Why have so many people never seen this one? Captain America: The First Avenger is a perfect throwback and homage to the classic action adventure movies of the 80’s. You’d think it was made by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas themselves. It’s set during World War II, it has treasure hunting Nazis, and has the true definition of a hero at its center.
The First Avenger, similar to the first Iron Man, knows that above all, what it needs to get right is our main character, and that is Steve Rogers. And it absolutely does. Steve Rogers is the perfect counter to Tony Stark. He always does the right thing and always knows how to go about doing it, and he doesn’t have to try or think too hard about it, unlike Tony, who thinks a bit too much and who’s ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong are often askew. Steve Rogers is unwavering in his ideals and philosophies, even when they are challenged by the world around him. He is a good man. The best. The human embodiment of truth, justice, and righteousness. Is that cheesy? You bet it is. But the world of the MCU needs a hero like this, since the rest are all mostly morally conflicted people. Rogers is the Avengers’ moral center and compass, and that is why he is the only possible choice for their leader. He is the heart and soul of the Marvel Universe.
Steve is continuously rejected by the army due to his small size and multiple health issues but tries time and time again to enlist. “There are people laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them.” Steve’s parents were both killed serving the war (perhaps this is where he gets his sense of right and wrong), and his best friend Bucky is about to ship out himself. He’s finally given his chance by Dr. Abraham Erskine (the always delightful Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who asks Steve a simple question: “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Steve, never one to run away from a fight, even one that he knows he won’t win, gives us his answer. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” This is the line of dialogue that tells you all you need to know about Steve and his morals, and not too long after, we get a scene that physically shows us this.
Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones in a bit of on-the-nose casting) is in charge of training the batch of recruits that are supposed to be the test subjects for the super soldier program. Dr. Erskine wants Rogers, but Phillips wants one of the other, more physically capable, men, since the very sight of Roger’s frail frame disgusts him. He tosses a grenade onto the field as a test, pretending it’s live. Every man runs away and hides behind something, all except Steve, who dives right on top of it, never hesitating, shouting at everyone to get back. With Dr. Erskine’s point proven, a disgruntled Phillips reluctantly agrees that Steve should be the one to become a super soldier, but not without commenting “He’s still skinny.”
It’s our time spent with skinny Steve that allows us to fall in love with him and understand who he is. He is worthy and deserving of the powers he receives. He doesn’t change who he is once he gets his powers, he merely now has the strength he needs to fully carry out what he wants to do and protect the people he wants to protect. Shrinking Chris Evans down is an incredible visual effect that still holds up today, and Evans, who is literally Captain America in real life, brings such genuine warmth, goodness, and depth to the character. Can you believe that he turned down the role three times before finally accepting it? It sounds crazy. He was born for it.
Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter became such a standout that she got her own television show, and the fact that she falls for Steve before his transformation solidifies the relationship between the two. Peggy also exists in this film to show us that Steve isn’t entirely perfect; he has no idea how to talk to women, is instantly jealous and standoffish when he believes that she and Howard Stark are “fonduing”, and fails to act upon he and Peggy’s mutual attraction to each other until the very end, and even then, it is Peggy who makes the move. Their doomed love story, punctuated by the somber ending and Steve’s final sacrifice, remains one of the MCU’s heaviest emotional weights. It’s certainly still a sore spot for me whenever I think about it (They deserved to live a happy life together, dammit!).
Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt AKA The Red Skull, paired with Toby Jones’ Dr. Zola, are such fun to watch onscreen due to the screenplay calling for them to be such classically evil villains. They are literal Nazis, after all. The Red Skull is so theatrical that you can’t help but be entertained by him. There’s literally a scene where he’s forcing a man to paint a portrait of him. In an age where audiences demand complex, sympathetic antagonists, it can sometimes be refreshing to watch a bad guy who just loves being bad. Schmidt continues the Marvel trend of the villain being a mirror of the hero. Schmidt is the leader of Hydra, the Nazi science division. He is also the result of a failed experiment by Dr. Erskine and his super soldier serum, it gave him the enhanced strength but horribly disfigured his face (which is done by fantastic looking practical makeup). He thinks he is the only one worthy of such power, and, after finding The Tesseract, believes it is his destiny to wield the power of the gods. “We have left humanity behind.” he tells Steve.
This is the inherent difference between the two. Both are recipients of the same awesome power, given to them by the same man, but Schmidt sees it as a way of transcending the limitations of humanity, he cares not for the human race, thinks Hitler’s ambition is little, and sacrifices his own men without a second thought. Steve uses his power to protect everyone and keep his men safe. He has faith in people, whereas Schmidt has none. Schmidt is baffled and insulted by the fact that Steve was chosen by Dr. Erskine and was a complete success, because to him, Steve wastes the potential his powers give him. What’s more, Steve, as Captain America, continuously defeats Hydra everywhere he goes, further frustrating The Red Skull and making him more desperate. “What makes you so special?” he asks Cap. “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” The perfect response.
A common complaint with this film is that the beginning of the second act, which has Steve sidelined immediately after becoming a super soldier and being forced to become a propaganda showman to sell war bonds, is unnecessary and boring. I disagree. It plants the seeds of Steve’s disillusionment with authority and government. It also shows us that he’s not afraid to break the rules and disobey orders he’s been given. The super soldier experiment was a success, yet those in power choose to simply make him a poster child and parade him around the United States, instead of deploying him to the war where he could actually do some real good. One could argue that it’s realistic.
So what holds this movie back? First and foremost, for an action adventure movie about a soldier, the action leaves a lot to be desired and none of it is memorable. Cap’s war buddies, The Howling Commandos, fall into the same trap as Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, where none are given much of a chance to become real characters. The Tesseract seems to be here only to set up the events of The Avengers, not even acting as a real MacGuffin; all it really does in this film is make Hydra a little more dangerous.
The First Avenger may not have anything too new or amazing for audiences to watch, but there’s not exactly anything wrong with it either. It stays consistently heartfelt throughout its runtime, and it does exactly what it needed to for the MCU: Introduce us to Captain Steve Rogers, the future leader of The Avengers and the other main character of the universe opposite Tony Stark. It’s no coincidence that both Steve and Tony are given a second chance at life by their mentor figure, see them get shot, and are told by their mentors and saviors to use their powers for good before their deaths. Both are thrust into greatness under almost identical circumstances, but the drastic difference in their character and ideals is what leads us to to their fascinating, complicated relationship, and eventual conflict.
“This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion. Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Connections to the MCU: Red Skull mentions The Tesseract originally belonging in Odin’s treasure room, and indeed, the art on the wall hiding it shows the World Tree, the same concept design that Thor shares with Jane Foster. Red Skull’s fate is also a bit ambiguous, we don’t know if he was destroyed by The Tesseract or if he was transported into space. Sadly, Hugo Weaving has publicly stated that he has no interest in reprising the role. Howard Stark shows off his flying “Reversion” technology, a precursor to his son’s later “Repulsors” that enable the Iron Man suit to fly. Cap’s shield is our first look at vibranium, straight out of Wakanda. Dr. Zola’s plans for a mechanical body can be glimpsed as he makes his escape from the Hydra base, and his experiments on Bucky are shown to have already begun. Finally, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. are the first to greet Steve after his 70 year long nap, and they’re going to need him, because Loki is about to launch his plan for Earth.
Captain America: The First Avenger was the final Marvel film to be released by Paramount, and the final solo film before the phenomenon that was The Avengers. Disney, seeing the writing on the wall, would purchase Marvel, and both companies would benefit tremendously off of it.