Welcome back True Believers to The Marvel Report’s MCU Retrospective. We are counting down to November 4th’s Doctor Strange with a look back at all of the previous Marvel films. Today is the fifth installment, a little film called Captain America: The First Avenger.
Let’s go back, way back to 2011. By this time I was a full-fledged Marvel fan. After growing up with a comics reading father and Spider-Man: The Animated Series on Saturday mornings the start of the MCU had kicked my love of superheroes into high gear. But then they announced Captain America: The First Avenger and I was worried. They had cast the guy best known for playing the hot jock in films such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The Fantastic Four to play the man who embodied the spirit of America. I was not happy.
I had originally wanted another Chris for the role, Chris Pine to be exact. Looking back now I can’t believe how wrong I was. Chris Evans embodies both the role of Steve Rogers and Captain America perfectly on screen and off. He is our Captain and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Captain America might be billed as “The First Avenger,” but it hardly seems like a superhero film. It is first and foremost a war movie which makes it so different from the rest of the MCU. The majority of the film takes place in the 1940s, with only the very beginning and end connecting back to the events of present day. This film is the first building block of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the place where everything begins: the creation of SHIELD, the villainy of HYDRA, the idea that a group of people fighting together is better than one man fighting alone, and the discovery of the first infinity stone, the Tesseract.
The film also does a great job of setting up who Steve Rogers is at his core. Abraham Erskine calls him “a good man,” but Rogers is also the scrawny, selfless kid from Brooklyn who won’t back down from a fight. This mentality combined with his World War II training and ideas of America are challenged in subsequent films and often put Steve at odds with his fellow heroes. Captain America is the morale center of the Avengers, the man who is going to do what he believes is right no matter the cost. Steve is willing to defy orders to save his friends and leave the war bonds tour so he can actually fight on the front lines. From our very first introduction to his character we see Steve’s willingness to question absolute power and also do whatever it takes to protect the ones he cares about. All of this leads to the place in Captain America: Civil War where we last see Steve Rogers as Captain America, dropping his shield at the feet of Tony Stark after a fight that caused Rogers to question his place in the Avengers and the wider world.
This conflict within Steve that culminates in Captain America: Civil War begins in The First Avenger. Steve is a product of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, the organization that turns him into Captain America and will eventually become the Strategic Homeland, Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (“Someone really wanted our initials to spell out SHIELD“). The SSR and Captain America himself are created to combat HYDRA, the Nazi deep science and weapons division. It turns out that the same government agency that creates him is the one that turns out to have his greatest enemies hiding within its walls. No wonder the guy doesn’t trust authority.
HYDRA is set up early on in Captain America: The First Avenger as the ultimate foe. They are ruthless, willing to kill entire towns or even themselves to further their organization’s cause. Setting the first of many conflicts between Captain America and the Red Skull during the 1940s shapes how we see both men and their connection to the rest of the films. As Americans we look back on the events of World War II as the time of our “Greatest Generation,” a time when we fought evil and won. Captain America is the ultimate good guy and in tying HYDRA’s creation to the Nazis we see them as the personification of evil. It all makes it that much worse when in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HYDRA is revealed to have been hiding all along, not defeated. America and the SSR didn’t win the great victory they imagined. Cut off one head, two more shall grow indeed.
Another way in which Captain America: The First Avenger connects us to the future films is through the introduction of Howard Stark and his inventions. Played to perfection by Dominic Cooper, you can draw a straight line from his performance to Robert Downey Jr’s. Both men have the charm, wit, and style to play a man who is the smartest in any room he walks into. The friendship established between Steve and Howard is an important one not only for Steve, but also for Tony. It is another factor that causes unease between the two men because of Tony’s jealousy of their relationship and the side of his father he never had a chance to see. We also get a look at the Stark Expo, where Howard attempts to use the repulsor technology for the first time and also hides the key to a new atomic element for his son to find in Iron Man 2.
Another founder of SHIELD and an important part of the history established in this film is Cap’s best girl, Agent Peggy Carter. Hayley Atwell doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but makes a huge impression all the same as the woman who is strong enough to stand beside Captain America. She isn’t a love interest whose only role is to get caught by the bad guy; Peggy is her own woman, capable of fighting, making tactical plans, and even saving Steve from time to time. Their love story is without a doubt the most powerful in the MCU. Peggy values Steve even before he is Captain America. She sees him when very few others do and their love is what makes The First Avenger such an emotional film. It is the only Marvel movie I consistently cry over because they never had their dance.
Even more important perhaps than Peggy Carter and the beginnings of SHIELD is the story of the friendship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan). Even when Steve had nothing he had Bucky and nowhere is that more apparent than in this film. Bucky is there for Steve from the very beginning, as a protector of his weaker friend. As the film progresses, their relationship changes with Steve rescuing Bucky from the HYDRA base. The two men are the strongest when they are together, fighting side by side along with the Howling Commandos. It is this enduring friendship and the struggle to come back to it that runs through all three Captain America films.
The First Avenger ends with Steve waking up in present day New York City to find Nick Fury telling him that he’s been asleep for the past 70 years. A lot has changed. But not the need for a hero. The world will always need saving and Captain America will always be around when we need him.
Next up, the heroes finally team up in The Avengers!