Captain America: The First Avenger brought honor back to Marvel’s greatest symbol of freedom. As the fifth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger explored the history of the MCU in World War II. Captain America is one of the oldest superheroes created before Marvel comics even existed. Joe Simon & Jack Kirby created Captain America in 1942 for Timely comics as a symbol to help the war effort. Hence Cap punching Adolf Hitler on the iconic cover of Captain America Comics #1. Captain America was very popular in the Golden Age, but he was understandably phased out when the war ended. It wasn’t until 1964 that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby made the clever decision to reintroduce Cap in The Avengers #4 as a man out of time.
Apart from film serials, the Silver Age gave Captain America a newfound popularity that extended to some of Marvel’s earliest media appearances. Of course he appeared in several animated shows and some truly terrible live-action movies. After the lousy low budget 1990 Captain America, another movie was thankfully stalled. Rather than foolishly sell their rights, Marvel Studios and producer Kevin Feige decided to make the movie themselves. Cap was the last all important member of the Avengers in need of a solo outing. Period entertainment master Joe Johnston was chosen as director and I couldn’t have been more excited for the film. Captain America was a genuine icon that Marvel and America needed at the time…
Captain America: The First Avenger was appropriately released in July when I was 16 years old. Being strongly patriotic, I’d been a fan of Captain America for many years. I knew one day Marvel would have to make a serious blockbuster adaptation. No matter how old fashioned or American he was. The subtitle was likely chosen for one of three reasons. The Avengers was only a year away, so The First Avenger made it more clear to non-fans. There was already a movie called Captain America, so the subtitle distinguished it better. Of course the more political reason was the fact that Marvel needed the movie to appeal to the international market, so the choice of title made it seem more universal. Regardless of title, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were both moderate successes in 2011. Toy shields were everywhere and the video game barely seemed to connect with the movie anymore. The Marvel One-Shot was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer. It’s main goal was showing Agent Phil Coulson as a fighter.
Don’t expect much of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The First Avenger, since almost the entire movie takes place in the 1940’s. The original goal was to get Cap to the present half way through the picture, but how could they pass up the chance to make a period piece. Albeit one with a science fiction edge. After 4 MCU movies worth of build up, Captain America finally appears in all his glory. A lot of American actors were under consideration, but Marvel went with the very unexpected choice of Chris Evans. Apart from his several other comic book movie roles, Evans was most known for playing fellow Marvel superhero Human Torch in Fantastic Four. I was skeptical about the choice, but I slowly realized Evans was more than capable of bringing another Marvel hero to life. The opening features a team of scientists discovering Cap’s shield frozen in ice. Then a 1942 Nazi invasion in Norway drops us right in the middle of World War II. Johnston previously directed The Rocketeer, so he already had plenty of experience with a pulp superhero fighting Nazis.
He just wanted to respect real life soldiers by leaving Hitler off-screen and instead focusing on the fictional terrorist organization Hydra. They’re just clad in black uniforms instead of the comic accurate green & yellow. The Nazi science division is lead by Johann Schmidt. Captain America’s archenemy has always been the Red Skull. So it was necessary for him to be the first antagonist Cap faces. It was a villainous role that only “King of the nerds” Hugo Weaving could pull off. Weaving manages a subtle German accent and gives Schmidt a megalomaniacal obsession with myth. In a direct nod to Thor, Schmidt seeks the blue Tesseract from Odin’s treasure room in Norway. The cosmic cube seen in the after-credit scene becomes a very important McGuffin. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, New York, the skinny Steve Rogers desperately tries to serve his country by enlisting in the Army. The CGI used to digitally reduce Chris Evans is just as remarkable as it was back then.
Steve’s natural weaknesses give him a fighting spirit. He’s just a good man that wants to do the right thing. Even when bullies pick on him, Steve uses a trash can lid as a shield and says “I can do this all day.” Back in the Golden Age, almost every superhero needed a goofy kid sidekick. Captain America’s longtime sidekick has always been Bucky Barnes. Instead of a kid, James Buchanan Barnes is played with confidence by the adult Sebastian Stan. His strong brotherly friendship with Steve has a far more interesting dynamic that way. Before Bucky gets shipped out, they attend a future technology exhibition that’s a clear precursor to the Stark Expo. Right down to Howard Stark presenting a faulty flying car. Dominic Cooper affectively plays a young Howard very similar to his future son Tony Stark. They’re both brilliant inventors who love women. The exhibition also features the intriguing easter egg of original Golden Age Human Torch Jim Hammond. Just don’t expect a Namor the Sub-Mariner cameo.
Steve tries once again to enlist, but his spirit instead captures the attention of Abraham Erskine. The German scientist who gives Steve the serum that turns him into a Super Soldier. Stanley Tucci turns Erskine into a genuine friend for Steve who sees him as the perfect candidate. Erskine was also reluctantly responsible for turning Schmidt into the super strong Red Skull. Schmidt is simply a power hungry villain who wants world domination. He eventually distances himself from Hitler with a “Hail Hydra” salute. Toby Jones plays Schmidt’s Nazi scientist right hand Arnim Zola. Don’t expect a robot body just yet, since Zola is only around to synthesize the Tesseract’s energy to give Hydra high tech laser weapons. Basic training is where we meet the rest of Captain America’s supporting cast. Tommy Lee Jones is the biggest comic relief as snarky war General Chester Phillips. He’s part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. predating Strategic Scientific Reserve that also includes British officer Peggy Carter. Hayley Atwell exploded in popularity as classic beauty, confidant soldier, and love interest Peggy Carter. Cap has had many lady loves over the years, but Steve’s budding romance with Peggy is a major highlight.
Steve continues to prove himself until his procedure with the S.S.R. Howard Stark is of course present as Erskine injects the serum and a pod painfully transforms Steve into a muscular adonis. Like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans really earned his shirtless scene and a humorous peck touch from Atwell. Erskine is tragically killed by a Hydra spy and the serum is lost when Steve gives chase. The film perfectly translates Captain America’s peak superhuman athleticism. Rather than rot in a lab as the Army’s sole Super Soldier, a promoter turns Captain America into a propaganda symbol. It’s an extremely clever way to pay tribute to the original comics. Steve is dressed in his trademark red, white, and blue spandex complete with original triangular Shield. The fun sequence has Steve selling war bonds with Star-Spangled dancers, performing in war serials, socking a Hitler actor on the jaw, and even releasing his own comic book. All set to the era appropriate original song “Star Spangled Man.”
Actual soldiers don’t like Cap much and Steve draws himself as a performing monkey. A nod to his comic routes as an artist. Steve learns about Bucky’s MIA unit and has Peggy and Howard fly him to their location. Now dressed in a brown jacket and tin helmet from one of his dancers. Cap becomes a genuine hero by infiltrating the Hydra base and saving a ragtag group of soldiers that will become the famous Howling Commandos. The most well known member being Neal McDonough as the mustachioed bowler hat wearing Dum Dum Dugan. The rest of the team consists of the African American Gabe Jones, Asian Jim Morita, British James Montgomery Falsworth, and French Jacques Dernier. The First Avenger is surprisingly international for an American film. Steve also saves Bucky, who seems to have been experimented on. As the base explodes, Captain America and Red Skull have their first confrontation that ends in Schmidt peeling off his face to finally reveal the red skull underneath. Makeup and CGI turn the Red Skull into a menacing figure who’s not too scary for the kids.
The rescue earns Cap the respect he deserves and he ditches one of his promotional appearances. One attended by Stan Lee’s cameo as an elderly general. Steve recruits the Howling Commandos to be part of his unit and Bucky happily agrees to be his partner. Peggy also shows up in a stunning dress to offer Steve a dance, but it’s ruined when Natalie Dormer comes onto him. Steve gets his official costume from Stark, along with a circular shield made out of pure vibration absorbent Vibranium. The signature weapon was achieved through lightweight metal and CGI whenever Captain America throws his mighty shield. All of those who have chose to oppose his shield must yield when Steve suits up in his military appropriate costume. The suit is blue padding with a helmet made to look like a mask, red suspenders, brown gloves, boots, wings painted on the side, and his trademark star logo. He also carries a gun since this is war. Though he’s lead to the fight and the duel is due, the red & the white & the blue will come through in a montage of Captain America and his troops dispatching several Hydra soldiers.
Much to the annoyance of the Red Skull who ultimately plans to destroy the United States with his technology. The action makes great use of planes, trains, automobiles, and motorcycles. Cap and Bucky gain a major advantage by capturing Dr. Zola on a high speed train. Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of Bucky as the soldier falls to his apparent death in the winter setting. After a pep talk from Peggy, Captain America rides into the Hydra base on a swell tactical motorcycle. Something he often uses in the comics or that terrible 70’s TV movie. Hydra soldiers capture Steve and Schmidt despises his Super Soldier status. As the rest of the soldiers metaphorically cut off the heads of Hydra, Cap continues to pursue the Red Skull when he boards a plane. General Phillips and Peggy give Steve a lift in Schmidt’s Nazi automobile. Peggy fortunately plants a genuinely sweet kiss on Steve before he meets his destiny.
The plane contains manned missiles headed to the U.S. Cap takes care of most of the missiles, but still needs to engage in a final fight with Red Skull. The battle of good vs. evil ends when the Red Skull is suddenly transported through the Tesseract to who knows where. We all knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t expecting Steve’s icy farewell to Peggy to be so emotional. Victory is declared and Captain America is remembered as a hero. Then Steve wakes up in a suspicious 1940’s hospital room. His suspicion is proven right when he finds himself in the middle of 2011 Time Square. In the comics, the timeframe of Cap being unfrozen is from the 40’s to the 60’s. The modern day movies see Cap wake up more than 70 years in the future. None other than Nick Fury breaks the news to Steve, but all he can think about is his date with Peggy. Nick Fury also appears with Steve in the after-credits scene which is literally a trailer for The Avengers. Something that was seriously awesome the first time I saw it. The rest of Captain America: The First Avenger is every bit the exciting war picture heroes are made for.
Followed by: Captain America: The Winter Soldier