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The Greatest Generation's hero

It's Captain America — in 3D!

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'CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER': Chris Evans stars.
  • 'CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER': Chris Evans stars.

If there was ever a question of whom "Captain America: The First Avenger" eyed as its target audience, a montage in the third act reminds us. A young, determined soldier named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has just survived a military experiment that inflated him from a 98-pound weakling to a hunky übermensch who wears his white T-shirt like Saran Wrap. He foils a crime, is hailed by the papers as a hero and, this being the "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" days of WWII, goes on a road tour to pump war bonds. His on-stage entourage for these stops is a chorus line of high-kicking, patriotically outfitted lasses shot from low, front-row angles. As Captain America the war-bond-boosting soldier makes his way cross-country, we see again his sales pitch, and another kick-line of thighs. Brave lads in the trenches and on the beaches rightly earned most of the credit, but let us not forget that the Nazis owed defeat in part to good ol' fashioned heartland cheesecake.

As for Captain America, he doesn't have any otherworldly super powers, per se. He's big and strong and fast and can leap like grease from a hot skillet. He also has a marvelous shield he throws around like the world's biggest bulletproof Frisbee. Other than the shield and your standard-issue sidearms, he's mostly content to deal in fisticuffs. We root for him because the pre-experiment Rogers was a decent and brave fellow, and we expect that the 'roid-tastic version will be, too, as he marches against a rogue Nazi scientific division called Hydra. Its megalomaniacal leader, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), considers Hitler a pansy and intends to use some long-lost mythological Viking artifact to vaporize everyone on the planet. But just wait till he gets a taste of that shield!

One curious aspect of "Captain America," and one that keeps you more enrapt than you might have expected, is its charming supporting cast. Put aside Schmidt, the grotesque villain — and, to a degree, also put aside Rogers, who comes from a sympathetic corner of life and then, once Captain-America-fied, plays the Hero with a Dash of Naivete at a steady clip until the final credits. The joys are the weary but buoyant Tommy Lee Jones as a grizzled Army colonel, the debonair Dominic Cooper as the weapons engineer Howard Stark, Toby Jones as a Nazi scientist who looks like a Chris Ware drawing, and the unexpectedly convincing Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter, the love interest who remains achingly at arm's length. No one seems to have told her that this is a comic book vehicle, not a World War II flick foremost — she plays Carter with a disarming earnestness hard to pull off in what is essentially PG-13 high camp.

Ultimately you could almost watch "Captain America" as a bona fide World War II movie (hell, it's more plausible than "Pearl Harbor," and that actually happened) but a couple of particularly gruesome deaths aside, this is a kiddie version of war, "Band of Brothers" with a dash of 007 and an unabashed helping of gee-whiz hyperbole. In a sense, director Joe Johnston (also comfortably retro with "The Rocketeer" and "October Sky") shows us a version of the story America told itself about itself: The titular hero embodies the plucky underdog values and the measured use of deadly force that made us believe we could do no wrong in the decades after V-J Day. "Captain America" is pure American id — in 3-D! — and a pack of fantastic lies drawn bright for pre-teen boys, but intentionally or not, it tells us something about how America tried to captain its ship, and how it prefers to look back today.

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