Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America movie entertaining until the third act

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (Joe Johnston) 125 minutes. See listing. Rating: NNN

The first two-thirds of Captain America: The First Avenger are a rip-roaring adventure yarn and a sturdy, entertaining origin story for Marvel’s all-American hero: a scrawny kid from Brooklyn turned Second World War super-soldier. The other third? We’ll get to that.

Let’s focus on the good stuff first, because Captain America has lots of it. There’s the appealing lead performance from Chris Evans (Fantastic 4’s Human Torch) as Steve Rogers, the sickly reject who becomes a buff Übermensch through an experimental Army program, and fun supporting work from Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell as his military enablers.

Director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide a couple of nimble and inventive action sequences, and the whole undertaking has a sense of genuine spectacle in its outsized sets, period tech and sharp-cut costumes. This is the first of the Marvel movies to be set in period, and the filmmakers clearly had fun imagining an alternate past where Tony Stark’s dad, Howard (Dominic Cooper), was helping out the Allied war effort.

Of course, the Nazis had their own scientific geniuses, too. That’d be Hydra, the German “deep science” division, led by the mad Johann Schmidt, better known as Cap’s eventual arch-nemesis Red Skull. He’s played by Hugo Weaving (The Matrix trilogy, V For Vendetta) with Werner Herzog’s accent and Sam Neill’s dapper bearing. It’s a fine comic-book performance perfectly suited to the movie’s heightened universe, especially once it becomes clear that Cap and his pals will be fighting Hydra’s forces instead of actual, historical Nazis.

It’s all directed with appropriate enthusiasm by Johnston, whose charming period adventure The Rocketeer clearly made him the guy to direct a Captain America movie. They share an exaggerated emotional palette, a fondness for art-deco iconography and a comfort with unironic square-jawed heroes.

And then we get to the last act, where – having set up a ripping adventure yarn that reunites Cap with his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and assembling a team of howling commandos to take down Hydra strongholds all over Occupied Europe – the screenwriters have to compress what feels like months of story into a couple of reels, because Marvel can’t leave Captain America in the 1940s.

He’s due in the 21st century for next summer’s Avengers movie. And the impact of Cap and Red Skull’s final face-off inside a giant bomber bound for America is diminished by the fact that we’ve been rushed through so much other stuff – including the death of a key character – to get there.

At least the 3-D is decent this time. I wasn’t expecting that.

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