Deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) volunteers for a top-secret research project that transforms him into
Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending America’s ideals.

A superb superhero adaptation.

Though it never once waivers from its pre-ordained status as a cog in the summer movie season machine, Joe Johnston’s Captain America proves that such a commercial entity can exhibit rich characterisations, artistry and integrity. The 70-year-old creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, launched in a period of fervent wartime patriotism, should not be so engaging in a world where the ideals and actions of the American government are constantly questioned, even ridiculed – but it is. In a year of pretty good super-hero films, the very broad shoulders of leading man Chris Evans carries the best of the bunch so far.

Showing a patient faith in scriptwriters Christopher Markus’ and Stephen McFeely’s treatment, Johnston spends a solid 45 minutes crafting the all-important origin elements of his story. A prologue set in a snowy Norwegian monastery introduces us to rogue über-Nazi Johann Schmidt (a seething Hugo Weaving) as he searches for a mythical device that harnesses the power of 'The Gods’. (In a film full of sly humour and cheeky nods, megalomaniacal Schmidt's "While the Fuehrer digs for trinkets in the desert"¦" dialogue, references Johnston’s mentor Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The audience is then transported to 1940s big-city America, where Steve Rogers (the 90lb weakling version of Evans) is determined to fight the good fight for the US of A, but is repeatedly '4F’ed – determined unfit for fighting on medical grounds. Though Rogers’ fierce loyalty to democratic American ideals is typical of many young US men of the period, he’s no redneck nationalist; when asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he replies 'I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies". His integrity endears him to Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist developing a super-soldier program for the military. A few swift story beats later and Rogers is in the transformation chamber, his heroic military career all but assured, once he’s been resculpted into a buff fighting machine. However, fate has other plans: CO Colonel Chester Phillips (a droll and brilliant Tommy Lee Jones) deems Rogers a modern Frankenstein’s monster; Rogers’ best friend, James 'Bucky’ Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is captured deep in enemy territory; and ballsy British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) resists Rogers’ charms, despite admiring his derring-do.

Having shaded the key characters with endearing detail and introduced a support cast of multi-nationals to offset any concerns that it was all getting a bit 'red-white-and-blue’ for international movie-goers, Johnston lets loose in the second hour with cracking war movie action and tense good vs evil standoffs that are, frankly, a total blast. The effects work that dominates the climax is state-of-the-art and integrates flawlessly with the rich, muted retro-themed colour palette of cinematographer Shelly Johnson, one of the few lensers able to work the darkening effect of the 3D process to the film’s advantage.

Beautiful period detail (the likes of which we haven’t seen since Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, 1987, or Johnston’s own The Rocketeer, 1991) honouring the elegance of the era and the comic book origins are intricately rendered by production designer Rick Heinrichs and the film’s art direction unit; expect below-the-line Oscar plaudits to all those who have contributed to the film’s visuals.

Like Iron Man, The Hulk and Thor before it, Captain America exists as a stepping stone on the path to 2012’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s adaptation of the Marvel Comics super-hero mash-up. But Johnston, a journeyman director with mainstream instincts and old-school story-telling skills (Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, 1989; Jumanji, 1995; Jurassic Park III, 2001), was never going to let his Captain America serve a greater master. Like Steve Rogers, his determined lead character who bucks authority to do what he believes is right, Johnston has grabbed the $140-million budget, spent it where it counts, and set a standard that Whedon will have to work overtime to better.