By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

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I thought I was comic-book-superheroed out.   I thought the genre had hit a wall.   I thought the spandex onslaught that has been distinguished by Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men flicks had of late filled that particular cup to overflowing with sputtering also-rans.

Apparently not.

There’s nothing like crisp movie making execution — a spirited mix of action, sci-fi fantasy, humor, nostalgia, and romance — to blast through one’s enough-already reservations and been-there-done-that fatigue.

The action-adventure thriller Captain America: The First Avenger is based on Marvel Comics’ shield-wielding World War II-era super-soldier and should make undersized underdogs feel at least a little better about their lot in life.

In 1942, Steve Rogers, described as a “90-pound asthmatic” from Brooklyn and played by a digitally decompressed Chris Evans, wants, like a lot of guys, to enlist in the United States Army and help the war effort by fighting the Nazis and defending America’s ideals.  But he’s deemed physically unfit.

So, instead, he volunteers for Project: Rebirth, a secret military operation, and, given an experimental serum that transforms his physique from that of a scrawny, sickly runt into an impressive physical specimen, he becomes the muscular masked marvel known as Captain America.

With an orphan he has befriended, Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) by his side, he takes on his megalomaniacal nemesis, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), otherwise known as the Red Skull, the head of Hitler’s advanced weaponry, who goes rogue to carry out his personal plan for world domination involving a supernatural weapon called the Tesseract or Cosmic Cube.

And Hayley Atwell plays Maj. Peggy Carter, an English freedom fighter our hero falls for in the film’s slightly undercooked romantic subplot.

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Evans, who also played a Marvel character — the Human Torch — in two Fantastic Four films, sports a mask and a red-white-and-blue, star-spangled costume.  You couldn’t describe what he contributes to his character as anything in the way of depth but, then, the film doesn’t ask him to.

But he serves the piece well, and he’s ably supported by Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Derek Luke, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Director Joe Johnston (The Wolfman, Jumanji, October Sky, The Rocketeer) offers this latest superhero as a potential franchise foundation, in an earnest — maybe even corny — way, and makes no bones about the film being a comic book come to life.  But his reimagined-World-War-II saga is carefully wrought, with plenty of interesting period detail, and a decided lack of irony that somehow never seems bland.

Johnston was part of the Oscar-winning special effects team that worked on Steven Spielberg’s influential thriller, Raiders of the Lost Ark, perhaps rendering this film a raider of the lost art. But its retro flair is undeniable, even if its 3-D effects are gratuitous.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on 1941’s comic book, Captain America, by Joe Simon and Jake Kirby, offers its protagonist not as a tormented or conflicted or ambivalent antihero but as an uncomplicated and indefatigable hero, and he somehow, despite his newfound powers, remains an underdog everyman so that our rooting interest never flags.

And you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this flag-waving thriller, in certain foreign markets, is merely titled The First Avenger, or that the title character will turn up next year in a modern context in The Avengers, for which it will serve as a prequel.

But in anchoring the superhero-heavy summer of 2011, it surpasses Thor and Green Lantern in terms of entertainment value.

So we’ll avenge 3 stars out of 4 for the straight-faced and straight-laced but exuberant period superhero fantasy, Captain America: The First Avenger.   This ode to the “greatest generation” may lack greatness, but it generates its fair share of smiles and thrills.


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