The last in the series of five ‘prequels’ which culminate with The Avengers all-star bonanza next May, Captain America: The First Avenger is a super-fun, adrenaline-packed summer movie, and it’s made better with rock-solid performances and a nifty retro feel that evokes memories of old-time Saturday afternoon matinees.

Chris Evans (Johnny Storm in the two Fantastc Four flicks) plays the ridiculously scrawny Steve Rogers (thanks to some brilliant digital trickery). Little Steve wants to enlist in World War II and serve alongside soon-to-ship-out pal Bucky, but the fact that Steve can barely see over he enlistment counter and that he’s a walking bully-magnet gets him rejected every time. During one failed attempt, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Steve’s frustration and offers the pint-sized fella a position in the SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve), a covert branch of the military that’s working on the creation of a ‘super soldier’.

Under the command of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Steve proves himself a smart and gutsy soldier– the perfect candidate to receive Erskine’s secret serum. Sure enough, when Steve gets the dosage he becomes a true incredible hulk, and within minutes he’s already off saving the world– chasing a bad guy through the streets, leaping over cars, and chasing down a submarine. Not a bad way to shake off the whole 98-pound weakling thing.

Steve is given the identity of Captain America and finds a role as the cheesy centerpiece of a USO-style traveling show before eventually making it to the front lines to focus his efforts on ending the Nazi threat. Meanwhile, Erskine’s first test subject, Nazi commandant Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), is trying to get his hands on more of the serum, to go along with the power he’s harnessed from the legendary Cosmic Cube; global domination is at the top of his to-do list.

Director Joe Johnston borrows heavily from his own October Sky and The Rocketeer, putting together a 1940s period piece that still feels very fresh and entertaining. CG and pyrotechnics abound, but so do great actors giving excellent performances. That, along with a generous helping of good-natured comic book kitsch, makes Captain America really stand out– not only within the Avengers series, but among superhero movies in general.

Evans was an inspired casting choice. He brings a subdued, wholesome and (fittingly) all-American nature to the character, never going any bigger or louder than he needs to. Weaving is so deliciously evil that it’s now obvious he should be on every casting director’s speed dial when a cartoonish bad guy is required. And I’ll never get tired of Tommy Lee Jones’ wry delivery and country-boy charm.

Hayley Atwell, in her first major feature, is among the real finds here, playing pseudo-love interest Peggy Carter with a spot-on combination of tenderness and no-nonsense gruff. No, the producers weren’t able to snap up first choice Emily Blunt, but Atwell does a wonderful job in her own right, and I doubt they ever looked back.

Everything comes together in a nicely choreographed package that has a little something for everyone– big explosions, snazzy visual effects, World War II-era gallantry, and even some fun treats for fans of the Marvel Comics universe.

And now? Now we wait nine, superhero-free months until May. If you’ve convinced yourself you can make it that long without starting to twitch– well, whatever you do, don’t sit through the credits to see the pretty slick preview of The Avengers. It might just send you over the edge.

4/5 stars