Journeying further down my #RoadToInfinityWar review series, we come to one of the more important entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One films, leading right up to the original Avengers film. If the subtitled name of the film alone doesn’t make it clear enough, Captain America: The First Avenger probably lays the most apparent groundwork for the team-up film than any of the others. With The Incredible Hulk later being recast from Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo, Iron Man having two films largely focused on himself, and Thor focusing much on capturing a balance between the fantastical and our own world, it was left to Captain America‘s MCU debut film to most clearly bridge the gap and set the team-up film’s plot in motion before it ever hit screens. Did that affect the overall focus? Quite possibly, but, while I may be in the minority here, I find this film to be much stronger and enjoyable than most critics make it out to be. For me, it’s one of the most easily watchable films in the back-catalog (quite possibly the easiest of Phase One), even if it’s somewhat campy in its own right.
In directing the film, Marvel hired Joe Johnston, who proves the perfect choice. Johnston has made several solid action movies in his career, but none of them are probably what most would consider classics. One film from his filmography that was practically an audition for this film was The Rocketeer, an early 90s comic-book film about a stunt pilot who finds an experimental jet-pack during World War II and uses it to become a fighting force against the Nazis. Change a few details in that sentence, and you get the exact same premise here. The patriotic spirit and retro-infused flavor carry over into this film, and it’s no wonder why he was a consideration to direct and the eventual helmer of the film. Still, that point of ‘not-being-noteworthy’ does have some bearing here, as, even for all of his action-film prowess, Johnston shoots all of his films fairly conventionally. Those interesting camera angles I loved in Thor aren’t found here, and of all the Marvel movies up to this point, it’s safe to say this is the most animated of them all. There’s a polished look to it all and a brisk pace that feels quite different than really any other MCU film, before or after. Much of it evokes a different age, not just in its look, but also in how it tells its story.
In this film, we are introduced to Steve Rogers, who Marvel fans know becomes one of the best aspects of the MCU. He is the eventual lead and tactical center of the Avengers, the moral compass in his own films and lynchpin of their unity and disagreements to come. None of this happens without a charismatic & believable performance, and Chris Evans sold that to me from moment one in the film. Prior to his casting, I shuddered at Johnny Storm from the 20th Century Fox films for the Fantastic Four being recast, especially as another Marvel character so different from him. It’s a real credit to Evans that he establishes here a lasting integral part of the entirety of the MCU within the solid heroism of Steve Rogers and makes one almost forget that he once played another very different character from Marvel Comics very well. At first, we see him as the plucky & sickly gung-ho volunteer who has no shot at being inducted into the U.S. military efforts abroad during World War II. At a time when every man was being drafted whether they wanted to or not, Rogers willingly wants to run to the front lines, trying his best to get recruited. Through some CGI wizardry, Evans is made to look small and scrawny, making his eventual Super-Soldier enhancement one of the film’s greatest moments. Regardless of him being big or small, the strength of Rogers is constant in his sacrificial nature, his sense of decency and duty, and his overall good character. He is exactly the type of person the war effort needs, according to Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, making a big impression with limited screentime). Erskine, being from his German homeland and knowing the evils that are coming from there in the war, isn’t looking to fabricate a figurehead leader for America; he is looking for a man who he is only enabling to become what he was always destined to be. This is a powerful mentor relationship we get here, and that all comes in the early parts of the film and shades the entirety of what follows.
From this Super-Soldier program and from Steve’s friendships, we meet characters like childhood friend and fellow soldier, James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the grizzled Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), alongside seeing the familiar face of Howard Stark (played in his youth again by Dominic Cooper), as well as many POWs he frees behind enemy lines. Each proves worth to Rogers as he goes up against the Nazis and their deep-science division, HYDRA, led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), known more ominously as the Red Skull. While Hitler “digs for trinkets in the desert” (one of my favorite sly references of all time), Schmidt has obtained the Tesseract, a source of unlimited energy and weaponry for the blitzkrieg forces. Only Captain America can stop Schmidt and HYDRA from obliterating the Allied forces and taking over the world.
I know that all might sound a little hokey, and it’s because it is. Everything on display here evokes a different time and filmmaking techniques that are more old-fashioned. I think that draws a lot of critique for the film, but it’s those things to me that give the film such a fun flavor, comparatively to other Marvel films. Other than the later spin-off of sorts, Agent Carter, on ABC that ran for two seasons, there isn’t anything else in the MCU that can inhabit this time period. Love or hate this film, it’s the time and struggles here of clear-cut good and evil that most effectively mold the Captain America we come to know in so many ways in later films, times when shades of moral gray come to the forefront. A highlight of this film to me is the military’s usage of Captain America as a bond-shilling morale booster. During the “Star Spangled Man” musical number, we are treated to a lively rendition of Captain America being used as propaganda. You can’t examine the character in light of his full history without seeing that much of his early days in print did exactly that. We get the iconic “Hitler punch”, as well, and in rapid succession, at that. The progressions of Captain America’s suits is well done as well, with the final suit he uses at the end being as close to perfect as I can imagine a real-world suit for the hero being.
The film doesn’t feel beholden to a love story, as many of these films tend to be, and that impressed me upon its release. Red Skull, looking like the comic come to life, is more one-dimensional than we expect villains now to be, but again, he fits the classic ‘evildoer for evil’s sake’ mold. Love it or hate it, that was how many Golden Age comics portrayed them, and so with that in mind, I found Weaving‘s Red Skull to be a major success. The film has a portion in the middle where things clip along at a rate that evoked to me the old wartime newsreels, and while that doesn’t leave much time for pathos, it does move the plot forward in a way that feels authentic to the time. There can’t be enough said about the music, as it really sells the film on the tone it’s going for; Alan Silvestri deserved any recognition he got for it. In the end, I think many today take issue with films that are as simplistic and wholesome as this tries to be. Modern storytelling endeavors to be more complicated with character motivations and plot, but I find it’s good to have a movie that is easy to watch and understand. Characters may feel less “realistic” upon examination, but it definitely puts a Golden Age Captain America on the screen, which is the point of this film. Nuance for the character comes later when he’s a man out of his own time in the Avengers films and his own later sequels, The Winter Soldier & Civil War.
Content-wise, this probably is the most wholesome of all Marvel movies. I’d say other than the scary visual of Red Skull, there is very little to keep families from watching this film. True, the power of the Tesseract used in weapons causes people to be vaporized, but it isn’t a gory image, even if it is shocking. Gun violence does feature in the film, but being set in World War II, doing anything else wouldn’t be accurate to that struggle at all. There is nothing to speak of in regards to sexual content, other than mild kissing and the sight of a shirtless Chris Evans; I spoiled that for you in the images above, so you’re ready to watch this film. Christian content isn’t explicitly there, but seeing Captain America willingly fight evil is a great example of giving of yourself for a greater good. Of most all heroes in films in the last few decades, he feels the most genuinely good of all, and he is an easy character to look to as a model of decency in indecent times. Of course, Jesus is the ultimate model for that, but there’s nothing wrong with admiring the qualities Steve Rogers shows throughout the film. In The Avengers, we get the great line about Steve’s belief in God, so we know that his moral center is rooted somewhere, likely his faith.
All in all, I really enjoy this film. I’d actually say it’s my most liked film of those Phase One solo films, and it is the one I come back to the most often. It may feel a little hokey, being set way back, but for me, it’s an enjoyable easy watch with a sense of fun and escapism that it doesn’t get full credit for. It’s a great film for all ages, and it leads right into the central conflict of The Avengers very well. Its biggest success (other than establishing a trilogy of Captain America films that are probably the best overall in quality and story arc) is that it makes the thought of a decades-old war hero joining a suited-up tech-industrialist, a demigod from another realm, a couple special-ops agents, and a scientist with very visible rage issues very believable and anticipated even. The epilogue scene is one of my favorite endings of any Marvel film, and while I won’t spoil it here, it’s beautifully done. Watch the after-credits sequence for the trailer for The Avengers, as after several MCU films, it’s amazing to think of how revelatory it all felt to think we could see so many different heroes sharing the screen. Little did we know what was all to follow and just how big it all could get!