If you were to invent a Captain America today, he might look a bit down and out - a shadow of his former self and a man with a rather sordid recent past and a not-so-rosy future. But back in 1941 when Joe Simon and the immortal Jack Kirby first brought the world truth, justice and the American way in the shape of a superhero with a star-spangled shield, America really was about to become the saviour of the world.
And that’s the best thing about this lovingly made Marvel adaptation from The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston – it stays true to its pulpy comic book roots while adeptly catching the spirit of the times. Johnston has also made his debts clear not just to Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, but also to Raiders of the Lost Ark and - not a reference we often see in superhero flicks - Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 wartime drama, A Matter of Life and Death.
That Raiders reference comes in the opening minutes when glowering Nazi Doctor Schmitt (Hugo Weaving) ends his lifelong quest for an ancient artefact that will grant eternal power. Anyone seen Indy? Meanwhile, over in New York, our hero, seven-stone weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is getting turned down at another army enlisting station.
Enter Stanley Tucci as Abraham Erskine, an ex-pat German Jew who has fled Hitler’s nightmare and come to work for the US Army’s secret science agency. He sees something in the plucky Rogers and turns him into a perfect specimen of manhood with the aid of a green serum and controlled bursts of “vita rays”.
The stage is set for an all-American super solider to take on the Nazi 'Master Race', but Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips has other ideas. He sees the newly-hatched hero as a propaganda tool for raising war bonds and patriotism and there are some brilliant scenes as Captain America is reduced to a song and dance act, biffing an actor dressed as Hitler behind a line of chorus girls.
When he does finally get to prove himself against Schmitt, who by this stage has even bigger delusions than Hitler himself, he’s in the mood to seriously kick ass. Rogers, now armed with a star-spangled shield made of “vibranium”, leads a not-so-dirty half dozen of men deep behind enemy lines to confront Schmitt and his own army for some solid action scenes, leading to the inevitable showdown.
Chris Evans, who has form in the area having played The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, plays it straight as a humble guy who is shocked by his own power. Tommy Lee Jones is fun as the hard as nails Colonel Phillips; Dominic Cooper, as an eccentric boffin, does a brilliant homage to Howard Hughes, but Hayley Atwell as Evans’ love interest is unfortunately wooden, even as she channels her inner Rita Hayworth.
Not unlike Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, there’s more than a touch of wish fulfilment to Captain America. Who doesn’t like to see comic book (or otherwise) Nazis getting pulverised by a platoon of Yanks bursting with gung-ho patriotism, only this time with right on their side? This is smart, clever and entertaining stuff. The kind of superhero flick that shows how this kind of thing can, and should, be done.