Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Previously: It was confirmed, True Believer, that there was going to be an Avengers movie. And okay, maybe word like that got dropped on some geek web site at the time, but I didn’t always follow that stuff; a lot of times I’d find out a movie was coming out when I saw the trailer. And no, I didn’t live in a cave without the internet back then; I just wasn’t actively looking for movie news.

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It felt like Marvel Studio president Kevin Feige was really stepping up his game, and that the Marvelverse franchise was kicking into a new gear. What had begun with a few hesitant steps in the direction of a shared universe with Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 now felt like a definite vision was starting to take form.

A vision. Not the Vision. We still gotta wait a few years to see him.

On top of the Avengers announcement, it seemed Loki was going to be the principal bad guy and the Cosmic Cube was going to be featured prominently in the upcoming movie somehow. For those of you who don’t know, the Cosmic Cube is a powerful artifact that, well, I’ll let iconic Marvel villain the Red Skull explain it:

So you think about it, and it comes true. You’d assume that if a guy had a weapon like that he couldn’t lose, but the Red Skull does all the time because, well, reasons. I remember in the classic Captain America cartoon, like a jackass, he created this gold armor and Cap pretty much dumped him into the ocean and he sank to the bottom. How he got out of that is anybody’s guess. But you know, comics…

But we’re here to talk moving pictures, not periodicals! Point is, while other bad guys have used the Cube in the past, it’s most associated with the Red Skull, and his presence implied the high-tech hexahedron was going to be showing up in the next film, Captain America: The First Avenger.

The plot: It’s the second World War, and Johann Schmidt…

…the head of the fascist group HYDRA, has uncovered what he believes to be a wonder weapon that will give him ultimate victory over the world. In Brooklyn, Steve Rogers…

…attempts to repeatedly enlist in the army, not because he’s a violent man, but because he’s an inherently good one who doesn’t like bullies and wants to do his part. With the aid of Doctor Emile Erskine…

…and American inventor/industrialist Howard Stark…

…Steve is transformed into the super soldier Captain America.

With the aid of agent Peggy Carter…

…and childhood friend Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes…

…along with the Howling Commandos…

…Captain America seeks to stop the Red Skull in his tracks and prevent his quest for world domination.

I won’t lie, when that trailer dropped I was beyond excited. Anybody who’s read my articles on this site know I’m a huge fan of the pulp genre. Captain America was my jam and I was really looking forward to it. And if Iron Man was my favorite Marvel film to date, then Captain America was sure to be a very close second. The movie was directed by Joe Johnston, who twenty years earlier gave us The Rocketeer. Giving him Captain America was an inspired choice. Johnston understands the genre well, with its straight-laced heroes, spunky heroines, and villainous fascists out to conquer the world. The only guy I think who could have maybe done a better job would have been Steven Spielberg, but he would have likely made Bucky an annoying kid sidekick.

Normally, when I look at these movies and I talk about the cast, I start with the good guys, but I have to say what really made this movie go from merely “good” to “outstanding” was Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull.

First of all, look at that face: it’s makeup and CGI combined to create the truly horrendous visage of a fascist monster. When you see him in all his leather-clad vainglory, the Skull looks fantastic as a bad guy. And when you compare him to the other villains we’ve seen thus far—Obadiah Stane, General Ross, Emil Blonsky, Justin Hammer, Anton Vanko—they pale in comparison. It wasn’t until we saw Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that we got a good villain, but the God of Mischief initially seemed a lot like a whiny kid looking for Daddy Odin’s approval. But the Red Skull? He’s a truly epic villain. Hugo Weaving does a tremendous job here: he’s utterly menacing, dominating the screen every time, and chewing up scenery with relish. I’m sorry that he didn’t have a very positive experience shooting the film and likely won’t be coming back to do more movies, because I would love to see him and Chris Evans tear it up one more time.

And what about the Skull’s opposite number? I liked Chris Evans in the three films I had seen him in before Captain America. While the two Fantastic Four movies of the 2000s for the most part sucked, I thought the one thing they did get right was Evans and Michael Chiklis being cast as Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. Evans did a good job making Storm cocky without really crossing the line into I-hope-somebody-kills-him-soon territory, and he had good comedic chemistry with Chiklis. That comedic streak was seen later on in The Losers where he played the hacker Jensen. Honestly, I almost didn’t recognize him in this movie, mostly because of the hairstyle and genre, and also, while he was in pretty good shape in his earlier films, the man looks like he got a body transplant for Captain America:

The transformation is impressive, and I don’t want to think about how many hours he has to spend in the gym to maintain it. If Captain America dies in one of the upcoming Avengers movies, I’m thinking Evans is going to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

He does just as credible a job as Steve Rogers as Weaving does as the Red Skull. Rogers is a fundamentally decent human being who’s also brave and selfless, but I like how there’s a streak of uncertainty in him as well. When it comes to danger, he doesn’t hesitate to act…

…but when someone in authority tells him what to do, he’s more inclined to follow, such as when Senator Brandt turns him into a tool for selling war bonds through live appearances and motion pictures.

And it’s nice to see Steve doesn’t instantly turn into “Captain America” the moment the vita rays hit him, but that it takes time for him to grow into the role, the catalyst being Bucky’s capture.

Rather than Steve having to be humbled like the three heroes before him, he’s already humble, because he already understands what it means to be weak and powerless. This is why he’s so indecisive at first, being unaccustomed to having physical power or any sort of authority gained through rank. Over time he becomes more self-assured, and this self-assurance only grows stronger as the movies continue.

Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter continues the theme of the strong female love interest/sidekick, only she takes it up a notch. Of all the actresses appearing in these movies, she has the most presence. It’s also interesting to note that unlike the other Marvel actresses, she often seems to have the better of the naïve Steve Rogers but she never teases, and never toys with his heart. We’re seeing a classic love story where two people are interested in each other, but the relationship happens in fits and starts, with miscommunications leading to foolish jealousies and the like. By film’s end, I buy that these two have fallen in love and that’s what makes the finale so heartbreaking. But Peggy Carter is more than just Captain America’s love interest: she’s also a capable agent who can take care of herself.

And she facilitates Cap’s first adventure, talking Howard Stark into aiding them. Without Carter’s involvement, who knows how badly Steve’s first mission would have gone? In fact, with Peggy Carter’s influence on Steve, pushing him at the right moments, we can see she’s just as responsible for the creation of Captain America as Stark and Dr. Erskine.

Speaking of Howard Stark, Dominic Cooper is a lot of fun as Tony’s Dad.

I like this version much more than the one we got in Iron Man 2, AKA the drunk guy who creates an imaginary element and hides it in a map. This is an imperfect but likable man whose inventions don’t always work. In fact, he seems almost surprised when they do. I get the feeling when we see Howard in later films, the writers do a bit of a reboot on his character and shy away from the drunk we saw in the Iron Man 2 footage from 1974 that Tony watches, and I’m glad they did. While later Howard Stark has a bit of Howard Hughes and maybe even a touch of Walt Disney in him, pulp-era Howard looks more like rocketry engineer Jack Parsons.

Not a lot of character development is provided for the Howling Commandos, but considering there are five of them, that’s understandable. And it’s great that “Dum Dum” Duggan looks so much like his comic book counterpart.

I’ve been a fan of Neal McDonough going back to Band of Brothers, and he’s rock-solid here. I only wish we could have seen just a little bit more of him.

Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci are both good in their respective roles as Col. Chester Phillips and Dr. Erskine…

…and you can see how Rogers is influenced by these authority figures, with Erskine encouraging him, and telling him that at all costs to remain a good man, while Jones challenges him. We see that the worst authority figure is Senator Brandt, who acts as a cheerleader but ultimately does Steve no good, turning him into a dancing monkey to sell war bonds.

Toby Jones’ Doctor Arnim Zola…

…is a treat. Here’s a man who’s clearly in over his head, who has no idea how to get off the tiger he finds himself riding. What started out for him as an opportunity to work with incredible scientific discoveries turns into a nightmare as he’s forced to contend with a madman at one end, and the Allies at the other. What’s great is what happens to him later when he’s no longer standing in Schmidt’s long dark shadow, and how he becomes something far worse, but that’s for a future article.

Finally, we come to what some consider a controversial casting choice in Sebastian Stan as James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, not necessarily for the role he plays here in The First Avenger, but for his future role as the Winter Soldier in later films.

Ladies and gentleman, Stan does just fine. I like him in this movie, and I’ll got into more detail regarding his role in later films, but I never thought his casting was a mistake. I think people expected a higher profile actor to play opposite Evans, but bear in mind Evans himself wasn’t a big name when he was cast in this role, and only became prominent after this film and The Avengers. I never understood the Sebastian Stan hate.

Production-wise, the movie is beautiful, from the HYDRA vehicles…

…to the costumes. It’s nice that when you look at the Howling Commandos, they have a bit of a GI Joe vibe to them, each given their own signature look to further distinguish them. I particularly love how we see the evolution of Captain America’s look, from the cheesy dancing monkey outfit he wears to shill for war bonds…

…to the makeshift outfit he puts on to save the POWs from Hydra…

…to his final look, which to my mind one of the greatest superhero costumes ever made.

Thor began it, but Captain America improved upon it, in that the Marvel movies were now much bigger in scope; with larger budgets and production values, the movies just felt so much more, well, like they came from a comic book. This is more than simply a matter of money; it’s also the way they were shot and how Joe Johnston is no stranger to framing a scene to make things look larger than life.

I will say that what was done to make Steve Rogers look puny in the first act by superimposing Chris Evans’ head on a smaller man’s body might not have worked perfectly…

…but I don’t know what else they could have done. I give the producers of the first Captain America movie credit in claiming Rogers had polio so they didn’t have to resort to such tricks. In the end, I don’t know what other options they had or if a different special effects house could have done a better job. Overall, any flaws didn’t really bother me that much and I rolled with it.

I love the easter eggs sprinkled throughout this movie, from the Human Torch exhibit at the World’s Fair…

…to our first hint of the SHIELD flying car which is later featured in the TV series…

…to a call-out to the comic book version of Arnim Zola.

Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack is top notch, and its heavy use of drums in many sequences compliments the movie as a war film. Captain America’s theme sounds patriotic and uplifting, and there are poignant moments as well, such as the farewell to Bucky. As a cinematic veteran who’s been in the business since the 1970s, Silvestri hasn’t lost his touch.

Captain America: The First Avenger works in every way. It’s an origin story that never bores, and a superhero film as much as a war film. It’s great to see where Captain America came from, and as the Marvel franchise continues, it’s to Chris Evans’ credit that we can see how his character evolves.

So where was Cap, comics-wise? Well, in the wake of Civil War, he died, but got better. During the period when he was dead, he was replaced by Bucky, formerly known as the Winter Soldier, and he got a brand new costume.

When Steve came back, he became Agent Steven Rogers, “head of security for the United States”, whatever that meant. Naturally, things would return to the status quo eventually, which I think is a shame because I liked Bucky as Cap.

Next Up: We see history made as five films culminate in Earth’s mightiest franchise.

Tag: Countdown to Infinity War

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  • Ha ha! Wow, how did I miss that Arnim Zola comic-book shout-out?

    My wife likes the Iron Man movies but doesn’t want to watch this one because she thinks it will be too corny. She likes her superheroes sassy, I guess.

  • Deneb T. Hall

    I liked ‘Captain America’, but if I did have one complaint, it would be the near-total replacement of the Nazis with HYDRA. Don’t get me wrong, I get why they did it – setting up HYDRA for future films, all that – but it really kind of cheapened the experience for me. I mean, the Red Skull is THE iconic Nazi supervillain (I suppose Captain Nazi would be a close second, but still), and Captain America is the iconic Nazi-fighting superhero – in both the real and fictional worlds, he was literally created to fight Nazis. A Captain America movie where he DOESN’T fight Nazis but, instead, a splinter group that’s broken away from them, just feels wrong somehow.

    Here’s what I would have done. Keep the Red Skull as a regular Nazi for most of the film. Have him increasingly show signs of ambition and arrogance and a rising lust for power – he’s got the Cosmic Cube, dammit; he shouldn’t be Hitler’s flunky any longer.
    Then, near the end, pull back the curtain. Reveal that he’s been building up his own group of loyalists for a while now – maybe have them turn on a bunch of regular Nazi soldiers and wipe them out. Reveal the HYDRA symbol for the first time; have one of the soldiers survive to be questioned by Cap and reveal that even they think he’s a madman who’s got to be stopped. Toss in a throwaway line after the big battle about how a few of the Skull’s soldiers escaped, and you’ve set up HYDRA for the future while still getting in plenty of good ol’ fashioned Nazi-punchin’.

  • DamonD

    The three Cap films are among my very favourites of, well, anything. Great performances across the board carry this one through and very much agreed that Johnston was perfect for this.

    I’m also sorry Weaving didn’t care much for his involvement, I’d have to loved to see his bombastic and vicious Red Skull back again.They even give the character a bit of an out. Love it when he gives Zola his keys!

    And what else can you say about Evans in the role? The most sincere and open performance in a superhero film probably since Reeve in Superman. They got the absolute best thing right (and with Reeve’s Superman, come to think of it) in that this is simply a good, caring person first and foremost, that can do amazing things but knows the responsibility of them.

    “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”