Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
It’s a great feeling to finally get this film off the snide, so to speak, and check it off my list. As one of the few Marvel films I had not seen prior to this marathon, Captain America: The First Avenger seemed like the most egregious. The Incredible Hulk seems to be a pretty unique entry in the MCU, and Thor: The Dark World, and Spider-Man: Far From Home are both sequels. But to miss the origin of one of the leaders of the MCU and the Avengers team, Captain America, seems like a glaring omission. I also think more than the others, this is the film I was most interested in exploring for many reasons. Captain America as a character is fascinating to me, and might be one of my favorites (pending the remainder of this marathon), but the film also being set in the past, during World War II presents the film and the character with a new, fresh setting and context that we don’t get with all the other modern day superheroes that make up the rest of the franchise. With that in mind, this is a great example for why I’m also interested to revisit Captain Marvel when it comes around, being set in the 1990s. How does the MCU tie into the past, and what implications does the past provide what we know about the Avengers and everything to come?
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a patriotic runt, who stands up to every bully he ever encounters, despite being diminutive in size. But with World War II going on, he can’t pass the physical to join the army, like his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan). After being rejected multiple times, scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recruits Rogers for a new Army experiment being overseen by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), which enhances his physical makeup to make Steve Rogers a super soldier. But after the experiment succeeds, Rogers is relegated to being a cheerleader for the Army, performing shows around the country to raise money for the war effort. But when he learns that Bucky and his squadron have been captured behind enemy lines, newly minted Captain America takes matters into his own hands to rescue his friend and confront the evil Nazi machine headed by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who seems to be developing a master weapon for terrorist organization Hydra.
Coming off of Thor, which I thought worked extremely well and was the first Marvel film to look like the familiar Marvel formula, First Avenger seems to continue that progress. I’ve always been impressed with how Marvel has been able to apply its patented formula across genre for these comic book movies, and these are two prime examples. I’m not sure what types of movies the Iron Man movies, or Hulk were supposed to be, but with Thor it seems the formula is unlocked by presenting a sci-fi film, and its continued with The First Avenger, which is a war movie. We’ll continue to see different styles applied, but being a genre film to some extent I think really aides the attractiveness of the narratives of these two films. This is not a traditional war film, for obvious reasons, but the element of World War II and Nazis being the enemy creates a familiar shorthand for the audience to make the outline easier to consume, and the filmmakers are able to focus on the details of Steve Rogers and the origin of the character Captain America. There are battle scenes, and they’re fine, but this is such a character driven film, and really brands Captain America as a hero, regardless of his abilities. The abilities help though.
He’s been described as a boy scout, sometimes in negative ways, but what makes Captain America one of the more attractive characters in the MCU is exactly that, his heart. He’s in it for the right reasons, and is willing to put himself out there to fight for what is right. Sure, there are plenty of politics we could talk about in regards to this character, and we will very much so when it comes time to explore Civil War, and Cap and Iron Man’s differing viewpoints, but I’d rather avoid those discussions for now as part of this review and leave it to say Captain America is important because of Steve Rogers, not because of Dr. Erskine’s science experiment. Oddly enough, this is reiteration of the themes explored in Iron Man 2 in what makes the difference between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Ivan Venko/Whiplash, or Tony Stark and Justin Hammer. The man makes the difference, not the technology. And that theme is continued through here very effectively, all the way including his relationship with Peggy Carter and his friendship especially with Bucky Barnes. He’s a good dude who doesn’t like being told he can or can’t do something.
I think of the Phase 1 movies, this and Thor would be the two movies I would most like to return to. There is a level of entertainment that rises above anything else in the series to this point, and much of that has to do with the leading men. While I enjoy Robert Downey Jr., the charisma of the Chris’ (Hemsworth and Evans) just seems to be a little more magnetic, whereas RDJ comes off much cockier and greasy as a character. Certainly Stark evolves throughout the films, and his tech is cool as hell, but as origin stories go, I think Captain America sits atop the leader board, with Thor in second. I’m certainly a big history buff, and found the setting of the film during World War II to give a new layer of intrigue, breaking from present day seems like a recipe to keep this film much less anonymous when looking back at all the other films in the franchise. Red Skull is a good villain too, working as a Hitler stand-in. It was a smart move to not include Hitler as part of the story, otherwise detracting the attention away from Cap. And despite being somewhat secondary in my enjoyment of the film and in my recollection thereof, Weaving delivered a fine performance. I would be interested to see if my enjoyment of the film would hold up over multiple viewings, if this being a fresh new movie in my eyes influenced its standing, but for the time being, I will cherish its inclusion here and finally being able to see it because I found it to be a really fun ride and introduction to a character I’ve come to know from later films. Seeing that origin story helps to color my perception of him as a player among the rest of the team.