Feb 6, 2020
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
With the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier fast approaching, there’s no better time to revisit Captain America: The First Avenger, a film that brings back memories of simpler, bygone times. No, I don’t mean the World War II era that serves as the setting of Captain America’s origin; I’m referring to 2011, when people actually gave a crap about this movie.
As made obvious by the title, the film hardly functions as anything other than a prequel to 2012’s The Avengers. And here, three years later, without the Marvel hype machine imbuing every scene with manufactured significance, it’s a curiously empty experience. Captain America: The First Avenger is like strolling through vacant streets littered with the debris left behind by a July 4th parade that you sadly missed out on.
Which is not to say that the film is terrible, or devoid of entertainment value. Out of the five films released primarily as marketing materials for The Avengers, it’s nowhere near as tedious as Iron Man 2, and actually manages to capture some of the fun and humor that completely slipped past the makers of The Incredible Hulk.
But overall, it’s a predictable movie that never takes chances and never attempts to surprise its audience. If you know the broad outline of Captain America’s origins from the comics, then you already know every beat of this script: It starts with a skinny Army guy in the 1940s named Steve Rogers being given a special serum to make him into a Nazi-punching super-soldier, and it ends with him plummeting into the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. Everything that happens in between is largely irrelevant.
Chris Evans gets his second shot at playing a Marvel superhero in the title role, and to better augment Steve Rogers’ transformation from 90-lb. weakling to the ultimate soldier, the early scenes feature our lead actor digitally shortened and slimmed down. A lot of people assumed this was simply Evans’ head digitally pasted onto another actor (i.e., the Little Man treatment), but in actuality, Evans filmed most of these scenes himself, with his costars being told to stare at his chin so that the eye lines would match up once the CGI teams had done their thing. Perhaps this is why many of Steve’s pre-transformation scenes have an odd, cold, disconnected feel to them.
In these scenes, we learn Steve is determined to enlist in the Army, despite suffering from a long list of maladies (which according to one doctor’s chart includes “nervous trouble of any sort”) that gets him stamped 4-F at every recruitment office he finagles his way into. Steve can only watch with envy and frustration as his best pal James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) heads off to the front lines (and seems to be well on his way to converting a double date into a threesome before he ships out).
But Steve’s luck changes when a brilliant German scientist named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears one of his passionate, patriotic speeches and immediately signs him up for a top secret government program. Back in Germany, Erskine invented a serum to give soldiers incredible abilities, and defected to the U.S. when he feared Hitler would use it to create super-Nazis.
Of course, it wouldn’t do to actually have Hitler in a lightweight summer action movie, so our Hitler surrogate here is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the leader of the Nazi “deep science” wing known as HYDRA. It seems Schmidt was so eager to test the super-soldier formula that he injected himself with it. It gave him super strength (I guess? the movie’s not too clear on that) but mostly made him more evil and crazy than before.
He came to think of himself as a god, and became obsessed with the old Norse myths (which, as revealed in Thor, are all true). This leads him to Norway where he locates a glowing cube of incredible power, later revealed in The Avengers to be an Asgardian artifact known as the Tesseract (and I still don’t know why they didn’t just call it the Cosmic Cube).
For unexplained reasons, the serum also turned Schmidt’s skin crimson red and caused most of his facial features to melt away, giving him the appearance of a skull. You might even call him the Red Skull, if you’re so inclined. The movie is not so inclined. And in the original comics, the Red Skull has no powers, never received the super-soldier formula, and his skull-like appearance is just a mask. I can’t help but think this is more of the same silliness seen with Doctor Doom in Fox’s Fantastic Four, where the origins of the heroes and the villain have to be conveniently tied together because they think audiences are dumb.
Also, the reveal of Schmidt’s true appearance is held back for a long while, meaning that for most of the movie, he’s wearing an incredibly lifelike Hugo Weaving mask that we’re supposed to believe was created using 1940s-level technology. Clearly, this was done so they could prominently feature Weaving’s marketable face in the ads and trailers.
Meanwhile, Steve reports for basic training, with his scrawny build drawing mostly disdain from his superiors. This includes Col. Phillips, played by Tommy Lee Jones doing his usual ornery shtick, in a performance slightly more nuanced than his Ameriprise ads. Steve’s other superior is busty bombshell Agent Peggy Carter, who’s British, mostly because the actress they wanted to cast (Hayley Atwell) happens to be British.
Phillips and Carter don’t have much faith in Steve being all that he can be, but Erskine is convinced they have the right man, because “a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion!” And he continues to beat this “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” drum for the remainder of his brief time with us, though I’m pretty sure they could’ve found a few volunteers who are decent guys and already have the soldier physique.
Soon, it’s time for Steve to become the first guinea pig for the super-soldier experiment, which partly relies on technology invented by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the father of Tony Stark. The elder Stark was seen earlier in the film at a World’s Fair-style expo attended by Steve and Bucky, where he gave a flashy monologue that was obviously supposed to be reminiscent of Tony’s speech at the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2 (marking the first and last time these Marvel movies will ever remind us of anything in Iron Man 2).
And this is one of those aspects of a shared continuity that can quickly become tiresome. Presumably, the Marvel Universe is a big place, and yet slowly we’re finding out that everyone is connected in some way to everyone else. Why does the Red Skull’s glowing MacGuffin have to be connected to Thor? And what are the odds that the guy who helped create the First Avenger would go on to have a son who would become the… Second Avenger?
The experiment is a success and Steve has buffed up faster than Jose Canseco circa 1989. It appears the super-soldier serum has also caused a layer of body oil to appear on his new muscles, which Agent Carter can barely restrain herself from touching.
The celebration is short-lived, however. One of the witnesses to the transformation turns out to be a HYDRA spy who shoots and kills Dr. Erskine. Steve uses his newfound strength and agility to chase down the killer, but the guy munches down on a cyanide capsule as soon as he’s caught. And with that, Steve is now doomed to be the only one of his kind, because without Erskine, there’s no hope of ever reproducing the formula.
In a strange diversion, Steve is immediately drafted into a traveling stage show to support the troops and encourage people to buy war bonds. He’s given a star-spangled uniform and christened “Captain America” while a chorus of women dance in Busby Berkeley-esque formation around him. And I get that this is an easy way to explain how he gets the costume and the name, and I get that this is paying homage to the original comics (part of Steve’s act is punching Hitler in the face, just like he did on the cover of Captain America Comics #1) as well as the old Republic serial (where Captain America was a pudgy district attorney who carried a gun instead of a shield). But within the confines of the story, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Steve has super strength, speed, agility, and stamina, and they have him put these powers to use by… dancing in a musical revue? I don’t get it. Why not have him film action-adventure serials where, instead of using special effects, they simply have Steve perform superhuman feats on camera? It seems like that would have made more sense and accomplished all the same things. (There is a brief shot of Steve making a movie, but the stage show appears to be his primary job.)
Steve then heads overseas to entertain the troops. He appears in Italy near the front lines, and just happens to meet up again with Col. Phillips and Agent Carter, and they just happen to be stationed a few miles away from where HYDRA is holding several American soldiers as POWs, a group that just happens to include his old pal Bucky Barnes.
That’s a big stack of contrivances that not even Steve can ignore, so he decides to use his powers and become Captain America in real life. Agent Carter and Howard Stark (who’s apparently just hanging around an army camp for some reason?) help him sneak behind enemy lines and rescue the men.
While inside the HYDRA base, Cap discovers weapons glowing with the blue, unearthly power of the Tesseract, which the Red Skull previously used to instantly vaporize his enemies. But despite their supernatural armaments, HYDRA’s men are easily overpowered by a ragtag bunch of GIs.
Steve frees Bucky and together they locate the Red Skull, except he’s already set the entire base to self-destruct while he heads for his getaway plane. Both Steve and Bucky are consumed by flames, and it appears they forgot to film the part where they actually escape, because the next thing we see is Steve leading the escaped POWs back to camp. Steve has now become the hero he was always meant to be, and soon Howard Stark becomes his Alfred and makes him a uniform and an indestructible shield.
Steve then puts together a team that includes Bucky and a small cadre of the rescued POWs. Clearly aiming for diversity, Steve picks one of everything: a black guy, an Asian guy, a British guy, a French guy, and a… drunk guy with a handlebar mustache. Actually, the handlebar mustache guy is Marvel character Dum Dum Dugan (didn’t he go on to direct You Don’t Mess with the Zohan?) and the whole team is based on the Howling Commandos, but just like the Red Skull, no one ever calls them that.
Also in here, we learn that Peggy Carter, who previously only looked upon Steve with pity in her eyes, is totally into him now that he’s a buffed-up war hero. So there’s the real lesson of the movie: it’s what’s on the inside that counts, as long as the outside looks like Chris Evans on a five-hour-a-day workout regimen.
From here, things get very montage-y as Cap and the Howling Commandos go on various missions to defeat HYDRA’s schemes, represented primarily via slow motion gun battles, and the Red Skull looking pissed off, and flags slowly being moved around on maps, and so forth.
One of these missions takes Cap and Bucky aboard a HYDRA train passing through a snowy mountain range. After a shootout, Bucky ends up falling from the train and plummeting to his death, and weirdly, this moment makes no emotional impact whatsoever.
This may be partly due to the montage-like atmosphere, where it feels like Cap and Bucky have been fighting the bad guys together for all of two weeks. Or it may be because we know he’s (spoilers for a nearly decade-old comic book) not really dead and is coming back in the new movie as the Winter Soldier.
(Also, isn’t Bucky supposed to be a teenager, and basically the Robin to Captain America’s Batman? Here, the two are depicted as about the same age. You might think that’s kind of an irrelevant nitpick, but I can guarantee if they had dared to change Bucky’s race instead of his age, comic book fans would have lit up the internet with their demands for more faithfulness to the source material.)
Despondent over Bucky’s death, Cap decides to go for a full-on frontal assault on the Red Skull’s compound. The Skull then boards a giant airplane which is apparently loaded with enough nukes to obliterate several major American cities (which we know because the bombs are conveniently labeled—in English!—with the names of those cities). Cap chases down the plane in a jeep, and thankfully, Peggy is there to give him a farewell kiss… while he’s chasing down the plane. Good thing the Red Skull has a thing for insanely long runways.
Steve gets onboard and there’s the expected slugfest between Cap and the Red Skull. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the Tesseract opens up a portal to space in the roof of the aircraft. The Red Skull is vaporized before our eyes, and then the Tesseract melts its way through the steel of the airplane’s hull where it eventually lands on the ocean floor.
Yep. That’s how our villain is defeated: a godlike artifact spontaneously comes alive and destroys the bad guy with no prompting whatsoever. I do believe this is the very definition of a deus ex machina ending, no? This is like if Raiders of the Lost Ark had the Nazis open up the Ark of the Covenant several times throughout the movie with no ill effects until the very end.
And for one final contrived moment, Steve decides the only way to save New York is by crashing the plane into the Arctic waters. It kinda feels like he might have a few other options at this particular moment, but we’re nearing the two-hour mark and he has to end up frozen in the ice somehow. He says his farewells to Peggy and his radio transmission cuts out, and that’s the end.
Or rather, that should have been the end, except we cut right to modern times. Steve wakes up in what turns out to be a soundstage facsimile of 1940s New York City inside of SHIELD headquarters. He breaks out and ends up in Times Square circa 2011, and looks around in a daze, clearly wondering where all the strip joints and porn shops went. Samuel L. Jackson then makes his obligatory Nick Fury cameo to tell Steve he’s been asleep for almost 70 years.
The rumor is that this bit with Nick Fury was originally meant to be a post-credits scene, but was then moved up to better set up the Avengers movie. And with that, I guess the tribute to the old serial is now complete, because that may be the last time a movie had a cliffhanger ending this obvious and forced.
When Captain America: The First Avenger came out and didn’t suck, comic fans were so relieved that they responded to the film with wildly effusive praise. And even I have to admit, compared to the previous attempts to adapt Captain America into live-action, the film looks like a work of genius. But there is literally no reason to watch this thing again now that The Avengers is out, and I can’t imagine anyone caring about it ten years from now. Hell, I can’t imagine anybody caring about it now.
But putting aside how predictable this story is, and how long it takes for Steve to finally become Captain America, and how they’ve compressed his entire wartime career into a 15-minute montage, I think the main reason the movie fails to excite is our rather lackluster lead character. Chris Evans does a good job with what he’s given, but in their attempts to make Captain America idealistic and pure of heart, they’ve actually turned him into a naive, simpleminded nincompoop.
He’s likeable enough, but never seems capable of the kind of higher brain functions that would make him a true leader. He displays absolutely no knack for stealth or strategy; Nearly all of his schemes for defeating HYDRA consist of directly charging at his enemies and hoping he doesn’t get shot. Sure, he throws himself on a grenade at basic training, which is a heroic thing to do, but it takes a bit more than a willingness to get blown up to be an interesting protagonist.
The present-day ending totally undercuts whatever emotion there was in Steve’s self-sacrifice, and even worse, it renders the romance angle with Peggy Carter completely superfluous. Ask yourself this: If this film hadn’t had to set up The Avengers, do you think it still would have ended with that plane going down in the ocean? Hell, no! A standalone Captain America film would have ended with him putting Peggy on the back of his motorcycle and cruising off into the sunset.
After spending this much time on a will-they-or-won’t-they subplot, we expect the boy to get the girl. We don’t expect the boy to fall into suspended animation and wake up when the girl is long dead. And the unresolved romantic subplot means Peggy Carter herself is pretty much useless. They try to set her up as your usual ass-kicking action movie heroine, including the expected ridiculous moment where she decks a soldier who has a foot of height and 100 pounds on her, but mostly she just moons over Steve.
(On the Iron Man 3 special features, there’s a “one-shot” starring Atwell as Peggy Carter, which was probably meant as the backdoor pilot for a potential TV series. Judging by the short’s utterly generic and predictable secret agent plot, let’s hope a Peggy Carter: Agent of SHIELD series never happens, because it’ll make ABC’s current Agents of SHIELD look sophisticated and nuanced.)
Director Joe Johnston was hired because of his previous experience adapting a wartime superhero, and here he obligingly remakes The Rocketeer for Marvel, coming up with a film that’s just as unremarkable. It’s hard to even criticize this movie, because it doesn’t really aspire to do anything besides tick off all the necessary boxes in preparation for the following summer’s mega Marvel event. Picking on Captain America: The First Avenger feels a bit like picking on the 90-lb. weakling that was Steve Rogers before the transformation.
Early reviews indicate that the sequel The Winter Soldier may have more depth and more substance than your typical Marvel release. But then again, that’s what they said about Iron Man 3.