America has entered World War II but puny patriot Steve Rogers (Evans) is still 4F. However, after military scientist Erskine (Tucci) spies Rogers' inner strength he's inducted into a secret programme and injected with a serum that gives him uncanny speed and strength. When Nazi scientist Schmidt (Weaving) discovers a powerful artifact, Rogers must take the mantle of the nation's first super-soldier, an emblem called Captain America...
Like this year's X-Men: First Class, The First Avenger finds fresh wrinkles in the well-worn superhero origin story by setting the action in the film-period of the character's comic-book birth. Where Matthew Vaughn's take on X-Men was pure '60s spy caper, Joe Johnston's Captain America is a boy's-own '40s war story, full of derring-do, knockout dames and dastardly Nazis.
Marvel’s matchmaking of director to material may not appear as astute as hitching Shakespearean Ken to Thor but Cap is a generation older than Spidey and Johnston’s Saturday-morning-serial sensibilities have been his signature since The Rocketeer. Johnston also won an Oscar for his SFX work on Raiders Of The Lost Ark and it’s Spielberg's benchmark - rather than, say, The Dark Knight - that’s clearly the model here.
In reaching for this Indy-ideal, the movie begins confidently. Cutting between Rogers' trials on the home front and the terrible triumphs of Schmidt in Europe, the narrative lines are sharply drawn, the pacing unhurried and a platoon of quality scene-chewers are deployed in classic character parts that require zero nuance.
3D murk aside, it all looks mighty swell. Johnston is in his element recreating the retro-futurism of period sci-fi and the transformation of the excellent Evans from puny punchbag to man-mountain is a fantastic coup de theatre. The self-evident swagger culminates in the movie's best sequence - a winning piece of metafiction that pegs the creation of 'Captain America' to war bonds propaganda and allows Johnston to wink at the original Joe Simon-Jack Kirby comics before moving on.
Once Rogers is pitched into battle, however, the movie loses its footing. The plotting becomes choppy, the spectacle is muddled by far too many characters and the all-important set-pieces are a bit pedestrian – Bond would never zip-line onto a high-speed Alpine train just to stage a shootout in a corridor. Plus, poor patriotic Cap turns out to be a stiff. After Stan Lee defrosted him for the Avengers in 1964, Cap became interesting as an old-school gent marooned in the coarse present – Joss Whedon will get to play with these dynamics next year but Johnston just gets the plastic action figure to play with.
None of this would cause lasting damage were it not for the modern-day bookends that make for a miserable climax and rob Cap of his overdue glory. The Han Solo routine should really have been reserved for the pre-credits of The Avengers; shoving Cap into cold storage at the close of his solo debut is a bush league dramatic error – if nobody your hero saves survives to the final credits, his mission is meaningless.
Charming, handsome and full of pep all 70 year-old Cap lacks is a knockout blow. Still, Johnston should be saluted for old-fashioned heart in a cynical age, while Marvel should be confined to barracks for cynical marketing.