[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
We’re not supposed to have pure superheroes. The demand for complexity usually involves inner turmoil, and without that “complexity” there can never be an arc, and therefore the character and his or her movie is “boring.” In most cases, this is true. But in a superhero landscape painfully saturated by tortured men wrestling with demons and what it means to be a good, Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger simply stood up and said, “This is our good guy.” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) stood in stark contrast to Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). He wasn’t a cocky guy who had to take responsibility. He was confident but humble, strong yet shy, and unabashedly goodhearted. He was the hero not only Marvel needed, but that the modern superhero genre as a whole needed.
He was also, like Thor, a bit of a tough sell. He’s a character who’s inextricably linked to World War II, and whose original comics were a mix of patriotism, propaganda, and jingoism. He’s what the country required at the time, but how could we accept a do-gooder whose costume was based on the American flag in today’s world? Where were his feet of clay? How could Marvel move forward with a character who was a throwback?
Marvel Studios could have gone the Thor route with Captain America by pulling him out of his element and into our reality in order to make him more “relatable.” He would have to play on our terms and adjust to the current landscape. It would have also provided a quicker route to The Avengers and could have even functioned as an Avengers prequel if Marvel wanted to shoehorn in some more S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff. Like Thor, Captain America would have been more of a function than a film.
Instead, the studio took another risk. They decided to set the movie during World War II, which gave Captain America the isolation of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk while still maintaining the direction set by the MCU thus far. Cap couldn’t interact with anything else in the MCU thus far, so he was the focal point of the entire story outside of the necessary prologue and the clumsy final scene. We were on Captain America’s terms, and Marvel was in the right place to finally tell this story.
The movie hits just the right balance of real emotions and escapist fantasy. There are no death camps, horrific casualties, or even many Nazis in The First Avenger. The movie trusts us to know that war is bad and that Hydra, an organization spun off from the Nazis and led by a guy named “Red Skull” (Hugo Weaving), is also bad. World War II is a film genre, and while we’ve gone to great lengths to acknowledge real war’s complexities, it also provides a particular framework, especially for Captain America.
Captain America’s first brilliant move is to accept World War II as a setting but not as an ethos. The movie gets rid of any jingoism when Steve says he doesn’t want to kill anybody; he doesn’t like bullies. It’s a classic underdog story where Steve is already a good man, and the super soldier serum takes his inner strength and makes it physical. That belief is completely removed from “USA #1”.
He’s not perfect—even when he’s bulked up, he’s still shy and only seems in his element when he’s on the battlefield—but he’s also more than a jock. Director Joe Johnston throws in nice little scenes to show that Steve also has some brains behind his brawn and bravery. Still, those are minor imperfections, so does that make Captain America uninteresting since he’s almost flawless?
Again, the film makes a smart move by investing in him as an ideal (even if that ideal is played for humor when he has to sell war bonds). None of us may ever be Captain America, but it’s so refreshing to see a superhero on screen that we can look up to, rather than bring him down to our level. There needs to be a counterbalance to every other superhero movie, and Captain America was a desperately needed outlier that could provide a rock-em’ sock-em’, old-fashioned adventure story.
Johnston was a smart choice to direct since he’s journeyman but his past work—The Rocketeer in particular—is able to take a period setting and make it feel modern without resorting to cynicism. The movie unabashedly throws in gadgets, remote mountain bases, an outlandish villain, and a level of enthusiasm without making the picture feel antiquated. For example, by making the Howling Commandos more racially diverse, Johnston and Marvel made sure that heroism wasn’t contained to a group of white people.
It’s remarkable to see how many places Captain America could have fallen flat on its face, and instead it strides confidently. Marvel found the right balance between embracing the character, paying reverence to the comics (the evolution of the costume is so damn clever), a visual approach where they have a consistent look but the director’s style isn’t completely eradicated, and connecting to The Avengers with a minimal amount of narrative friction.
In terms of its tropes, Captain America is also the bridge between past plot points and what would come for future Marvel movies. There’s still the villain who wants Power, and Weaving absolutely carries the role because ultimately Red Skull is no different than any other Marvel villain minus Loki. The movie also brings back “Wizened Scientist Mentor Who Dies Before Propelling the Hero to His First Action Scene.” And as always, the climactic battle is a mano a mano fight between the protagonist and antagonist., who’s yet another twisted mirror for the hero. There’s also the “noble sacrifice” thrown in for good measure, although Captain America legitimately loses something in the end as opposed to Iron Man and Thor, who thought they were going to die but survived with everything intact or reparable.
However, you can also see the plot points that would get recycled in future Marvel movies. The climax of The First Avenger sets the template for Marvel movie climaxes for all future films except Iron Man 3 (I don’t know if Age of Ultron or Ant-Man follow this template; right now it looks like yes to the former, no to the latter). It’s the first Marvel movie where the character is up against an entire army as opposed to only a single person. Additionally, this is the first Marvel film where the hero must stop of the villain before time runs out or else there will be massive devastation and loss of life.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the final piece of The Avengers puzzle, and it showed that the tag at the end of Iron Man was the most graceful way to get there. Everything else had to be shoehorned in to the Avengers, but even Captain America managed to handle this with some level of success. The prologue makes total sense since Cap has to be taken off ice, but then there’s the epilogue. Captain America does have an end point—it’s the kid running with the trashcan shield—but getting Cap to Avengers was necessary.
Marvel figured the best way was to ease him into our world was with a ruse, and while it does show S.H.I.E.L.D.’s heavy reliance on secrecy, it feels like an ill-conceived move, and a particularly sloppy one since they knew when the plane crashed and it would have been easy to pull a ballgame that took place after that. But even after that misstep, the movie ends on a bittersweet note, and my heart always breaks a bit when Steve says, “I had a date.” He was willing to give his life, and ended up giving away half of it.
With Captain America: The First Avenger over, all the pieces were finally in place. Marvel’s audacious plan had gone as far as it could go. Five movies had been invested towards one big gamble.
It paid off.
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- The Avengers
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy