“Captain America: The First Avenger” review.

Chris Evans' title character storms into action in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.

Recent movies set in the Marvel comic-book universe have had something of an awkward balance to maintain. On one hand, they must serve as build-up for next year’s “Avengers” movie, in which the superheroes Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America all team up and kick ass as a team. But at the same time, they have to serve as individual films, complete with their own arcs and qualities of their own.

Not all the films have succeeded at this, and I’m not entirely sure the final “Avengers” precursor, “Captain America: The First Avenger”, does. Set during WWII, it follows the frail, meek Steve Rogers as the government chemically transforms him into the shield-toting super-soldier, Captain America. His enemy is the appropriately-named Red Skull, Hitler’s weaponry mastermind whose skin is literally ruby-colored-red. Red-Skull intends on doing what all superhero villains intend on doing — destroy the world, claim it all for himself, et cetera. Played by eternal villain Hugo Weaving, Red Skull is repulsive, despicable — in other words, great fun to watch.

“The First Avenger” is certainly serviceable entertainment, a rollicking 2-hour tribute to the pulpy, gritty likes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. But like most serviceable entertainment, it feels less driven by genuine inspiration than by a commercial decision. There’s some original, cool concepts at work here, but the general superhero origin story has been done many, many times before….in the wake of “Green Lantern”, “Thor” and “X-Men”, I believe this marks the fourth one this year?

I suppose some of this criticism stems from my fatigue at the genre at large, but that’s precisely my point — when it comes to the narrative, it just doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from all the rest. Even the title character, Captain America himself, isn’t particularly lively. But then again, I suppose that’s some of the point. He’s a classic, brave, selfless action hero. Not much else to it, although there’s a particular twist at the end that will definitely add an interesting element to his character in future follow-ups.

Chris Evans as Captain certainly gives his all — he beefed up considerably for the role, something I always admire. Though his character isn’t particularly interesting, that’s more a result of the script than Evans himself. He’s not at fault, and certainly looks pretty cool when in Nazi-killing action. Where Evans really wowed me were the scenes before his transformation into the Captain, where he’s a 90-pound weakling who just wants to do his part to serve his country. Via digital transformation, Evans really looks the part, making his muscular physique later in the film all the more impressive. He’s a solid actor who deserves all the success I imagine this movie will reap him.

“October Sky” director Joe Johnston plays up the period angle, with all kinds of ’40’s tropes being thrown on-screen — tommy gun battles, wartime patriotism, the tough yet beautiful love interest. But the production design particularly stood out — the lavish sets given an old-school glossy feel, the visual style employing shadow in a way recalling old German silent films, and the fluid camerawork all signal a really conscious effort on Johnston’s part to replicate a very old-school style. It works tremendously.

The merits of Johnston’s past filmography are debatable, (“Jurassic Park III” and last year’s “Wolfman” remake being examples) but he has always delivered on a visceral front. “Captain” is no exception — the action here is friggin’ awesome. Admirably, it takes its time to deliver it, but once a momentum builds up, it’s essentially Captain America doing his thing for the last 45 or so minutes.

One particular action sequence set aboard a train racing through mountains feels like a successful version of a failed “Sucker Punch” scene. Thrilling in duration and emotional in conclusion, it’s probably the centerpiece of the film.

The dialogue is as one would expect. You’ve got the standard exposition, the occasional one-liner, (supplied with zest by a lively Tommy Lee Jones) the moments of weakness or self-doubt. It’s done competently, certainly not poor enough to greatly hamper the film.

“Captain America” ends on an unexpectedly somber note, a cliffhanger whose impact can be quite devastating if mulled over long enough. It’s the best moment of the film. Ironically, perhaps even sadly enough, it was not directed by Johnston, rather, by “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon. This both deepens my disappointment that more wasn’t done with this character, and piques my hopes for a more emotionally driven follow-up. B-

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