Captain America: The First Avenger puts action and spectacle above thought, and that’s a good thing. There are some slight issues I have with this franchise pic but the main one would be how bad the 3D conversion looks. The picture is so dim I thought I was watching a print in a mineshaft. 3D derails the look of some decent popcorn flicks and for every film that makes good use of the technology (Transformers Dark of the Moon) there are three that add it on like an order of super size fries. Captain America’s use of 3D is 4F.

Captain America gives us the final build-up film to next year’s Avenger’s sequel (May 4, 2012), and as we know from the title Cappy is the first avenger. Iron Man’s father (Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark) pops up with the same comic wit and penchant for adventure as his son. Perhaps the most compelling parts of CATFA revolve around the re-telling of the myth of WWII. Unlike say Inglourious Basterds, where Hitler gets offed in the finale, Captain America posits that a rouge Nazi general, a/k/a/ Red Skull has harnessed occult power and laser weapons and breaks off from the Germans as surely as Col. Kurtz did from the Americans in Apocalypse Now. In fact, with his private army of storm troopers, Red Skull has targeted Berlin as well as New York.

Forget that Red Skull has the bright red complexion of Hellboy, itself a Dark Horse Comic – hardly a competitor when dealing with DC or Marvel – or that his minion (Toby Jones) is in full Truman Capote mode. The real departure is the posse of Captain America, a ragtag assortment of war movie stereotypes including a Jap, a Negro who speaks fluent French and Neal McDonough dressed in a surreal bowler hat and armed with a shotgun like he stepped out of an unmade sequel to Boondock Saints. McDonough doesn’t even have an accent. But this revisionist color blindness is what gives Captain America whatever oomph it displays, especially considering how segregated a war the Second World War was.

I really wanted to like Cappy, heck, as much as Thor or (from another studio) X-Men: First Class; but what Cappy really delivers is a nostalgic if not anachronistic excess of set design. Also clever was the way director Joe Johnson furtively recalls the classic A Matter of Life and Death by staging one of Cappy’s scenes like the radio to airplane communication of David Niven and Kim Hunter at the beginning of that Michael Powell film. Even Captain America’s troops mirror A Matter of Life and Death in the way it truthfully realizes the actual demographic breakdown of American society: a melting pot of everyone who’s ever lived on Earth.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to join the military at the onset of WWII but being a 99-pound weakling is rejected. Some imaginative CGI shrinks Evan’s frame so later when he’s been transformed to his present cut and ripped self by a bizarre scientific experiment the effect produces one of the film’s better moments. Another effective use of build-up is in the revealing of Red Skull’s actual face as opposed to his persona of Hugo Weaving. We see scars on the edges of Weaving’s hairline when his character’s first introduced and then later see his portrait being painted while Weaving himself is silhouetted with the canvas tilted away from the camera.

Tommy Lee Jones commands Cappy’s unit and the screen when he chews his lines. Jones demonstrates the best kind of stand and deliver acting: tell me where to stand and when do you deliver the paycheck? Hayley Atwell has appeared in smaller films like Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream and the recent Brideshead Revisited, but here she competes with Cappy in both looks and persistence. Atwell’s Peggy Carter projects perfect 40s glamour and poise and even steals a couple of scenes. Stanley Tucci plays a snappy expatriate scientist who chooses Rogers as his guinea pig, and definitely has the best accent.

Evans plays Captain America as a guy who just wants to get back at all the bullies who’ve previously ruined his life. It’s Evans’ second big screen super hero after Johnny Storm, and not counting his turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Captain America has too many set motifs and explosions to say that Evans carries the pic, however his turn as a wholesome hero fits perfectly in the greater jigsaw of the movie.

For the record, next year’s Avengers is currently being helmed by Joss Whedon and combines Iron Man, Thor, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow, and Captain America along with goodness knows what kind of villains and other supporting characters. Imagine the universe around Christmas of 2012 when the full box set becomes available with every Marvel Avenger’s movie? One can hardly say that this is compelling cinema so much as well thought out merchandising. Any political bent one would try to attach to the characters is a detour with people projecting their own beliefs on cardboard heroes. Yet the execution is precise and enjoyable right down to its PG-13 spine.

— Michael Bergeron