That would be bad, however, because Marvel has saved the best for last. It’s miles better than that Norse god with the magic hammer, and just a hair below the greatness of Robert Downey Jr.’s first go-round in his iron armor, both of whom will team with Cap in next summer’s guaranteed nerdgasm, “The Avengers.”
With all but a few minutes set in the 1940s, “Captain America” celebrates the Great War and its Yankee soldiers without pushing your face in halfhearted, jingoistic rhetoric. Its patriotism burns real, meaningful and infectious, whereas, say, “Battle: Los Angeles” was forced and felt manufactured, as if to cloud its sheer lack of story.
This story is, naturally, an origin tale of the star-spangled superhero of Marvel Comics’ golden age — a 98-pound weakling of Charles Atlas ads transformed by science into the United States’ strongest weapon against Hitler and his armies, not to mention the even more threatening foe of the crimson-headed Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, “The Wolfman”). String-bean orphan Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is the perennial-rejected Army enlistee until a top-secret super-soldier serum is tested on him, and works like a charm.
Most interesting in this adaptation is how long director Joe Johnston (“The Wolfman”) keeps Cap’s superheroics at bay. Cheekily, although not cheesily, the period picture first shows him not fighting on front lines, but playing propaganda prop on USO tours, like Bob Hope in a Halloween costume. In a montage set to a full-blown musical number that would make Busby Berkeley proud (complete with an original Alan Menken tune destined for Oscar recognition), kids snatch up copies of “Captain America Comics #1” as it existed in our world, and movie audiences enjoy his romp in a 15-chapter, black-and-white Republic actually released in 1944.
The action hits hard in hour two, and the punch is considerable. Like a light, pop-culture take on “Inglourious Basterds,” it’s rich in period detail, but approaching weighty, revisionist themes without taking itself too seriously (the last line, however, is absolutely haunting). Evans proves the best choice for the role, more invested than he was in the “Fantastic Four” films. Matching his character in bravery and balls is Hayley Atwell (TV’s “The Pillars of the Earth”), more than merely the love interest — and the only argument for experiencing the well-made film in its converted 3D.