Captain America has always been one of the squarest members of the Marvel universe. With his rah-rah, red-white-and-blue exploits, he’s a bit like Superman, minus the knotty psychological backstory. Rather than being hamstrung by those limitations, though, director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) embraces Steve Rogers’ earnestness in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, PG-13, 2 hrs., 3 mins.) and serves up something unexpected in our age of brooding Dark Knights and sadistic Watchmen: an irony-free crime fighter. A lot of the credit for pulling this off goes to Chris Evans, who makes us believe how gee-whiz cool it would be to turn from a scrawny shrimp into a buff, Nazi-slaying slab of Greatest Generation beefcake (the EXTRAS detail the F/X trickery). Armed with his vibranium shield, Evans clashes with Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull in pulpy, rollicking Raiders of the Lost Ark-style set pieces. My only real beef is with the ending, which goes on too long and turns into a commercial for the upcoming Avengers movie. Still, you could do a lot worse.
In fact, in the early ’90s, someone did. Long out of print, schlockmeister Albert Pyun’s Captain America (1990, PG-13, 1 hr., 37 mins.) is now available via MGM’s on-demand service. Matt Salinger (son of J.D.) plays the star-spangled superhero as a dim cornball. Scott Paulin’s hammy Red Skull, who we learn assassinated the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., is out to whack the president (Ronny Cox). Will the flabby ’90s Captain save the day? Even Marvel diehards will have a hard time staying awake long enough to find out. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): B+, Captain America (1990): D