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MOVIE REVIEW

Captain America: The First Avenger

Red, white, and ka-pow!: 'Captain America' packs a powerful, but predictable, patriotic punch

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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Does Tommy Lee Jones bring his own writers to the movies? At some point toward the end of “Captain America,’’ the Army colonel he plays gets some interrogation time with a runty Nazi scientist (Toby Jones, no conceivable relation). “You’re trying to intimidate me,’’ says the scientist. “I bought you dinner,’’ replies the colonel. Only he doesn’t simply say it. He performs it with all the brusque, macho, indolent comic authority that we recognize as “Tommy Lee Jones.’’ This is what the ongoing onslaught of comic book movies lacks: stars. Real stars. Robert Downey Jr. is the exception when he should be the rule. It’s possible we take these movies for granted because the marketing tells us we should.

Honestly, it’s the only way to find yourself sitting in “Captain America,’’ which was never a very good comic book, and as the Marvel Universe expanded into allegories for every -ism coursing through, combusting, and corroding American society in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the series’s patriotic derring-do seemed defensively old fashioned. But Marvel’s movie division now has plans for an “Avengers’’ film, which will comprise Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man.

It was touching, the sight of a packed house sitting through the closing credits expecting the customary Easter egg, which here is a peek at what the next film will hold. The studio issued only a cynical title card announcing that Captain America will appear in “The Avengers’’ (the subtitle is “The First Avenger’’). People booed, but the whole movie is a long Easter egg, needlessly filmed in miserable-looking 3-D. (Remove your glasses occasionally and see how bright the snowscapes should be.)

You’d notice less were this movie a little more rousing, were there more actors - like Jones and Stanley Tucci, who deploys one of the film’s many stunt German accents - taking the material sideways. The Captain is Steve Rogers, who in Dr. Tucci’s great science experiment transforms from a scrawny, sickly Army reject into a muscle-bound Nazi demolisher. He is pumped full of something called VitaRays, which is just a fancy way of saying if you cut him now, he’d bleed Michael Bay. Chris Evans plays Steve. In the movie’s early scenes, his gaunt face is persuasively sculpted onto the body of a digitized weakling. Who he becomes is who Hollywood would like him to be. But the secret of Chris Evans is that he’s neither a leading man nor an action figure. He’s a comedian. His previous stint in a Marvel farm team was as the Human Torch in two disgraceful “Fantastic Four’’ movies. They were terrible, but he had a good time making a joke of stardom he didn’t have: His hotness was a split-level gag.

“Captain America’’ gives all the Chris Evans lines to everyone else. Even the extras. When a kid is tossed into a river and Steve stops chasing the baddie who threw him in to perform a rescue, the kid yells up, “Go get him. I can swim.’’ I don’t know whether Evans is enjoying himself, but I didn’t enjoy watching him throw his “vibranium’’ shield at heavily masked German henchmen, wear a cloth mask with a big “A’’ on the forehead, and be an unwaveringly, unconditionally good American. (The “A’’ might as well stand for “anybody can do this’’ - and by “anybody’’ I think I mean Hilary Swank.) He delivers the movie’s last line with real sadness, and for the first time you wonder whether, like a lot of funny people, Evans isn’t also built for tragedy.

The movie itself isn’t bad. It’s fully ensconced in the American fever for World War II. There’s even a musical number built around Steve’s being a symbol of the American fighting spirit. It’s almost subversive to spend half a movie watching a kid trying desperately to enlist only to discover, in bulkier incarnation, that war might actually be cooler than he thought. This isn’t “Coming Home’’ or “Born on the Fourth of July’’ or “Full Metal Jacket.’’ It also isn’t Vietnam. For stretches, it’s actually “Hogan’s Heroes.’’ The movie, which Joe Johnston directed and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wrote, distills World War II down to a Saturday cliffhanger. It’s a digestible reduction that comes with a love plot featuring Hayley Atwell as a British officer and Hugo Weaving as the Nazier-than-thou Red Skull, who sounds like Bavarian director Werner Herzog and looks like an over-roasted Mr. Peanut.

The trouble, I suppose, is that these sorts of serials are all Johnston really does. He’s also made “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,’’ “The Rocketeer,’’ “Jumanji,’’ “Jurassic Park III,’’ and “The Wolfman.’’ This movie is more than competently made, but Johnston is another Spielberg disciple, and all the crane shots, laboratory fights, antique props, and airplane-hangar sequences - the very adolescence of the whole affair - make you miss the wit and visual acuity of his mentor. The movie feels counterfeit in some way, devoid of a center and copied. Tommy Lee Jones isn’t distraction enough from the reality that we’ve been sold a $140 million trailer for a different movie. The egg’s a little rotten.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: The First Avenger

Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Starring: Chris Evan, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Tommy Lee Jones

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 124 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (combat violence and a villain with scary red skin)

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