Two things are immediately notable about Captain America: The First Avenger. One is that it has the most unnecessarily particular title of any comic book movie since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The other is that it's actually fun to watch, which shouldn't be noteworthy at all, but in this age of darker, edgier comic book movies (plus juvenile filler like Green Lantern), "fun" is nothing to take for granted.

Anyway, "fun" isn't even the half of it: I'll go so far as to say Captain America is the best superhero movie since the banner year of 2008, and the most purely enjoyable of them since that summer's effervescent Iron Man. As befits a movie set during the more earnest and gung-ho days of the Second World War, Captain America commits itself with serious purpose and breezy tone to the important business of dazzling us with the adventures of an everyday dude who gets to become incredibly awesome, all of it untouched by even the slenderest whisker of cynicism; I half-expected somebody to shout "Gee willickers, Cap!", and I am entirely disappointed that they didn't.

One would not expect this from screenwriters Christopher McMarkus & Stephen McFeely, who have their fingers in all three of the milquetoast Chronicles of Narnia pictures; nor necessarily from director Joe Johnston, peppered with the likes of Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman. But push back far enough, all the way to 1991, and we arrive at the Johnston-directed The Rocketeer, and it all starts to make sense: for its flaws, and they are not small ones, that film was the last blend of high-spirited pop fun with WWII that was anywhere near this successful. Johnston admittedly doesn't do very much but stay out of the way: out of the way of the actors, and the bantery dialogue, and especially out of the way of just about the last A-list superhero to get his very own feature (unless you're counting the 1990 Albert Pyun film, in which case, shame on you).

The story is agreeably stripped down: in 1942, the tiny, physically incompetent Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to join up to fight Nazis, but he can't. Still, his unflagging determination impresses a scientist, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), working on a top-secret military project, and so it is that Rogers is chosen to receive a serum that turns him into a muscular, unearthly strong super-soldier, fighting for freedom under the name Captain America. On the other side: Erskine's last experiment, the super-evil supergenius Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who for reasons that become obvious halfway through if they weren't already goes under the nom de guerre Red Skull.

Everything else is just gilding, though a lot of it is awfully good: the matter of Rogers's training under the prickly Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), his slow-burning flirtation with British intelligence agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and his assembly of a squad of highly competent misfits, beginning with his old buddy from the streets of Brooklyn, "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Given how much of the film consists of explosions and gunfire and glowing blue magic cubes imported in a throwaway line from fellow Marvel empire-builder Thor, it's sort of crazy the degree to which Captain America ends up being mostly a character piece, largely because of the cast involved. One must go back a very long way, and I'm not sure if one will ever find a stopping place, in search of a live-action superhero movie that is so well-acted, across the board; I am tempted to say, "Evans notwithstanding", and yet I'll admit that given his function is to play a big old teddy bear of a patriot and street kid, he does a pretty damn good job of it; certainly, the preening ass who made Fantastic Four worse than it had to be is nowhere in evidence.

And if he is, anyway, still the weak link (he alone seems not to have a handle on how to play "it's the 1940s"), that has a lot to do with the people he's surrounded by: the sharp Atwell, finally making the movie that (fingers crossed) will pick her career up off the ground, and Dominic Cooper doing a pleasantly bright Howard Hughes impression as the man who will one day father Robert Downey, Jr. Then over here, we have four men, sturdy character actors all, each vying to give the most satisfyingly goofy performance they can that remains totally serious and totally respectful of the material - which, given Captain America's origins in the brassy four-color pulp of the 1940s, the proper respect naturally includes a certain amount of goofiness. But between them, Tucci, Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, and Toby Jones as Johann Schmidt's fawning weapons designer, all hit the exact same sweet spot of being broad caricatures that are nevertheless exactly right for the material; no small amount of what makes Captain America a bubbly comic book movie, and not a mordant and moody comic book movie, is that Weaving's portrayal of the villain is such a cartoon, right down to an accent that has just enough Werner Herzog in it that you can tell Weaving is doing it on purpose.

Also: beating up Nazis, one of the few sub-classes of movie villains that can never get old to watch them get mowed down by the dozens, because they are just that evil - and anyway, these Nazis aren't even regular Nazis, they're some kind of especially bad Nazi that gives Hitler himself the heebie-jeebies; they even have their own more-evil Nazi salute. But as I was saying, part of what lets Captain America click along so brightly is that Johnston and the writers don't bother to bring the sensibility of the project up to 2011, but entrench as far as they can in 1943, a time of greater romanticism than now. The film's recreation of the period is alarmingly good: Anna B. Sheppard's costumes are an absolute treat, particularly the evolution of Captain America's own uniform from a dead-ringer for the first comic book version into something that looks plausibly period-appropriate but much less trite. The film's idea of New York, courtesy of famed production designer Rick Heinrichs, is as sweetly nostalgic as an old photo, and his depiction of all the more comic-bookish locations, the labs and lairs and so on, look just futuristic enough - from the early '50s, say - that they ring as true even if it's unlikely that anybody from the period would have thought them up. Alan Menken and David Zippel contribute an absolutely perfect song, the daffy U.S.O.-flavored "Star Spangled Man". The effects are all 2011, of course (though inconsistent; there's a shot of a train that looked so bad I can't imagine it ended up in a real Hollywood moving), and the scale of the fighting is nothing like it would have been in a '40s movie, but Johnston slows the action down far more than most modern blockbuster directors would have taken it, and the heart of thing is anyway mired firmly in pop culture of 70 years ago, when things were not simpler, but people did their damnedest to act like they were.

So, all in all, a giddy, deliberately undemanding lark, with lots of in-jokes for the faithful (the magazine Captain America Comics #1 even puts in a cameo), and a tone pulled right from Indiana Jones (there is a sly jab at Raiders of the Lost Ark in one of the very first scenes that's so subtle it almost has gone by before you notice it). It's not perfect - the editing and sound mix have the definite feel of something that was rushed to completion, on top of the inconsistent CGI - but it's so much fun, and Johnston's treatment of it so light and fluffy, that the imperfections are easy to shrug off. All of the action setpieces are playful, the best of them being Rogers's first foot-chase after his procedure, a nice, stripped down bit that tells us an awful lot about the character and the place (Rogers is so concerned with doing right he doesn't even realise that he's suddenly all kinds of strong until it's done). The only place the film bogs down, in fact, is where it ceases to be Captain America and becomes The First Avenger: the bookending scenes in the modern day (added, we are told, by Joss Whedon, writer-director of the forthcoming The Avengers) are not in anything like the same emotional register as the rest of the movie, and the final scene (besides the de rigeur bonus scene after the credits) in particular simply does not work, particularly given the clanging delivery Evans gives to the film's final line - I can imagine ways of saying it that do not make me want to die, but he does not choose one of them. Better by far to let the film be what it wants to be, a bubbly bit of old-fashioned summery fun, with big, elemental characters and a distinctly non-auteurist sense of how to make a good, straightforward story. Instead, it gets stuffed into a corporate flow-chart; but they do not ask my opinion of these things.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 1)
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
Thor (Branagh, 2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011)
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)