Three cheers for the red, white and blue

Captain America emerges a star-spangled winner.

click to enlarge EVERYBODY'S ALL AMERICAN: Chris Evans earns his stars and stripes after a successful rescue mission as the title character in Captain America: The First Avenger. - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
EVERYBODY'S ALL AMERICAN: Chris Evans earns his stars and stripes after a successful rescue mission as the title character in Captain America: The First Avenger.

It took till nearly the end of July, but the best comic-book film of the summer is finally here.

Captain America: The First Avenger not only humbles this season’s previous superhero efforts, it can also wave its flag proudly alongside the genre’s better efforts.

The movie is a triumph for director Joe Johnston, whose credits (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, The Wolfman) range from so-so to solid-albeit-unspectacular entertainment. The closest precedence one can find to Johnston’s accomplishment here may be The Rocketeer, a pulpy hero piece set in the 1930s that was well-crafted and moderately well-received. But he’s never had a script or all-around production values as strong as these to work with.

Johnston puts together wonderfully staged, nearly poetic action sequences in this movie, giving Captain America an exuberance that mirrors the giddy feeling of discovery that comes with opening the pages of a good comic book. In doing so, he lives up to the efforts of his collaborators, who excel in nearly every aspect of the production, including cinematography, editing, set design and, perhaps most significantly, the script.

The crackling screenplay was penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose other efforts include the Chronicles of Narnia series. In a recent interview, the duo cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as an inspiration while working on this film, and the influence shows. Captain America exhibits plenty of old-fashioned panache while keeping its story moving forward. Witty one-liners are sprinkled throughout to punctuate key moments, and the characters are developed just enough to engage while still retaining their iconic feel.

All the work behind the camera is complemented by a talented cast –from the principals to the supporting players — that works hard to bring the film to life by making it both fun and believable.

Leading that effort is Chris Evans, wonderful in the role of Steve Rogers, the scrawny kid from Brooklyn who perseveres to become an all-American hero. With his boyish good looks, easy charm and earnest demeanor, Evans crafts a character who earns and deserves the audience’s admiration and rooting interest.

Evans’ Steve is patriotic without being jingoistic. When asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he replies, “I don’t want to kill anybody.” But he’s more than willing to do what he must in order to protect the weak and defenseless, a trait that earned him the right to be chosen for the super-soldier project led by Dr. Abraham Erksine, the German-born scientist who recruits Steve. Stanley Tucci gives a wonderful performance as Erskine, the high point being a funny, touching scene he shares with Evans the night before Steve’s transformation from weakling to hero.

With his new powers, Steve is soon battling Hydra, the Nazi offshoot organization led by Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull, played with convincing menace by Hugo Weaving (the Matrix series).

As for the rest of the main players, Hayley Atwell is outstanding in the role of Peggy Carter, the military agent who develops a strong affection for Steve. Playing Howard Stark, Dominic Cooper embodies the combination of braininess and devil-may-care attitude that will one day inform his son, Tony, aka Iron Man. Tommy Lee Jones is also a standout, bringing his exquisitely dry delivery and no-nonsense attitude to the role of Colonel Chester Phillips. Even Cap’s erstwhile partner from the comics, Bucky Barnes, is along for this rollicking ride.

It’s a ride that comes with a fine soundtrack, including Alan Silvestri’s majestic score. Also noteworthy is the song cowritten by Alan Menken, who penned memorable contributions for Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Here, he conjures a rousing USO number performed by Steve and a troupe of gorgeous women as they try to rally support for the war effort.

As that scene indicates, there’s a certain endearing hokiness to Captain America that gives it a charm enjoyed by very few comic book films. Tonally, with its mom-and-apple-pie squareness, it’s on a similar wavelength as Richard Donner’s Superman. Perhaps because it’s a period piece, the wholesome, uncomplicated sentiments feel refreshing from the vantage point of our economically and politically troubling times.

Captain America: The First Avenger is the kind of grandly entertaining movie that was made for summertime. And it’s just the kind of film this summer has needed.

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