Despite having the word “first” in its subtitle, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is actually the last of the pre-Avengers setup movies. Captain America is the first Avenger chronologically speaking — although really, having been worshipped by the Vikings, Thor predates pretty much everyone — but he’s the last member of this Avengers team we’ll meet on screen.
Most of the events of this movie take place in the 1940s just after the United States’ entry into World War II. We meet the weakling Steve Rogers, who wanted nothing more than to serve his country but couldn’t because his small body betrayed him. (The puny Chris Evans special effects are amazing! How’d they do that? Here’s how.) Rogers’ determination to join the service catches the attention of Dr. Erskine, a scientist who’s working on a top secret super soldier serum project. Steve becomes the pilot subject for Erskine’s experiment and emerges from it with superhuman powers, which he immediately puts to good use chasing down an assassin who’s been sent in by the Germans to take out Dr. Erskine. This is one of the most entertaining discovery-of-powers sequences in the Marvel movieverse, almost up there with the first Spider-Man movie.
Denied the chance to go into active battle after Dr. Erskine’s death, Steve, in his new identity as Captain America, becomes a sort of mascot for the military. He travels around selling bonds and performing in a live stage show in which he punches out an actor playing Hitler — a reference to the cover of the very first Captain America comic book from 1941. Captain America Comics #1 came out about a year before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans were still opposed to the idea of entering the war. Joe Simon has said he and Jack Kirby conceived of Cap partly as a political statement regarding their feelings on the subject. (Michael Chabon draws on this story for inspiration in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is worth reading whether or not you’re a comic book fan — it’s a brilliant book.)
I really like that they decided to go the WWII flashback route and show Cap’s origins. This is a compelling story and it’s used to full effect in the film to show us everything that makes Steve such a special guy. Thor started out powerful and had to learn humility before he could become truly heroic; Steve Rogers earns his power by being noble almost to a fault. As Dr. Erskine tells Steve in the movie, he’s “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
The “goodness” which is Captain America’s most outstanding quality makes him one of Marvel’s most appealing characters, in my opinion, but also one of the most difficult to portray. It’s just a fact that in fiction, the evil/morally grey characters are often more interesting than the pillars of virtue. Look no further than X-Men: First Class for an example: Magneto blows everyone else out of the water. You can get around this “good = boring” problem by giving your shining hero a good enough problem to deal with. In Cap’s case, sometimes his solid character and strong principles become his problem; for example, Marvel’s Civil War storyline saw his belief in civil liberties lead him to take such a strong stand against the Superhuman Registration Act that he ended up in jail (and also dead, sort of). This is all fitting when you consider the character’s origin as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s statement against American hesitance to get involved in Europe’s problems. In the case of Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s problem is his desire to prove himself in an actual combat situation and to eliminate Dr. Erskine’s big mistake, the Red Skull. (By the end of the movie, his problem will be overcoming the effects of his 70-year nap … but that’s a topic for another film.)
Chris Evans, back in the Marvel Universe post-Fantastic Four, is excellent as Steve Rogers. I’m not sure how he manages to be so good as both the egotistical playboy Johnny Storm and the unfailingly polite and noble Captain America. Maybe he’s just likable. Whatever it is, I’m glad they found him for this role; I had a lot of trouble imagining who on earth could convincingly play Cap.
The rest of the cast is also great: Colonel Phillips is an ideal Tommy Lee Jones role, and the Red Skull is an ideal Hugo Weaving role. I like Hayley Atwell and I think she’s very good as Peggy Carter. It makes me a little sad that there’s only one female character in this whole movie, but I can forgive it due to the World War II setting. Plus, Peggy is quite a solid character: she’s very competent at her job and her relationship with Steve is appealing.
The other thing I like a lot about this movie is the visual style, particularly the muted colours. It reminds me a little of the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting run on the Captain America comics, which I really enjoyed. Brubaker and Epting get a special thanks in the movie’s credits, so perhaps the filmmakers did indeed have their work in mind. Probably: the sequel to this film is called Captain America: The Winter Soldier; that title comes from a storyline in the Brubaker-Epting comics in which Bucky, thought dead in the comics and in this movie, returns as an assassin called the Winter Soldier, having been brainwashed by the Soviets. So that’s something to look forward to.
Another thing to look forward to: Cap becoming a Capsicle and then being brought back to life by SHIELD is the final piece of the Avengers puzzle. The other major piece revealed in this film is the Cosmic Cube, aka the Tesseract, which becomes the central MacGuffin in The Avengers. The post-credits scene for this film is actually a shortened scene from The Avengers, and it’s followed by a sort of mini-trailer for the movie all this has been leading up to.
But before we get to that, there’s still Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to get through.