Captain America: The First Avenger is pretty darn good. It’s not great like this country is great (amen, brother! Hot dogs!), but it has consistent characterization, thrilling set pieces, and the kind of narrative consistency that most of Marvel’s assembly-line Avengers prequels have lacked. Ironically for a film that exists merely to whet appetites for another, louder Marvel Studios joint (it’s right there in the title), Captain America isn’t too burdened by existing Marvel continuity, liberated by its period setting from Samuel L. Jackson and his magic plot-decoagulating eye patch.

The film adheres to the timeless adolescent fantasy of the original 1940s comics, with virginal wimp Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) getting Charles Atlas–ed by detergent-colored steroids so he can fight on the front lines of WWII with his boyhood pal. Stanley Tucci’s awesome German-expat scientist redundantly asks Rogers if he wants to go kill some Nazis, and—duh!—he does, so, after a brief stint whoring himself out as a propaganda tool, the newly Clemens-sized Cap soldiers through a menagerie of action beats and garish montages. Despite his clunky headwear (it’s hard to look badass with no eyebrows), Evans is convincingly superheroic in his tussles with rogue Nazi madman the Red Skull, an underdeveloped, derivative schemer played with relish by Hugo Weaving, who’s totally Herzogging it up beneath impressive Twizzler-colored prosthetics. Hayley Atwell plays Cap’s hard-ass crush Peggy Carter, oozing the same kind of dopey lustiness that Natalie Portman brought to her role as the World’s Least Likely Astrophysicist in Thor.

Director Joe Johnston, despite his rep for cinematic calamities (The Wolfman, Jurassic Park III, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Spring Break Adventure), is ideally suited for a rosy-tinted retro adventure of these stripes. He did, after all, make more or less the same film 20 years ago in The Rocketeer, which has a strikingly similar climax and likewise reveled in unabashed comic-book-ness and rah-rah patriotism, pitting Nazi baddies against a hero in a dorky helmet, his impossibly voluptuous love interest, and a curiously benevolent, mania-free Howard Hughes figure. In The Rocketeer, it’s literally Hughes—in this film it’s Hughes analogue Howard Stark, father of Iron Man’s Tony, played by British actor Dominic Cooper. Cooper’s Stark starts out doing a hilarious Roger Sterling impression, then promptly drops the act (if they can CGI Chris Evans’s voodoo-shrunken head onto Justin Bieber’s body for his pretransformation scenes, why can’t the effects houses just spackle over John Slattery’s wrinkles? Or did Tron: Legacy permanently poison the digital deaging well?).

While Johnston has matured from the Lucas-mentored, effects-focused dude responsible for the monkeys in Jumanji—which looked like Ugachaka babies flocked with brown tinsel—into someone with a surgical eye for digital razzmatazz, your enjoyment of Captain America will ultimately hinge on your tolerance for Claim Jumper–sized portions of old-timey hokiness.

Nevertheless, Johnston’s film is fast and funny, with occasionally enthralling 3-D optics, but its boldest stroke might also be its last: As the credits roll, a giant Uncle Sam points his three-dimensional finger straight at the audience like some kind of looming brown acid hallucination. “WE WANT YOU,” he’s intimating, “to see this film again in theaters.” recommended