Captain America: The First Avenger

The Marvel juggernaut just keeps forging ahead, with its third – I think – summer 2011 superhero movie, and the fifth(!) official prequel to 2012's much-hyped blockbuster The Avengers. One thing I will give Marvel credit for: the studio has shown panache in picking just the right director for each title. Since this movie is set in 1942, who better to helm the project than Joe Johnston, who already cut his "period superhero" teeth on 1991's noble failure The Rocketeer?

What I like about Captain America is that it manages to pack a lot into its speedy two hour time frame, not only giving us the offbeat origin story of brave weakling Steve Rogers, who undergoes chemical enhancements in the Army to become America's first "super soldier", but taking plenty of time to make us like him as a person before he embarks on his death-defying adventures.

Assembling a cast of veteran character actors (Tommy Lee Jones; Hugo Weaving; Stanley Tucci) and relatively fresh faces (Chris "Human Torch" Evans as Rogers; Hayley Atwell as his crush; Dominic Cooper, with a shaky American accent, as inventor Howard "future father of Tony" Stark), Johnston lets his visual crew do most of the heavy lifting, with terrific set design and costumes, nostalgic cinematography, and the expected barrage of special effects.

Just as X-Men: First Class put a new spin on the superhero genre with its period setting (though that film's hair and costume departments slacked off on the authenticity), Captain America outdoes it by being nothing less than a World War II movie, albeit one that has replaced Nazis with HYDRA, an army of Nazi renegades sporting high-powered laser weaponry and led by Cap's comic book arch enemy the Red Skull (Weaving).

I enjoyed this movie thoroughly up until the last act, when the endless shoot-'em-up scenes between US forces and HYDRA soldiers made my eyes glaze over from all the gunfire. But as someone with a fondness (even a fetish) for pre-1970 American culture – as well as being a wimp who could identify with a pre-serum Steve Rogers – I found a lot to like during the first hour or so. Johnston gives us a couple of wonderful montage sequences, a touching backstory, and some nice moments between Evans and his costars.

I do wish the third act retained the cleverness and emotional truth of the first two, though: as you know, the Captain America saga has Rogers inexplicably frozen in the Arctic for decades until being thawed out to fight in the modern era, so there is something inherently sad in knowing that Rogers's budding romance and new friendships will come to naught, as everyone else will grow old and die while the good Captain chills. But the movie kind of shrugs this off, and after making us sit through so much laser-blasting and shield-flinging during the final battle, the ending itself feels rather hurried. I guess Johnston and company figured it would be kind of a downer to emphasize Rogers's Rip Van Winkle revelations in the epilogue, as the point of the movie is to get us pumped up for the Avengers extravaganza, but a moment of gravitas would have been welcome.