This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.
Now we’ve come to my favourite film of Marvel’s phase one. Which was also the second worst-performing at the box office; I guess people weren’t as interested in a WWII period film about a cheesy super patriot.
It’s a shame, that, because Captain America really is the best Marvel had done up to that point. The casting of former Human Torch Chris Evans in the lead role turned out to be a brilliant decision, which I guess is something of a theme in this series: Downey, Hemsworth, Evans – all the leads that would continue on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have proven to be very well suited to their roles. Evans plays Steve Rogers perfectly – the ordinary, decent guy who hates bullies and refuses to give in even when outmatched. Even when Rogers is turned into a super soldier through a government experiment, he doesn’t lose that core part of his character, and that’s what makes him Captain America.
Steve Rogers goes from the little guy who is repeatedly turned down when volunteering for military service, to a science experiment no one has much use for except as a publicity stunt to sell war bonds (in the first of the film’s excellent montage sequences). He’s eager for any opportunity to contribute to the war, but also frustrated at not being able to do more, seeing himself as little more than a dancing monkey. Finally, while visiting soldiers in the field he hears that his closest friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is missing behind enemy lines – and the army has no intention of trying to rescue him or any of his squadron. As we’d see repeatedly in the Captain America films, Bucky is the one person Steve will do pretty much anything for, so of course he has to single-handedly infiltrate the Hydra base and rescue everyone.
Steve’s friendship with Bucky is the most important relationship in his life. Steve and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) may have feelings for each other, but they never get a chance to become close; Bucky on the other hand is at Cap’s side from the rescue, through all of Cap’s missions in Europe, right up until his apparent death when he falls from the train carrying Hydra scientist Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones).
It’s a shame they never really got to flesh out Captain America’s exploits during WWII; the montage we get is great, and shows us that Cap and Bucky save each other’s lives more than once in the years they’re fighting with the other Invaders (which is what the movie calls the Howling Commandos from Marvel comics), but it would have been interesting to get something like a spinoff TV series set during the war. As it is, the Invaders come out a little underdeveloped. It’s easy to compare The First Avenger to DC’s Wonder Woman, an origin story set during WWI with a similar multi-ethnic group of companions who accompany the hero through the fight, but in the later film we take a lot of time to get to know the individuals in the group. This film doesn’t have the time for it. I could only tell you the name of one of them, and that might just be because I’ve heard of Dum Dum Dugan from the comics.
One character we do get the time to know is Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, leader of Hydra – the Nazi Party’s secretive weapons research wing, now gone rogue – and portrayed by Hugo Weaving. He’s a classic black-and-white villain, a charismatic leader who thinks Adolf Hitler isn’t ambitious enough and wants to wipe out every major city in the world to demonstrate his power. I wish we’d gotten more of the Red Skull in the MCU; he’s not the most complex character but he’s been a staple of Captain America stories since the character’s inception. Also, Hugo Weaving is pretty compelling in the role, and it’d be fun to see more of him. (Weaving did not return for the Red Skull’s cameos in Infinity War or Endgame.) It’s possible they’ll find some way to bring him back in the future – nobody is dead forever in comics, not even Gwen Stacy these days – but right now the MCU doesn’t even have Steve Rogers for him to face off against.
Red Skull is the classic Marvel villain trope: a product of the same experiment that created the hero, he possesses the same enhanced strength as Rogers, and usually this kind of setup leads to a big CGI fight where characters with identical powers punch each other (see: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man, and Black Panther), but while the two do come to blows in the finale, the way it’s done fits with the low-key, war film style of the rest of the film and doesn’t become overlong or gratuitous. There may be superweapons that can vaporise a man instantly, and a bulletproof shield Cap can throw and have bounce back to his hand, but beyond this the combat in the film is handled in a pretty grounded way. The idea of Captain America is not of someone who can do things that are impossible, but of one who is at the peak of what the human body can achieve.
The thing is, the most interesting part of Captain America’s character doesn’t come into play until the film’s ending: he is frozen in ice for seventy years, rediscovered and revived in 2011, becoming a man out of time, a relic of the past who has to continue on despite everyone he knew having lived entire lives, grown old and died while he was missing. The First Avenger doesn’t get to explore this, and it would be left to later films to delve into this part of him – unfortunately they never really got that deep into it, mostly just deriving humour from his lack of knowledge of pop culture references and eventually hitting the reset button on his character in Endgame when he chooses to go back to where he started, picking up a relationship with Peggy that hadn’t even begun before he was frozen. I’ll probably talk about that more when I get to that film.
I feel like this has been a fairly shallow post, and that I’ve not really had a lot to say about the film, which bothers me since I took so long to write it. It’s a solid film; it’s fun, the action is exciting, the performances are good. The plot may be straightforward, but he’s a pretty straightforward character, and it ends with a sacrifice that turns into a tragic twist.
It’s one of Marvel’s best films, and its writers – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – would go on to write two more Captain America films and two Avengers films. I’ve talked about Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark setting the tone for the Marvel universe, but these two writers have had a strong hand in the direction of the MCU in its later phases, particularly in collaboration with directors Joe and Anthony Russo from Captain America: The Winter Soldier onward. Captain America: The First Avenger may have been a mild disappointment financially, but it was a success creatively, and the work of this film’s writers and director Joe Johnston (in his only work for Marvel to date) gave us a strong start for a character who’s since gone from success to success.