in satirizing our country’s tendency to fetishize patriotism, “Captain America” doesn’t have much that’s new to say: We worship and cling to our heroes, whether or not they want or deserve our adulation? Is that it?
Still, such a reserved take on the subject might just be preferable to heavy-handed preaching. And we’re surely in store for an over-the-top spectacle when “The Avengers” hits theaters next year. ‘Til then, this is a nourishing appetizer.