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Review: 'Captain America' has the right stuff

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Chris Evans stars in "Captain America: The First Avenger."
Chris Evans stars in "Captain America: The First Avenger."
  • Chris Evans goes from puny to superhero in "Captain America: The First Avenger"
  • The films also stars Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones
  • Reviewer says Evans' performance is "always fun to watch"

(CNN) -- Does Captain America have what it takes to wow cynical 21st-century kids? And more to the point, can Marvel resurrect a brand forged in the heat of World War II and resell it to a global audience no longer inspired by the Stars and Stripes?

If "The First Avenger" is anything to go by: Yes, and yes.

Rather than fight against the character's flag-waving, Nazi-busting roots, the movie embraces them, going back to the early '40s to remind us what made the "greatest generation" so great.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) doesn't want to kill anyone, but as he explains to scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), he doesn't like a bully. Steve is short, skinny and asthmatic -- he knows all about bullies, and he believes in standing up to them.

The doctor smiles. He's found his specimen: a man who will use his superstrength for good and won't let it go to his head. That is, the antithesis of the Nazi uber-mensch personified by Erskine's old boss, the egomaniac Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), head of Hitler's paranormal research unit, Hydra, and better known to comics fans as Red Skull.

Remember how comics used to carry commercials for body-building courses? Before Erskine's radical treatment, Rogers is puny. After, he could be the poster boy for Charles Atlas.

He's at least a foot taller and probably 70 pounds of pure muscle heavier. It's any boy's fantasy of manhood -- epic and heroic -- and true to form, the U.S. government instantly sees the potential, putting Captain America on the front line of propaganda war: selling bonds and making movies. It's only when he's sent to entertain the troops in Europe that Steve gets the chance to show what he can do in action.

Evans -- and the CGI team behind the curtain -- carry off this transition without so much as a smirk. It's not a showy performance, but in its way, it's a fine piece of screen acting -- sharp and focused, and always fun to watch.

Director Joe Johnston tapped into a similar retro-futurist vibe in "The Rocketeer" some moons ago; that mixture of old-timey Saturday morning serial innocence, thrills, romance and spectacle that completely escaped the last "Indiana Jones" flick.

Johnston makes it look easy by keeping things simple. It helps that Rick Heinrichs' production design is such a gas, with sleek submersibles, planes and rocket cars that suggest a collaboration between Jules Verne and Howard Hughes. What a pleasure, by the way, to meet Tony Stark's dad, Howard, (Dominic Cooper) in his prime!

With Tommy Lee Jones in fine irascible fettle as Colonel Phillips, Hugo Weaving seemingly channeling echt Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog as the Red Skull and Hayley Atwell made up like Kim Hunter in "A Matter of Life and Death" as plucky British agent Peggy Carter, the film has more engaging characters than it knows what to do with. Rogers' hand-picked team of specialist commandos cry out for their own spinoff.

The novelist Michael Chabon has compared "Captain America" creator Jack Kirby to Shakespeare and Cervantes. Such high-falutin' literary references don't really apply here, but Marvel Studios has come up with lively entertainment that keeps faith with the ideals Kirby espoused: courage, perseverance and kicking butt for the little guy.

It may not be the most sophisticated creed, but it still holds good.