MCU Rewind: Part War Movie, Part Homage, ‘First Avenger’ Is A Superhero Classic
In 2011, the modern superhero genre turned a decade-old, and it had been 33 years since Christopher Reeve donned the tights and cape to play Superman. By this point in the development of the genre, some believed that there was just no place for morally-straightforward heroes. The whole point of the superhero film was to see these gods made real, and that meant making them flawed. Zach Snyder’s major films are, famously, drawn from comic book source material. Like many fans of the medium, he prefers the grittier comic books featuring morally gray heroes, violence, and sex. When promoting his 2008 take on The Watchmen he cited “a Captain America” movie as the prime example of the kind of comic book film the world didn’t need or want. Fans of irony will appreciate how Snyder’s legacy in superhero films compares to the legacy of the Joe Johnston-directed Captain America: First Avenger. It may not have made us believe a man could fly, but it did make us believe that a man from the 1940s could be truly good.
To understand this movie, we have to go back in time ourselves. No, not to December 1940 when the first issue of Captain America hit the newsstands. Not even back to the 1960s when Marvel resurrected the character for inclusion in their new superhero team-up book. It’s not Cap’s history we should focus on, but rather the history around Joe Johnston the director. He started his career working for George Lucas as a concept artist on the first Star Wars film. He then went on to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of Lucas’s Indiana Jones stories. Both of these films, however, were inspired by old-school serials that played in movie houses in the early 20th century. These serials were over-the-top adventure tales. Johnston was too young to see these serials as they were made, but he cut his teeth professionally working on projects inspired by them. (His film The Rocketeer also is heavily inspired by these films, a comic book movie without a comic book.) Captain America: First Avenger is meant to have that same quality, making the entire film something of an homage to Lucas and Spielberg’s homage. One might think that guarantees the film will feel like a bad copy of something good, but the result is the opposite.
Captain America’s origin is indelibly tied in with World War II, so it makes sense that this first movie is a “prequel” of sorts to the MCU as developed over the previous four movies. It also helped because, at the time of its release, America wasn’t a very patriotic place. We were ten years past the tragic attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania in 2001. The patriotic upswell of emotion that followed abated by then, replaced with a deep cynicism for the government and the sense that we were going to be at war forever. The idea of a superhero with a flag on his chest feels, as mentioned in the following MCU film, a little old-fashioned. However, Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely found a way to make a nostalgic movie for a man and time that never actually existed. Instead of a flawed, brooding savior, what the MCU needed was a morally pure kid from Brooklyn who could inspire greatness in others.
First Avenger starts off differently than other MCU films, essentially showing the end of the movie from its first scenes. There is a storytelling adage that says the best place to start a tale is at the beginning. However, in this case, starting how they do makes sense. Comics fans know that by the end of this film, Cap will be frozen in ice only to be found just as the world starts needing heroes again. This opening scene makes sure those who weren’t already aware know this, too. Opening this way allowed the movie to not be about “what is going to happen?” but rather about “how did this happen?” It’s a smart choice, because it shifts the focus directly onto the characters and their journeys. Even though much of the film hearkens back to the style of films from the “golden age” of cinema, it employs modern storytelling methods to create something new. The flashback framing set up by this opening scene helps create the illusion of going back in time.
The first scene set during the 1940s is not one of our hero but rather our villains. David Bradley, Filch from Harry Potter and the wicked Lord Frey from Game of Thrones, appears as the Norwegian keeper of the film’s macguffin, the Tesseract. Today we know it contains the Space Stone, but originally this device was meant to mimic the Cosmic Cube from the comics. Either way, it was “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” at some point before being left on Earth. Hugo Weaving appears as Johann Schmidt but not yet as the “Red Skull.” In order to spare the actor some time in the make-up chair, Schmidt wears Weaving’s face until he first comes face-to-face with Cap. Speaking of retcons, the film changes the Skull’s origins making him the first result of the serum that would make Steve Rogers into a super-soldier. Critics of this film often point to Weaving’s portrayal and how the Skull was written in general. While definitely not as rich a villain as Loki or even Emil Blonsky, this isn’t bad writing but part of the homage.
As “Schmidt,” the character is a little more grounded. He’s cruel, plainly evil, and hell-bent on power and domination because the story demands it. Still, it’s an understated performance, at least until Schmidt fully gives way to the Red Skull. After this change, the only thing stopping Weaving from twirling his mustache as he delivers his lines is that the Red Skull can’t grow hair. In this respect, the Red Skull is exactly the sort of villain the hero of one of those old-school serials would face. The inclusion of Toby Jones as the reticent Dr. Arnim Zola is meant to underscore how over-the-top insane the Skull’s own people think he is. When Dr. Erskine (#TucciGang) describes Schmidt to a pre-transformation Steve Rogers, the montage Johnston plays over his words are evocative of the films of the time. He also abandons the cause of the Nazis in favor of Hydra. While it’s always entertaining to see Nazis getting their asses kicked, making Schmidt part of a different, parallel organization is a good call. At the very least, it means that the film doesn’t have to set decorate with lots of Nazi regalia.
With a character named “Captain America,” it’s safe to assume that, one way or the other, the movie would be political. The characters origins are deeply political, as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby wanted to make damn sure that kids in the U.S. saw Adolf Hitler as a villain. Before the U.S. entered World War II, Nazis were not the uber-villains they’ve become since their defeat. Yet, First Avenger shies away from politics, even those relevant to its setting and storyline. For example, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter encounter misogyny a few times in the film and makes a subtle reference to her struggle as a competent woman in a man’s military. Yet, the issue isn’t explored in any real depth, and Peggy’s boss Col. Phillips, played by Tommy Lee Jones, recognizes her worth and her merit soon enough. Similarly, the multi-racial coalition that makes up Cap’s Howling Commandos is presented as if it wouldn’t have been a rarity, even in the war. Despite what some critics say, this is a smart move.
Any movie that includes a truthful look at the misogyny and racism in the past, even during events like World War II where we’re taught the U.S. had the moral high ground, is playing with fire. Done right, the entire film becomes about these injustices because, no matter the conflict in the story, those problems are real and still exist. Done wrong, the entire film because a kind of offensive farce that treads into a storyline it shouldn’t have. Hell, if they were going for an accurate depiction of the time, everyone should be smoking and half-in-the-bag by dinner. This version of 1940s America is just as much a part of the fantastical mythology of the MCU as super-soldier serum or Cap’s physics-defying shield. Because as Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine tells a digitally-shrunken Chris Evans as Steve Rogers before his Cap-ification, what makes Rogers special is that he’s a good man.
If Steve Rogers were named Sefanie, there is no doubt that countless critics would label the character as “a Mary Sue.” This term is so misused that the incorrect definition is now the more common meaning. However, when we meet Steve Rogers, he’s a fully-formed character that will go through no emotional changes throughout the film. The most apt comparison to this version of the character is Christopher Reeve’s Superman from the eponymous 1978 film by Richard Donner. He’s just good from start to finish. However, unlike Kal-El, Steve Rogers spends most of his life as a scrawny, sickly kid who gets his world rocked by bullies all the time. It’s no wonder he hates them so much. This Captain America isn’t so much a super-patriot but rather a person who wants to save lives because it’s his duty as a mostly able-bodied human being.
In terms of risk, the digitally scrawny Steve Rogers was a big one. Watching the film this time around, I definitely noticed moments where it crossed into the uncanny valley. Yet, for the most part it works thanks to the parts of Chris Evans that are left. He is able to play meek and weak Steve with such earnestness, that you can’t help but fall for him like Peggy does. All of our MCU protagonists thus far, including Edward Norton’s take on Bruce Banner, had some arrogance to them. They were all reactive, often only responding when provoked by the antagonist. What makes Cap different is that he’s proactive, taking the fight the bad guys first. He’s not looking for a fight like Thor or lashing out like the Hulk. Steve Rogers is an honest-to-goodness hero out there fighting because he’s the only one who can. Yes, his ultimate fate in this movie is to make “the sacrifice play,” but his whole life has been a sacrifice.
Take the whole interlude where Steve Rogers is assigned to the war bond effort. Dressed in a very 1940s-looking Captain America costume, he is, as Col. Phillips puts it, “a chorus girl.” He doesn’t sing or dance, but he hawks bonds, punches a fake Hitler, and holds a motorcycle with two actual chorus girls over his head. There’s an argument to be made that this is a detour the movie needn’t have made. Yet, it’s both good for a laugh and works as homage to those kind of productions. Movies in the 1940s often had ostentatious musical numbers. The whole sequence is pure aesthetics, and it serves to add some tension to Rogers’s arc. He’s not enjoying this assignment, but his sense of duty compels him to do it. Besides, every bond sold is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun! Still, this bit does serve to underscore how Captain America is a big joke to the people actually fighting the war. Which makes his eventual triumph at the end of the second act all the sweeter.
When Captain America marches the rescued members of the 107th Infantry into the camp, with full fanfare, it’s an applause-worthy moment. I saw this movie on the Sunday of its opening weekend. Typically, most of the audiences who like to clap and cheer at movies see them earlier in the weekend. Yet, the theater broke out into applause at that scene, and someone who may or may not be your humble correspondent shouted at the screen, “Yeah, Cap!” What makes this scene work is not that Cap rescued these soldiers. It’s that he’s finally being seen as the hero that we knew he was since his first scene. In a way, it’s a shame this moment couldn’t have been saved for the third act. Because this really feels like the climax of the story, particularly because of what comes next. As mentioned when we rewatched Thor, the rumors of the MCU’s “third act problem” were born in 2011.
When Steve Rogers finally becomes Captain America, like for real, we are then treated to a montage of his battle against Hydra. We get snippets of scene that suggest epic battles and strong bonding between these comrades-in-arms. Perhaps its the right choice, because it makes audiences want to see more of that story (even though that’s not really the story we get). While it could all be theater in advance of Endgame, Chris Evans is behaving like he is done playing the role of Captain America. Because Cap is the MCU’s purest hero, this is devastating news. Especially in today’s sociopolitical climate, people believe that a hero wearing the American flag who doesn’t ask for permission to fight for what’s right is something we still desperately need. One way Chris Evans can have his cake and we can have our Cap is to create an animated series for Disney+, set in the MCU about this time in Cap’s career. A show like The Clone Wars was for Star Wars. But, I digress.
Unfortunately, the first time we see the Howling Commandos and Cap in action is when Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan, is killed. Frankly, this feels like it happens a bit too early in the film, too. Cap doesn’t need more motivation to take down Hydra, so losing his best friend at this point seems unnecessary. Really, the only story work it does is set up Steve to use Peggy’s words against her about respecting Bucky’s choice to lay down his life later in the film. The aftermath also pays off Zola’s hesitation and fear in his scenes with Red Skull. Later films and TV appearances may reinforce the idea that he’s a true-believer in Hydra, but he’s not going to die for that red-faced madman. The entire third act feels rushed (save for the scene where Cap gets his shield and makes out with Natalie Dormer’s grateful WAC troop).
Part of the reason why these sequences are rushed, I think, is because this is where the film turns into a real war movie. If Hydra were using bullets instead of bloodless, vaporizing weapons those battle sequences would be more horrific than classic war movie scenes. Also, it’s no accident that the Hydra troops are dressed in head-to-toe black leather. Their costumes, like that of the Star Wars Stormtrooper, are meant to help you forget that there are people inside of them. Cap and the Howling Commandos rack up a higher body count than John Wick. However, once Cap boards the Red Skull’s plane — an uber-version of the Flying Wing from Raiders — the movie feels like its back where it wants to be.
For example, during that sequence one of the Hydra dive-bombers launch their little plane and Cap goes with him. It’s total schmuck-bait, because we know that Cap will survive it and get back on the plane somehow. Even if you’re not thinking ahead like that while watching the film, the obvious shot of his shield being left behind let’s you know what’s coming. Nonetheless, every time I see it I feel a flash of panic for him in spite of myself. Just like horror fans tell their heroes not to “go in there,” I worry for a second about how Cap will get back to the plane in time. Despite the flaws in the execution of the third act, there is something to love in every second of this movie. (And nothing they do is as silly as reversing the Earth’s rotation to travel back in time.)
The First Avenger is a classic in both the MCU canon and the superhero genre because it is one of the few pictures that is successfully able to present a perfect hero. Superhero stories are not known for their true-to-life depictions of real-world problems. The World War II of this movie is not the one we know from real life, how could it be? What hero alive at that time could have done anything other than stop the Holocaust? This movie does what Inglorious Basterds did in creating a kind of alternate-universe World War II. Unlike that movie, however, First Avenger isn’t a movie about the war just a movie that uses the war as a setting. The film is really about how the pure-of-heart can prevail if they don’t quit and trust those they care about. Steve Rogers is the perfect hero because he doesn’t run from a fight, even those fights he knows he can’t win. (Though, he was certainly going to run when at the Stark Expo when he thought the military police was on to him!) But Cap can win, which is the point of that battle montage. We are supposed to see that, to paraphrase T-Pain, all Cap does is win, win, win, no matter what. This is the purpose of Bucky’s death, so show us Cap taking his first real loss.
The final battle between the Red Skull and Cap is understated, almost to the point of being forgettable. Though, in keeping with the style of the film, it is exactly the sort of final fight a serial or golden age movie would have included. Cap doesn’t even land the killing blow, however, as the Tesseract teleports the Red Skull out of the consciousness of the MCU. It’s clear they didn’t outright kill him in case they wanted to use him again, though when he reappeared it was not as viewers expected. Part of the reason this final confrontation doesn’t work so well is that we know how it ends. Again, what’s interesting to us as the audience are the decisions that led to that result. This is something the film does incredibly well.
We see Peggy Carter getting emotional, the first time for this character and something that women of all generations know can work against them in a professional setting. Whether it was in the script or part of the direction, the choice to have Col. Phillips silently clear the room so Peggy and Steve can have privacy is lovely. The substance of their conversation, planning a date they know Steve won’t be able to keep, is far more bittersweet than any professions of undying love. In a movie with not a lot of subtlety, this is an excellent use of it. When Steve’s transmission cuts off, we feel the pain Peggy does, even though we know Cap’s story isn’t done yet. Through the use of another montage, we see how Cap becomes a legend that gets lost in the larger victory of the end of the war.
The post-credits scene for this movie is a straight-up trailer for Avengers, but the final scenes of the movie feel more like a post-credits scene. After holding on a black screen for a few seconds, we hear the sound of old-timey baseball on the radio. It’s a game Steve Rogers remembers, thereby undoing the elaborate ruse that S.H.I.E.L.D. planned to slowly reveal to Cap he’d been on ice for seven decades. Katherine Press playing a S.H.I.E.L.D. nurse walks in to greet Rogers (but it should have been Scarlett Johansson as Natasha), but it all goes awry. Cap bursts out of custody and into the streets of New York, but not the city as he remembers it. The ending line, where Steve laments his missed “date” with Peggy, is a great one, setting up the mental space Cap occupies in the next film.
In a way, First Avenger is the MCU film with the most “set-up” in it, but it still works on its own. It’s a war movie and an homage to the sorts of stories told on the big screen in a different time. Yet, it maintains a modern sensibility both in how it shapes its story and the real-world details of 1940s’ America that it ignores. Like all comic book stories this is a myth, telling the story about a man who had nothing but an immutable sense of duty and morals. If only the people who are given incredible power all had such sensibilities. Captain America is the ultimate Boy Scout and a person whose flaws are simply that “he cares too much.” Even though people believed that audiences had outgrown such a hero, especially one so indelibly tied to “America,” Johnston, Evans, Markus, and McFeely show us that this was actually the sort of hero we’d been waiting for the whole time.
With the next film, Marvel Studios closes out their Phase 1 by realizing the dream that may thought they’d never get to: assembling the Avengers. The attitude towards the film was one of cautious optimism. However, I figured that despite the success of the MCU thus far, there was no way this film wouldn’t be a total mess. There were too many characters with too many disparate storylines to do an effective team-up film. I still planned to see it opening weekend. I figured that the movie would be a watchable disaster, and by supporting it, it would help Marvel Studios make a second one where they could get it right. It turns out that I should have taken Peggy Carter’s advice to Col. Phillips and had a little faith.