In the annals of Marvel burritos, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the better ones. Which isn't saying all that much, of course — eating a good meal at Qdoba is still impeded by the fact that it's occurring at Qdoba — but there is a throwback joy to much of the first hour of Captain America that makes it work as well as anything Jon Favreau accomplished with Iron Man. Then there's the rest of the film, which is a mess of jingoistic montages, shoddy action scenes, and forced climaxes. Captain America is slightly better than Thor, and includes a very downcast (for a Marvel property) finale, but it's held back by the limitations of the genre, and Marvel itself. Thank goodness, then, for Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell, who do the movie version of falling on the ball.
If you've seen a superhero origin story in the last decade, you've seen Captain America, but here you go: Steve Rogers (Evans) is 4F through and through; at 90 pounds and suffering from asthma, he can't get into the army no matter how many different names he tries (and he tries a lot). Yet Steve is heroic in his own way: "If you start running, they'll never let you stop," he says at one point while explaining his propensity for getting the shit beat out of him. It's this pluck that catches the eyes of a German scientist (Stanley Tucci with the hammiest, and greatest, accent of the year), who recruits Steve for the super solider program to the consternation of a crusty old general (the crusty old Tommy Lee Jones) and British officer Peggy Carter (Atwell). Will Steve and Peggy awkwardly fall in love? Not so fast, hot shot! Steve gets the super soldier serum first, becomes jacked-up Chris Evans and turns into Captain America. Just one problem: Captain America is used as a recruiting tool by a shady senator, and he doesn't actually get to beat up any Nazis. Well, until he goes to save his childhood friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) from Red Skull (a hilarious Hugo Weaving) and HYDRA.
To that point, Captain America is a legitimately great superhero film. The action is paced at break-neck levels, and director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) keeps things pitched around Raiders of the Lost Ark-type retro serial fun. Unfortunately, this is also where the story takes a decidedly bland turn. Rogers and his team of Howling Commandos (hey, Derek Luke!) go back to fight Red Skull again, and... well, it's mostly just a big mess. The action is cluttered, the motivations are muddy, and First Avenger works overtime to get Rogers into the present day. (A time period he needs to arrive at because of The Avengers, which hits theaters next May.)
Normally, this wouldn't be such a big problem — after all, it's a Marvel movie and some modicum of meaningless mythology and S.H.I.E.L.D. work-arounds are needed — but Captain America is such a good time at first that this almost feels like a waste. Counterintuitively, much of that has to do with the casting: the supporting players are fun (Tucci and Jones especially), but Evans and Atwell make such an appealing pair of unrequited lovers that seeing the way their story wraps up is quite unsatisfying, even while being kinda great. Not only do they have great chemistry together, but both performances feel like coming-out parties. Evans and Atwell weren't on the A-list before Captain America, but they should firmly be there now. If you're casting a mainstream populist comedy/drama/romcom/action pic, you could certainly do worse than them. (Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, for instance.)
Here's the thing, though: Captain America promises one kind of relationship denouement, and gives audiences another. The "another" one works — and works better than it should since Evans and Atwell are so perfect together — but it's not the right choice. As the normally incorrect David Poland wrote, these are two people who should have had a final dance.
This foul-up winds up hurting Captain America quite a bit. What could have been the best Marvel movie ever (faint praise, but still), merely becomes "slightly worse than Iron Man." That's a shame, but in the end, a nitpick: Captain America: First Avenger is a good superhero movie. Like the similarly decent Thor, that's enough; a good burrito is nothing to sneeze at.
(P.S., do whatever you can to avoid the 3-D up-charge. First Avenger has the worst 3-D of any movie this year, including The Green Hornet. Consider yourself warned.)