"You don't give up, do you?" snarls Hugo Weaving's Red Skull (the villain of the piece, as you'll likely gather from the nom-de-guerre, if the jackboots didn't give it away), aiming his fearsome weapon at Chris Evans' star-spangled, lantern-jawed, melon-biceped hero. We know what comes next.
We've seen our share of superhero movies, after all. This summer alone offered up no less than four iterations: Thor, X-Men: First Class, The Green Lantern, and now Captain America: The First Avenger. So we recognize this scene for what it is: the big, final-reel moment when things look their darkest, and the camera zooms in our beaten-but-unbowed champion long enough for him to deliver his statement of principles in a speech meant to stir our hearts and set us to cheering.
"Nope," says Cap, and promptly sends his shield caroming off the Red Skull's red ... skull.
That's it. "Nope." A flat, monosyllabic note of rejection before jumping back into the fray. It's one of several instances in which Captain America's filmmakers tweak a familiar superhero trope, but it's no mere wink to the audience -- it's an elegant summation of the character we've come to know over the preceding two hours. Which is why that moment, and the film, work as well as they do.
To play Steve Rogers, Evans swaps out the slick bravado he brought to The Fantastic Four's Human Torch in favor of a quiet yet earnest sense of determination. That's a risk, not least because the role's over-the-top, oddly bifurcated physicality harbors the real potential to distract our attention from any small performance choices an actor might care to make. Throughout the film's first act, Evans' face is digitally -- and convincingly -- grafted onto a slight, bird-boned body; following the secret government experiment that transforms Rogers into an improbably and impressively buff super-soldier, Evans must carry the film on those flesh-colored medicine balls he keeps where you and I keep our shoulders.
And through it all, whether Captain America's takin' the good fight to HYDRA (the Nazis'"deep science division") or hawking war bonds in a traveling USO show (the film's cleverest conceit, which features dancing girls, a pantomime Hitler, an insanely hummable, period-appropriate ditty supplied by Alan Menken, and -- in what seems a nod to diehard fans -- a cheap-looking costume very much like the one Cap sported in his cringeworthy straight-to-VHS 1990 film outing), Evans confidently understates, providing the whole noisy spectacle with a laconic, human center.
Given the character's militaristic roots, it was inevitable that the film would affix Captain America's considerable superhero trappings onto a war-movie chassis. But that makes all the difference: Where The Green Lantern talked (and talked) a big game about the power of Will and what it means to be a Hero, Captain America just shuts up and moves. In place of the lengthy training montages that sap the momentum from films like X-Men: First Class, director Joe Johnston and his screenwriters have Cap discover his newfound abilities on the go, in the midst of a frenetic chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn.
From there, the movie surges ahead, moving nimbly through a series of action set-pieces that owe more to films like Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone than they do to, say, The Green Hornet. (NOTE: This is a mercy.)
The stakes are high, the fight scenes smartly stylized, and a passel of capital-A Actors, including Stanley Tucci as a gently paternal scientist and Tommy Lee Jones as an irascible army colonel, gamely provide some dramatic ballast to the rollicking shoot-'em-up mise-en-scene. It's Weaving, however, chewing gleefully on the Red Skull's crisp, Republic-serial German accent and fondness for (yep) Wagner operas, who supplies perhaps the film's most satisfying element, its truly hiss-worthy villain.
Less effective, it must be said, are the sundry bits of Marvel Universe housekeeping the movie is tasked to perform. As "I-now-wield-the-power-of-the-GODS-THEMSELVES" McGuffins go, the Cosmic Cube (first glimpsed in the post-credits coda of this summer's Thor) can't help but look like a paperweight swiped from the desk of Mies van der Rohe and the work required to set up next summer's The Avengers feels more like rickety last-minute scaffolding than organic narrative infrastructure.
But that's a quibble; by finding an ingenious way to streamline a now-familiar genre -- and by providing a means to fill up your muggy summer afternoon watching hordes of evil soldiers gettin' their arsche handed to them by a true-blue Sentinel of Liberty -- Captain America: The First Avenger does his country proud. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.