Selling Captain America to a mod­ern audi­ence is a chal­lenge.  He rep­re­sents an old-fash­ioned, “square-jawed” type of hero­ism and is steeped in the kind of pure-heart­ed patri­o­tism that wouldn’t fare well in the­se cyn­i­cal times.  Thus, this char­ac­ter seems like a per­fect can­di­date for a “re-imag­in­ing” that would take him far from his roots.  Given that the Captain’s cur­rent cin­e­mat­ic vehi­cle was basi­cal­ly made to set up his appear­ance in the even­tu­al Avengers movie, it seems like its pro­duc­ers would have plen­ty of moti­va­tion to do this.

Thankfully, the peo­ple who made Captain America avoid­ed any such temp­ta­tions to pan­der to the mar­ket.  Instead of try­ing to mod­ern­ize the sto­ry, they made it a peri­od piece that stays true to the character’s World War II inspi­ra­tions. The hero is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a young man who des­per­ate­ly wants to join the armed forces and help fight the Nazis.  Unfortunately, his brave heart is out­paced by his 4-F weak­ling body and he can’t catch a break. Fate rears its head when one of his attempts to sign up under an assumed iden­ti­ty is spot­ted by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a sci­en­tist who has devel­oped a “Super Soldier” for­mu­la that can trans­form an aver­age man into a super­hu­man fight­er.

Steve signs on to be his test sub­ject and the results are bet­ter than any­one expect­ed… but his rebirth turns trag­ic when Erskine is assas­si­nat­ed by a spy in the employ of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a bud­ding supervil­lain and for­mer Erskine test sub­ject.  Steve wants to fight but is divert­ed into serv­ing the war effort by appear­ing in cheap films and U.S. bond pro­mo­tions.  However, when his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is endan­gered dur­ing a bat­tle between the Army and Hydra, an army led by the Red Skull, Steve takes mat­ters into his own hands and becomes the hero he’d always dreamed of being.

Captain America stands out from today’s crowd­ed super­hero-flick mar­ket­place because it takes a direct, non-cyn­i­cal approach to its sub­ject mat­ter.  Steve doesn’t cope with tor­ment­ed psy­chol­o­gy or front with an irrev­er­ent atti­tude: instead, he’s a hum­ble guy who wants to do his part and live up to the ide­als that inspire him.  The film’s the­me is embod­ied in a few nice­ly-writ­ten exchanges between Steve and Dr. Erskine where the doc­tor pro­pos­es that hero­ism isn’t deter­mined by strength but by being a good, kind per­son  who stands up for what is right.  Some might con­sid­er that idea corny but it’s put forth with such sin­cer­i­ty that it is hard to deny — and is thus a fresh breath of air.

It helps that this idea is pack­aged skill­ful­ly by not only the writ­ers but also direc­tor Joe Johnston.  He is an excel­lent FX-movie tech­ni­cian so the peri­od detail and the visu­al effects are as skill­ful­ly ren­dered as you might expect (the dig­i­tal effects used on Evans to cre­ate the scrawny, pre-hero­ics Steve are noth­ing short of aston­ish­ing).  However, the most impor­tant thing he gets right here is the non-iron­ic, heart­felt tone. He pre­vi­ous­ly showed a knack for peri­od hero­ics via his cult favorite The Rocketeer and he brings the same gee-whiz sen­si­bil­i­ty to his work here.  He makes Steve Rogers the kind of hero we can root for and han­dles a sub­plot about Steve’s inter­rupt­ed romance with unex­pect­ed ten­derness for the direc­tor of a sum­mer block­buster.

That said, the part of Captain America that sells its “cheer on the good guy” approach the best is the work of its well-cho­sen cast.  Evans makes a per­fect all-American hero: he’s hum­ble, sin­cere and wit­ty in a charm­ing­ly self-dep­re­cat­ing way.  He car­ries the film with the con­fi­dence of a lead­ing man but he also ben­e­fits from a strong ensem­ble back­ing him all the way.  Tucci does well as Steve’s men­tor, adding some sly humor as he gives voice to the film’s the­me, and Hayley Atwell is impres­sive as a female offi­cer who becomes Steve’s ally and love inter­est.  Elsewhere, Tommy Lee Jones does the dead­pan-sar­cas­tic Southerner schtick we’ve become famil­iar with since The Fugitive — but his sergeant role here is an ide­al vehi­cle for it and he does pitch-per­fect work.

Ultimately, Captain America shapes up as a strong entry in the cur­rent super­hero-flick cycle because it offers a straight­for­ward, unex­pect­ed­ly pure-of-heart alter­na­tive to mind­less CGI-action flicks and the some­times over­wrought psy­cho­log­i­cal approach to the­se movies.  Sometimes, all we need from a cin­e­mat­ic hero is to just be a good guy we can root for — and Captain America gets that job done with style and charm.