By the time Captain America showed up in this first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, audiences were looking forward to something else: The Avengers. The superhero team-up film was ACTUALLY going to happen. It felt so fresh. It felt so huge. It felt like we needed it now. Instead, we got another origin story.
The public weren’t as excited for a solo film about a super strong dude dressed in the American flag, which is probably why they felt the need to label it The First Avenger. However, as the current DC effort proved, you need to do honest to goodness groundwork before you assemble your super team.
That’s what Captain America: The First Avenger is: an honest to goodness superhero film.
The first thing that strikes the eyes is how well the Tiny Steve Rogers effect holds up. For the most part, it’s freakishly easy to forget that what you’re seeing is Chris Evan’s mug on someone else’s body. There are only a few moments where a mouth or an eyebrow do not completely register as human.
It’s a necessary effect that gives Rogers his nobility. Though he can barely fight a stiff breeze let alone participate in World War II, this Rogers is completely willing to give everything he’s got to stop the bullies – even if what he’s physically got isn’t much.
It’s the equivalent of a person giving their only dollar to charity. How the hell could anyone not like this guy?
So while other heroes have to earn the responsibility for the powers they wield, Rogers already has it. That’s what makes him perfect for the super soldier program. Playing the German scientist who gifts Rogers with strength and wisdom before kicking the bucket, Stanley Tucci spins a lot of charm in his few scenes (though his character is almost exactly the same as Iron Man’s Yinsen).
Hayley Atwell enters the army training scene by dishing a TKO punch to a sleazy soldier with calm, composed precision. That’s how Penny Carter handles everything, and that’s why she earned herself a TV series.
Slim Steve impresses Agent Carter (along with the rest of the audience) in two key moments. The first is the flagpole competition scene, which sees Steve remove the bolts of the base to score the flag while all the other brutes failed to climb it. The second sees him dive on a dummy grenade when everyone else ran while clucking.
Here, Steve shows the powers he’s always had: tactics and courage. These are the powers any honest to goodness person could have.
Then he gets his super power: being buff as fuck.
He gives his new super bod a hoon when a Hydra agent shoots Tucci and bolts. It’s a cool scene, mainly because it shows Steve being a bit of an unco gumby with his new arms and legs.
This basic act of heroism sees him unwittingly fed into the American propaganda sausage machine. It comes complete with films (meta!), comics (mega meta!), and an original song that really should have been nominated for an Oscar. By acknowledging this silliness for what the Captain America property was, the film triumphantly makes a contemporary image of Captain America that works.
Jump cutting to the grim reality of the battlefield, Rogers snips off the puppet strings to do some actual heroism. And golly, I forgot how violent the film was. You see people get shot in the head, disintegrated, blown up – one guy even gets minced by a propeller later on. I shouldn’t be surprised – this is war, after all – but it is a shock to the system after four MCU films with low body counts.
It makes it easier to swallow given the bad guys are Hydra – the only people more Nazi than Nazis. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is the type of evil leader whose awful ambitions are even higher than Hitler’s, so of course it’s easy to root against him. However, he’s not a memorable villain. There’s little more to him than his terrible goal and although he’s meant to have similar super soldier serum in his veins, it’s never demonstrated in a compelling way.
His departure is also really unsatisfying, especially how any mystery of what actually happened to him has been (presumably) swept aside in the current MCU.
Weaving does his best with it though, and to Red Skull’s credit, he’s the first bad guy in this universe to actually try take over the world.
That’s because this film is old-fashioned, from the villain’s motive to the hero’s faultless sense of human decency. The film sells it not just because of the era, but also because the simple morals it displays have just as much relevance today.
Be kind. Stand up to bullies. Work together. Good shit.
You could say it’s cheesy, but would you criticise a toasted sandwich of the same thing? Some things simple can’t be without a bit of cheese.
Other things that demand praise include Dominic Cooper as an appropriately inappropriate Howard Stark, this Wilhelm scream, Tommy Lee Jones as (can’t believe I’m about to write this) the perfect comic relief and the way Cap’s shield throw never NOT looks painful as hell.
On the downside, the friendship with Bucky doesn’t have quite enough pull to make his exit really hurt and some of the green screen work looks kinda shoddy.
There’s also the clunky walk-in moment where Peggy sees Steve in a lip lock with Margaery from Game of Thrones. Looking back at it really highlights how much Steve’s the victim in that scenario. Margaery flirts with the subtlety of a red-painted rhino but poor Steve, with his crippling inability to talk to women, doesn’t know how to respond. His body language screams discomfort, yet she literally grabs him by the tie and forces herself on him.
But I digress.
The romance between Peggy and Steve still works despite that crammed-in bit of conflict because it’s fleeting; less of a “happily ever after” affair and more of a “beautiful beginnings” relationship. Plus, having a first/last kiss on a speeding vehicle before saving the city with a self-sacrifice is pretty hot.
It works to the point where the film ends on one of the most bittersweet lines in the MCU, something purely honest and good. After waking from a 70-year coma, Nick Fury asks if he’s going to be OK.
“Yeah… I just… I had a date.”