Chris Evans: Captain America/Steve Rogers
Hayley Atwell: Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan: James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes
Tommy Lee Jones: Colonel Chester Phillips
Hugo Weaving: Johann Schmidt/Red Skull
Dominic Cooper: Howard Stark
Richard Armitage: Heinz Kruger
Stanley Tucci: Dr. Abraham Erskine<br
Samuel L. Jackson: Nick Fury
Run-Time: 125 mins.
If you’ve paid even the scantest of attention to this summer’s movie news, then there’s a better-than-even chance that you know that “Captain America: The First Avenger” is the third leg of a trio of super-hero flicks leading up to next year’s debut of Marvel/Disney’s “The Avengers” uber-hero franchise.
And though there are times throughout this epic, 125-minute yarn when we feel like we’re being set up for the inevitable cinematic bow of one of the first and greatest super-hero teams, the final entry in this season’s crop of spandexed do-gooders is also the best.
That’s because even though it is a vehicle to sell toys, fast-food tie-ins and all manner of merch, “Captain America: The First Avenger” never forgets what its first responsibility: to tell a good story and to keep audiences entertained.
For that, you can thank screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who seem to realize that no amount of CGI distraction can make you care about a slapdash plot and shabbily realized characters.
I call this “The Deep Impact” effect — where you’re actually rooting for the comet to hit so that all the annoying characters die and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to go home early.
Instead, “Captain America” is filled with those tiny moments that make moviegoing worthwhile: a cheesily earnest patriotic musical number to the genuine “Aw shucks” earnesty that colors the romance between Cap and a comely British agent.
But before we get too deep, a word or two of background: After he’s repeatedly rejected for military service during World War II, 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Evans) volunteers for a top-secret experiment that turns him into the super-soldier known as Captain America.
Evans, who played The Human Torch in the forgettable adaptation of another Marvel property, “The Fantastic Four” brings just the right mix of superhero studliness and likability to Cap.
Some of the film’s finer moments come before Evans even dons the iconic, star-spangled union suit.
In the film’s opening act, his head cleverly grafted onto the body of a much smaller man, Evans fills in the details of Cap’s backstory, touchingly explaining why he’s unsuccessfully volunteered five times for service: “I don’t like bullies.” In that one moment, there’s a genuine sense of 1940s fair-play there that never seems forced or done with a postmodern wink at today’s allegedly sophisticated audiences.
In fact, there’s barely a casting misstep. Weaving, as a villainous rogue Nazi known as the Red Skull who’s so evil and demented that he thinks Hitler’s gone soft, chews every available piece of scenery.
Tommy Lee Jones, cast here as the cranky U.S. Army colonel and Cap’s putative overseer, banks another credit in the masterclass of Cranky Old Guys he’s been playing at least since “Men in Black.” As a consequence, he’s given some of the film’s most memorable — and laugh-out-loud — lines.
Stanley Tucci, as the German scientist who engineers the secret formula that takes Steve/Cap from zero to hero, does more with his 35 minutes or so of his screentime than most actors do with an entire feature.
English newcomer Atwell channels the ghost of Rita Hayworth as Peggy Carter, the English secret agent who begins the film as Steve/Cap’s minder and ends it (in classic 1940s adventure movie style) as his partner and best gal.
All concerned, from Evans to Weaving and Jones and Atwell, never seem to forget that they’re playing in, what is at its heart, a period piece filled with lovingly rendered details (whoever came up with the “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” pastiche during the film’s over-long second act, deserves an Oscar’s nod for best tune).
Oddly, the film’s only weakness may be the entry of Samuel L. Jackson, as super-agent Nick Fury. His appearance tears away the veneer of 1940s Saturday serial, reminding filmgoers that Cap is but a cog in the vast marketing machine leading up to The Avengers in 2012.
Fortunately, by the time that happens, we’ve already had more than 110 minutes to grow fond of Cap/Steve and to look forward to his next adventure instead of dreading the inevitable sequel. And you can’t say that about too many summer tentpoles.