Captain America: The First Avenger

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is a high-spirited, gee-whiz adventure in the tradition of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the matinee serials that inspired it. It was directed by Joe Johnston, whose career has been an alternate-universe version of Spielberg’s — “The Rocketeer,” “Jumanji,” “October Sky,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Jurassic Park III” — and who in fact worked as a visual-effects artist on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” For an earnest and rousing tale of Nazi fighting and Boy Scout heroism, you could do a lot worse than pairing Joe Johnston with the Captain America mythology.

I liked the film. I like almost any film where someone warns the villain, “You cannot control the power you hold! You will burn!” I like a film where a scrappy li’l fella who wants nothing more than to help the war effort gets his chance to prove that bravery, resourcefulness, and honor are the greatest attributes a soldier can have. I like films that have characters who can be described as having “moxie,” and whose villains are played by Hugo Weaving, with help from Hugo Weaving’s eyebrows. I like films with colorful characters like an eccentric German scientist played by Stanley Tucci and a Tommy Lee Jones-ish colonel played by Tommy Lee Jones.

But I kept waiting to love the film, and it never happened, even though all the elements appear to be in place. I’m perplexed by my failure to be jolted into giddy delight by what would seem to be a textbook combination of action, story, and character. Can a movie be less than the sum of its parts? That’s what it feels like.

Chris Evans stars as scrawny Steve Rogers, a Brooklyn kid who, in 1942, gets to be the subject of an Army experiment that renders him taller, buffer, and stronger. (Seamless special effects make Evans look appropriately puny in the early scenes.) At first his services are required mainly as a tool to sell war bonds, but eventually he finagles his way to the front lines to take on Johann Schmidt (Weaving), Hitler’s top scientist and a competitor for Hitler’s title as Germany’s craziest mass-murderer. Schmidt has some special physical properties of his own, having barely survived being the first test subject for the serum that enhanced Steve Rogers, back before its creator (played by Tucci) fled Germany.

Then you have Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a plucky British gal now in the U.S. Army who gets to have faith in Steve Rogers and be his wholesome love interest. You have Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the brilliant inventor, engineer, and entrepreneur whose technology gives Captain America much of his edge (and who we know is destined to be Iron Man’s father). You have a band of rescued POWs who become Captain America’s teammates, who seem like they are probably important figures in the comic books. (The comic books probably tell us what their names are, anyway.) Did I mention you have Tommy Lee Jones as a no-nonsense colonel? I did? Well, did I mention that he tells an underling who has disobeyed him, “You and I are gonna have a conversation later that you will not enjoy”?

The screenplay, by “Chronicles of Narnia” scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, has sufficient sparkling dialogue and ample derring-do. But the story plays like an amalgamation of three different Captain America movies: the one where Steve Rogers becomes Captain America and rescues some POWs, the one where he and his new team hop around Europe bustin’ Nazi skulls, and the one where he faces Johann Schmidt in the ultimate battle between Good and Evil. That middle story is disappointingly compressed into a single montage, and the last one doesn’t get the climax it deserves because the movie isn’t allowed to end when it’s done: they still have to set up next summer’s “The Avengers.” Maybe that was really the whole point all along?

B (2 hrs., 5 min.; PG-13, action violence, graphic patriotism.)