Concluding the first round of solo films is Captain America: The First Avenger, which, like Thor, takes another sharp detour in style from its predecessors. In the first place, it’s a period piece, with the main action taking place during World War II, while in terms of tone it more takes its cue from the adventure serials of that era.
We open in the Arctic, where a drilling company has discovered a massive flying wing frozen in the ice (in a scene reminiscent of the sci-fi classic ‘The Thing From Another World’). We then flashback to 1942, where the soulless Johan Schmidt, head of the Nazi ‘deep-science’ organization Hydra is raiding a Norwegian village in search of the Tesseract: a glowing cube that he describes as “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.”
From there we meet an asthmatic, 90-pound kid from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers as he tries and fails for the fifth time to enlist in the Army. A short time later, at a movie theater, he tells off a loud-mouthed jerk for talking over a newsreel of the men fighting overseas. He takes a beating for that, but refuses to back down until his best friend, Bucky Barnes, steps in and sends the bully packing. Bucky, for his part, is about to ship out, and at the World Expo that evening Steve decides to try his luck at enlisting again. During that he catches the eye of Dr. Erskine; a German ex-patriot looking for candidates for the super-soldier program he is developing. He thinks Steve is the ideal choice because of his good heart, and because, “a weak man knows the value of strength.”
The experiment, overseen by the gruff Col. Phillips, mechanical genius Howard Stark (future father of Tony), and British intelligence agent Peggy Carter, is a success and Steve is transformed from a 90-pound shrimp to a strapping, six-foot-plus specimen of a man with superhuman strength, speed, and agility. But Erskine is killed and the lab wrecked by a Hydra agent. With the super-soldier program now dead, Steve is shifted to the USO where he’s christened ‘Captain America’ and used to sell war-bonds, until, while on tour in Italy, he learns that Bucky and many other troops were captured by Hydra (now split off into its own separate faction) and embarks on a daring, one-man rescue operation. Having impressed Phillips and discovered something of Hydra’s plans, Captain America is equipped with an indestructible shield of ‘vibranium’ and sent to hunt down and destroy the Hydra bases with the help of Bucky and the Howling Commandoes, while Schmidt, AKA the Red Skull, plots to use the Tesseract to conquer the world.
So, even from that brief summary you can see that the film covers a huge amount of ground, all the way from Steve trying to enlist through training, being turned into a super-soldier, in the USO, the rescue mission, and on raids with the commandoes, and that’s not even considering the villain plot. It’s not just that it’s a lot of ground to cover, but it’s a lot of different ground; he’s trying to get into the army, trying to keep up in training, trying to catch the Hydra agent, in the USO, trying to save his friend, all before he’s directly involved in the main plot of trying to stop Hydra.
This isn’t a major issue the way it was in Iron Man 2, because there is a constant through-line of Steve trying to serve his country and we don’t have a half-dozen subplots running around at the same time, but it means that, as the film goes on, characters and settings and sub-plots are replaced one after another in a sequence. Erskine is a major character for the first act, and only the first act, and the Howling Commandoes are important characters for the final act and only the final act. This also means that, by the time Captain America is in his uniform with his iconic circular shield, the film has to relegate most of his military career to a montage. There is enough material here for at least two or three whole films.
The result, I find, is that the film is a little draining and feels much longer than it is, and that is it’s chief flaw.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story by any means. In contrast to Thor and Iron Man, which were about protagonists who need to correct a flaw in their character, Captain America is about a good, heroic man stepping forth to meet a great threat. This makes it a fairly rare kind of film these days; a movie about a purely aspirational hero, someone whose story arc doesn’t revolve around him changing so much as simply overcoming the obstacles before him.
It works because Steve Rogers is an honestly inspiring hero: a thoroughly decent, honorable, courageous man, but not at all bland or irritating for it. The key factor in this is the early sequence with him before he receives the super-soldier serum, where we see him doggedly trying to do the right thing and fulfill his duty despite have no power to actually enact it. It doesn’t matter if he’s going to get beaten up for it, he’ll still tell off the loud-mouth for disrespecting the men serving overseas. It doesn’t matter how weak he is, he’s going to keep working at his training. Steve is the kind of person who stands by his principles regardless of what the likely outcome is going to be, and (as shown both in the training sequences and his fight with the loudmouth) he never gives up while he can still stand. Asked about his motives, he simply says, “I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from,” and “If you start running, they’ll never let you stop.”
Most importantly, when Phillips tosses a dummy grenade during the training, Steve instinctively jumps on top of it while everyone else ducks for cover. His first impulse is always to put himself on the line for the sake of others; to take the hit so that others don’t have to.
In other words, this is one film where the point isn’t that the protagonist changes, but that he doesn’t: Steve was already a hero at heart, but only lacked the strength to put his heroic instincts into action.
This ties into a theme of power; both Captain America and Red Skull desire power, but for different reasons. Red Skull lusts after power for its own sake: desiring to be a god among men. Steve Rogers, in the early stages, wants power in order to do his duty, to serve his country and protect people. The thesis, then, is that, as Erskine says of his serum, power only magnifies what is in a person’s heart, so that “good becomes great, bad becomes worse.” This, of course, fits pretty well with the World War II setting, when great nations fell into the hands of monsters like Hitler and Stalin, whose hatred and cruelty were consequently magnified by the power they wielded.
All this helps to make Steve a genuinely inspiring and likable character, especially when coupled with his easy-going, polite, chivalrous personality. He makes jokes in the face of danger and pain (as when, half-way through the procedure, he responds to an inquiry about how he’s holding up with “probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?”). He says ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ instinctively and hastily apologizes when he breaks things during the chase through the New York streets. When some jaded soldiers heckle his USO show, he doesn’t get angry with them, he just tries to find a way to connect.
He’s also charmingly chivalrous around women. When Bucky tries to show him the bright side his 4F status by pointing out that he’s about to become the last eligible bachelor in a city of three million women, Steve ruefully comments that he’d “settle for just one.” Later when Peggy asks why he’s never done any dancing, he tells her he’s been waiting for the right partner, while awkwardly trying to walk back referring to her as “a beautiful dame.”
Not to mention that the film goes out of its way to let us know that he’s not just a starry-eyed, idealistic hero; he’s very intelligent as well. This is neatly shown during the boot camp sequence where the DI offers to let anyone who brings him the flag at the top of a slippery pole. After everyone else tries and fails to climb it, Steve simply unhooks the pole from its base, showcasing his strategic mind (his intelligence plays a vital role in the epilogue, where he immediately guesses that something is wrong when he recognizes the baseball game on the radio).
But that doesn’t mean he’s boringly perfect either; he slips up from time to time, as when a blonde secretary maneuvers him into a kiss and he responds to Peggy’s jealousy by making a crack about her relationship with Stark (resulting in her giving his new Vibranium shield an impromptu test). He gets disheartened and down at times, he makes mistakes, and at one point even tries to get drunk only to find that his super physique makes that impossible.
There’s a great moment when he’s about to make a death-defying leap over a fiery gap and just before he jumps he gives a little shake of his head, like he can’t believe he’s about to try this. Little bits like that help to let us know that for all Steve’s inspiring courage and virtue, he’s still human, which only makes him all the more heroic (contrast this with, for instance Rey in The Last Jedi, who, in a crucial moment makes a weary joke before effortlessly lifting a huge pile of boulders with the most bored, disinterested look on her face, as though there was never a moment in which she even considered the idea that it might be a challenge for her).
So the film is very strong in its hero. How are the other characters?
Well, the villain is very straightforward; Red Skull is pretty much simply a monstrous egomaniac who wants to rule the world. Personally, I’m completely fine with that; he makes for an imposing adversary and a striking image, with his scarlet, grotesque face emerging from his jet-black uniform. His thorough ruthlessness is established right from the start, when he threatens to massacre the Norwegian village if the old man won’t give up the Tesseract, and then once he has it, he orders the massacre anyway. At the same time, he’s given a few moments of levity so that the film doesn’t become too dour every time he’s on screen, as when he hands Dr. Zola the keys to his gloriously exaggerated car with the command, “not a scratch, doctor; not a scratch.”
I do, however, wish that he’d been allowed a bit more room to show his cunning and strategic prowess; to be more the fiendish intellect to Steve’s plucky soldier. Again, though, this mostly comes down to how much the film tries to cram into its runtime. They easily could have gotten another film, or even an entire trilogy out of this set up, and it might have been better for all involved. But Red Skull is still a perfectly functional villain, acting as an excellent counterpoint to Captain America, and their final showdown is a spectacular duel of good and evil; one of the most satisfying duels of the series thus far (Loki is still the best villain by a considerable margin, but I think the final battle between Cap and Red Skull is the best showdown so far).
However, this brings us to what I find to be one of the more questionable decisions of the story; part way through the film, Red Skull breaks with the Nazis, killing several of his superiors and sets up Hydra as an independent force. What was the point of that? Why not simply have Red Skull ostensibly working for Hitler the whole time, with implications that he means to usurp him once his plans are ripe? Wouldn’t that better integrate the conflict of the story into the war as a whole, reinforcing the subtext that Captain America represents all the soldiers who fought and gave their lives to stop Hitler? I suppose it gives Hydra more room to maneuver, but apart from the one scene where Schmidt kills his overseers, it really doesn’t factor in at all, except to raise the question of how he’s able to operate so many different facilities in Nazi-held territory without Hitler shutting them down and taking the tech for himself (yes, they’re guarded by Hydra tech, but as we see from the film that doesn’t make them invincible even to conventional weapons). It feels to me like an unnecessary story complication that impedes the emotional impact by both raising more questions and damaging the connection we have to the real-life events.
As for the supporting cast, they’re unfortunately mostly under used. The Howling Commandoes have even less development and screen time than the Warriors Three in Thor, to the point where I don’t think we even learn their names, much less get a sense of their individual gimmicks or personalities. One or two of them get a few good moments (like Gabe Jones explaining why he speaks French and German), but that’s about it.
Arnim Zola, as the secondary villain, is rather amusing in his soulless, yet completely out-of-his depth personality. He’s evil, but he’s also a portly scientist in the middle of a warzone, and half the time he’s clearly just shy of terrified, leading to an especially good scene where Phillips interrogates him. Phillips himself is one of the better supporting cast members, mostly due to Tommy Lee Jones’ effortless masculine charisma and deadpan lines (“If you have something to say, now is a perfect time to keep it to yourself”). Erskine is a likable personality as well, with his friendly, fatherly manner. There is a great scene where he and Steve discuss why Steve was chosen over a glass of schnapps (which he abruptly remembers that Steve can’t have since he’s on a fluid fast to prepare for the procedure, and proceeds to drink most of it himself since “I don’t have procedure tomorrow”). And Howard Stark channels some of Tony’s charm, though in a more integrated and mature style, as when he easily shrugs off a failed hover-car demonstration.
The two most important supporting characters are Peggy Carter and Bucky. Peggy is…okay. She’s tough, feminine, and competent, and though the film tries a little too hard to make her a ‘strong female character’ (I’m sorry, but her laying out a hulking soldier who makes a crude pass at her is the most unrealistic thing in the film). She mostly alternates between gun-toting heroics and giving Steve pep talks. Personally, I think it would have been preferable if they’d downplayed her action-fighting credentials and emphasized the intelligence gathering side of her, giving her more of her own set of abilities and purpose rather than one more person who can pick up a gun and shoot. That I think would have felt more appropriate to the time period – more in the style of a real ‘40s heroine – and just more interesting in general. Perhaps we could have her running spy missions parallel to Steve’s commando raids, gathering the intel that points him in the right direction. Then she could be captured by Red Skull and rescued by Captain America, adding more urgency to the climax.
As it is, her romance with Steve is fine; neither as weighty as Tony and Pepper, nor as sweet as Thor and Jane, but it has its moments, with her serving as a worldly-wise inspiration for his heroics, rather like a typical Frank Capra heroine, come to think of it. She props him up when he’s down, advises him, and generally acts as a strong support and helper, though the script doesn’t really give him much chance to return the favor, making their relationship feel a less balanced than the other two (e.g. with Thor and Jane, he makes a point of getting her notebook back after she took a risk driving him out to the SHIELD base, so that they each do something for the other. Cap never really gets to do anything for Peggy except tackle her out of the way of a speeding car, which she yells at him for because she was trying to shoot the driver). It’s very obvious why she’s attracted to him, and vice versa, but there could have been more give-and-take between them. The best part of the romance is their final exchange as he’s piloting the Hydra plane into the ocean; both know this is the last time they’ll be speaking to each other, but they determinedly act as if it weren’t.
As for Bucky, he’s probably the single strongest character in the film after Steve. Their friendship feels very real, with an easy back and forth, shared jokes, and real, though unspoken affection and brotherly love. When they say good-bye before Bucky is shipped out, they’re joking and insulting each other even as they hug for possibly the last time. It is the possibility saving Bucky that motivates Steve to finally break ranks and risk everything on his rescue mission, and it’s Bucky who leads the cheer for “Captain America” after it’s over. The friendship is a key component of the film, and Bucky’s death is very affecting.
The film deliberately tries to invoke the style of the adventure film serials of the 1940s (which included one for Captain America, though oddly enough not involving the war at all): the villain with a world-threatening artifact; the stalwart, all-American hero out to recover said artifact; the tough, plucky heroine; the loyal best friend; the imaginative super-tech. It even has an episodic plot and a few points that could serve as end-of-chapter cliffhangers (“Will Captain America make the jump over certain death?”), and Red Skull’s appearance is somewhat reminiscent of the titular villain of The Crimson Ghost. This I credit to director Joe Johnston, who also directed The Rocketeer, another stylish serial-inspired period film. As a fan of classic serials, I love this style, and actually wish they’d gone even further with it by, again, letting Cap rescue Peggy at some point, or putting our heroes in a fiendish death trap (though I suppose the exploding Hydra base serves much the same purpose).
Meanwhile, the film also serves as a kind of tour of the MCU up to this point, with the plot blending Howard Stark’s technical knowhow and futurism, Norse mythology (which ties nicely in with the fact that the Nazis truly did try to use it) with references to Odin and Yggdrasil, and of course the super-soldier serum itself, with the efforts to recreate it already beginning which will one day lead to the Hulk. Since this is the final film before the big team-up in The Avengers, this was a very smart move, especially as it all feels pretty seamless, showing that these elements can indeed work together.
On the other hand, I never liked the film’s origin for the ‘Captain America’ moniker, with him being shuffled into the USO as a mascot. That, to me, feels a bit too much like they were making fun of him, not to mention that the sequence disrupts the flow of the narrative by abruptly taking him out of the Army after all his work to get into it. Besides which, I don’t buy the idea that Phillips can’t think of anything to do with a single super soldier, even if its just putting him back in uniform and having him fight on the frontlines. While I appreciate them getting in the classic comic cover of Cap punching out Hitler (and recreating it on stage), I’d much rather they found a more dignified and structurally smooth way to give him the shield and costume.
For instance, the Army could give him a nominal command, with a version of the costume and shield as a publicity stunt, only to try to keep him out of any real combat until he forced the issue. That would give us much the same progression without the disruption or questionable taste, while paralleling the real-life experience of several celebrities when they tried to enlist (Jimmy Stewart comes to mind).
I also wish that Cap had been allowed to express more patriotic sentiment, perhaps getting a scene where he describes what America means to him (possibly a version of Mark Twain’s “No, you move” quote). He’s not un-patriotic by any means, but the film doesn’t give him the chance to talk specifically about his love for his country at any point. That said, there is an almost-perfect exchange during the final battle, where Red Skull declares that there “are no flags” in the future, to which Cap answers, “Not my future!”
Finally, given how vital it is that Cap sacrifices himself in the end, I can’t help wondering whether they could have set it up better. I couldn’t help wondering why he couldn’t just jam the controls forward and bale. A brief line or bit of direction could have fixed that.
However, all that being said, I do appreciate that, for all the ground the film has to cover, they still take the time for quiet, thoughtful scenes, like when Erskine describes how Hitler came to take over Germany (“people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own”), or when Steve tries to drown his sorrows in a bombed-out pub following Bucky’s death. And I like that, despite the long, episodic story, they still remember to link the end to the beginning, such as when Steve gives Red Skull the same defiant taunt that he gave the loudmouth in the theater (“I could do this all day”).
All in all, Captain America: The First Avenger is an uneven, but fairly strong entry in the burgeoning MCU. It struggles with too much story to cover and several major missteps, but is carried on the strength of a genuine inspirational hero and an (almost) unabashed adventure style.
Now that all the pieces are in place, for better or worse, the real question is whether they can all come together in a satisfying whole.