Discussions of the mythical “superhero fatigue” were in full swing in the summer of 2011, and the concept has been raised every time a superhero film is considered a critical or commercial disappointment. The basis of superhero fatigue is the idea that audiences will grow tired of the neverending glut of big-budget comic book films, and will stop seeing them en masse. It’s quaint to think of film bloggers in 2011 foretelling the imminent implosion of the genre when, seven years later, mega-successes such as Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) and Avengers: Infinity War (The Russo Brothers, 2018) demonstrate that audiences are still very interested in such films. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the studios and filmmakers responsible for the enduring success of comic book films have survived because they have not let the genre stagnate. If every comic book film played exactly like Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002) or The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), then the genre would certainly experience diminishing returns. The success of the comic book film genre over the past decade or so is due, in large part, to filmmakers tinkering with the format to create something fresh out of what could easily have gone stale.
Few would argue that Marvel Studios revolutionized the comic book film genre specifically, and blockbusters in general, when it combined several superhero series into one, shared team-up film in
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). But the shared universe model was merely the most obvious of Marvel’s innovations. Playing with genre inspirations within superhero films was another. The first three films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), The Incredible Hulk (Letterier, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010), were fairly conventional superhero fare, although I argue that Iron Man perfected conventional superhero storytelling. With its fourth feature, Thor (Branagh, 2011), Marvel Studios began to experiment with superhero film standards. There was a touch of fantasy inherent to the Thor concept that made the film feel different from the others, and it dabbled in cosmic elements that were common in comic books but not in comic book films. Ultimately, however, whether Marvel Studios was too timid to push the genre or felt like it needed to move more slowly, Thor ended up being fairly conventional, as well. This is not true of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011).
The First Avenger is a superhero origin film, which are very common. And yet, it’s a superhero origin film set in the ’40s which uses the Second World War as its backdrop. Period superhero films were not unheard of, but no comic book film had ever engaged with their time period so completely. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009), for example, barely feels like it takes place in the ’70s. X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011) did a better job of engaging with the aesthetics of its era, the ’60s, but The First Avenger took this approach even further. It has the look and the feel of the ’40s, and it takes place largely in Europe in the middle of combat (albeit comic-booky, superhero combat). The central hero is wholesome and sincere, like many comic book heroes of the ’40s, putting him in contrast with cinematic heroes of the 21st-century, who were typically sarcastic or brooding. It’s a superhero film by way of a ’40s-era war film, which makes it feel like a different kind of superhero film. The filmmakers were smart enough to know that different kinds of films were the only way to combat superhero fatigue.
Even the comic book origins of Captain America are unique compared to other Marvel properties. The character first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 (cover-dated March 1941) for Timely Comics, a precursor to Marvel Comics. DC Comics introduced Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and versions of Green Lantern and the Flash, around this time (the Golden Age of Comics), but Marvel’s creative explosion would not occur until the ’60s (the Silver Age of Comics). And so, Captain America is the only major Golden Age character owned by Marvel to endure to the present day (except, I suppose, Namor the Sub-Mariner). The character is also notable for being the only example from any publisher of a so-called “patriotic” superhero, which were numerous and popular at the time, to survive past the Second World War. Captain America’s staying power is absolutely remarkable.
The character was created by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. Captain America Comics #1 first hit newsstands around December 1940, a full year before the United States entered the Second World War, but Simon and Kirby felt that war was inevitable and were disgusted with the actions of the Axis powers in Europe. The book was purposely political, giving them a chance to air their frustrations.
The first issue depicts the scrawny Steve Rogers, a young artist from Brooklyn, being injected with a super-soldier serum created by German-born scientist Professor Reinstein (later changed to Erskine) to turn him into the perfect human. Nazi spies immediately kill the Professor and destroy his work, leaving Rogers as the only super-soldier. Over the course of the issue, Rogers dons his Captain America uniform, meets the teenaged James “Bucky” Barnes, who would become his sidekick, and contends with Nazi spies, such as the evil Red Skull. The book was a sensation, selling a million copies per issue for the first year, outselling Time Magazine. Simon and Kirby received hate mail and death threats from pro-Nazi factions, and received a phone call of support from New York City Mayor LaGuardia. The character’s original triangular shield drew criticism for its similarity to another patriotic superhero, The Shield, so it was changed to the iconic round disc in the second issue. After the war, however, the popularity of Captain America waned. The series in its original form was cancelled with Captain America Comics #73 (July 1949), with a short-lived revival from 1953-1954.
Shortly after Marvel experienced extraordinary success with new characters such as the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men, Stan Lee suggested they reintroduce Captain America to modern comic book readers. This occurred in the landmark Avengers #4 (March 1964). The newly-formed Avengers discover Captain America frozen in a block of Arctic ice, preserved by the super-soldier serum. When he is revived, he explains that his last mission was to stop an experimental missile from being launched by the villain Baron Zemo at the end of the war. The missile was stopped mid-air, but Bucky was killed and Cap fell into the freezing North Atlantic. This story brilliantly began a new, far more interesting era for the character: Captain America was now a “man out of time.” He was the product of a bygone era, with experiences and values that are out of step with modern life. He could be used to comment on social and political developments as a man from what is perceived as a simpler time. At first, he awoke 20 years after his time. But due to the sliding Marvel timeline, he is now 70 years removed from his era, making his perspective increasingly interesting. He immediately continues his military-like lifestyle by becoming a perennial member, and frequent leader, of the Avengers. He also soon becomes a member of the SHIELD spy organization, working closely with Nick Fury.
After his successful reintroduction, Captain America began splitting the book Tales of Suspense with Iron Man until Marvel retitled the book Captain America with issue #100 (April 1968). A Captain America solo title has continued essentially uninterrupted ever since. Over time, the character has fought holdover villains from the Second World War, such as the Red Skull and Baron Zemo, as well as a villainous version of SHIELD with roots in Nazism named Hydra. The character has had a long-term romance with Sharon Carter, an agent of SHIELD, and developed a friendship and partnership with Sam Wilson/The Falcon. The book has often excelled when it has tackled realistic political issues. After the Marvel Comics version of the Watergate Scandal, Steve Rogers rejects the Captain America identity to become Nomad in Captain America #180 (December 1974). He soon returns to the Captain America identity, but explicitly states that he represents American ideals rather than the American Government, giving him much wider appeal. In the late-’80s, the character once again rebelled against political corruption by briefly becoming The Captain. Over time, Captain America has come to represent the ideal American patriot, fighting for tolerance, freedom, open-mindedness and the American Dream, while battling those who would try to diminish those ideals, whether they be foreign or domestic attackers, or even members of the United States government. He’s an aspirational figure, both to readers and to other superheroes within the Marvel Universe. He’s the one character that fans and “characters” love and respects.
Since the character’s introduction, the era of the comics most relevant to The First Avenger and future Captain America films was the long tenure by writer Ed Brubaker, which began with Captain America Vol. 5 #1 (January 2005). Brubaker began by reviving and revamping Bucky, previously a rare comic book characters who remained dead, as the Winter Soldier. Brubaker wrote Captain America throughout the massively popular Civil War crossover event, in which Cap opposed legislation to register superheroes with the government. Cap lost the battle and was soon assassinated. This set the stage for Bucky to take over as Captain America. Brubaker’s time on the book heavily rooted his modern-day stories in Steve and Bucky’s experiences during the war, making that era fresh and relevant to readers. The filmmakers behind The First Avenger drew heavily from Brubaker’s depictions of Captain America in the Second World War for this film, and other aspects for later Captain America films. In mid-2011, Brubaker returned Steve Rogers as Captain America, just in time for his first major film to be released.
Captain America: The First Avenger was the first major Captain America film, but not the only one. The property was first adapted into Captain America (Clifton & English, 1944), a theatrical serial starring Dick Purcell. Years later, there were two television films, Captain America (Holcomb, 1979) and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (Nagy, 1979), starring Reb Brown. In 1984, development began on a Captain America theatrical film. After bouncing around several low-budget studios, Captain America (Pyun, 1990) was finally produced. It failed to find a distribution deal, however, and was released direct-to-video in 1992. None of these adaptations were particularly faithful to the comics, or well-regarded, but I find it interesting to mention them for the sake of completion.
A new feature film entered development in 1997, and moved to Artisan Entertainment in 2000. Plans were halted, however, when co-creator Joe Simon sued Marvel Entertainment over the rights to Captain America. Ownership of characters created while in the employ of a comic book publisher is a controversial topic that I will not delve into in this article, but the Simon lawsuit was settled in 2003. Development on a Captain America film did not resume until the creation of Marvel Studios in 2005, when the film rights to the character returned to Marvel. Jon Favreau was the first choice to direct, but he opted to adapt Iron Man instead, pushing Captain America back in the schedule. The 2011 release date was officially announced in May 2008, immediately after the massive success of Iron Man, and Joe Johnston was hired as director.
Johnston began his career working on effects and art direction for the original Star Wars trilogy and the first two Indiana Jones films. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981) would be a particularly strong influence on The First Avenger. Both films were old-fashioned adventures featuring a hero fighting Nazis and looking for a supernatural object. Though not necessarily his most successful, Johnston’s best-regarded films are fun, exciting period pieces such as The Rocketeer (Johnston, 1991), October Sky (Johnston, 1999), and Hidalgo (Johnston, 2004). Johnston immediately hired screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to rewrite the existing script. The original plan was to explore the “man out of time” aspect as quickly as possible, with only half the film taking place in the Second World War. Johnston and the screenwriters scrapped this plan, setting the film entirely in the ’40s except for modern bookends. This was a smart decision for the future of the MCU. Since Captain America’s character would be so rooted in his ’40s origin, it was essential that this be fully explored.
The screenwriters observed that the challenge of building a film around Steve Rogers was that he does not change. He remains steady, changing the world around him. It’s difficult to make a character that is so wholesome and good be interesting in today’s world. Fortunately, the filmmakers found the right actor for the job in Chris Evans. Evans was an unlikely choice, having played Johnny Storm/Human Torch in the Tim Story-directed Fantastic Four films (2005-2007) and tended to play snarky jerks on screen. Steve Rogers/Captain America was a different type of role for him at the time, but it’s now impossible to picture any other contemporary actor as the ultimate Gary Cooper-esque boy scout. The other challenge to the screenwriters was to introduce Captain America, and establish him as the revered Second World War legend of the Marvel Universe in a single film.
© Captain America: The First Avenger, the Movie:2010 MVL Film Finance LLC. (IMDB)
The filmmakers hit a near bullseye with Captain America: The First Avenger. The style and design perfectly invoke the period, and the retro-futuristic technology (full of tubes, switches and dials) approaches the nostalgic fun of an Indiana Jones film. It’s a bit more somber than necessarily called for, and critics argue that it represents a series of “checked boxes” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe world-building, but I disagree. This film has enough old-school movie charm to make it a truly special, unique entry in the Marvel canon.
Captain America: The First Avenger opens in the present day with men arriving at a discovery in the Arctic. The blowing winds, mysterious discovery, and enigmatic lack of information deliberately invokes the opening sequence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977). After two of the men discover Captain America’s frozen shield, the film cuts to Norway in 1942. A team of soldiers from Hydra, a Nazi science division, led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) invade a small town in search of a powerful artifact. Schmidt finds the artifact, a glowing blue cube called the Tesseract, hidden in a church. He scoffs at Hitler digging for “trinkets in the desert,” directly referencing Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981). That is two direct Spielberg references in as many sequences, demonstrating Johnston’s intention to emulate the king of blockbusters. This is a high bar to set for himself. Schmidt also makes reference to Odin and Norse mythology, connecting the Tesseract to Thor (Branagh, 2011). This is exactly the kind of moment that critics of the MCU will point to when they argue that these films get too caught up in the universe-building. But this reference is so minor that it simply adds an exciting, shared-universe flavour for fans, while viewers who have not seen Thor will not bat an eye.
The film then cuts to New York City, where Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) fails, for the fifth time, to enlist in the United States Military. Steve is short and skinny, often described uncharitably in the comics as a “98-pound weakling,” with conditions such as asthma that make him unfit for service. The effect of digitally turning Chris Evans, who buffed up considerably for the role, into pre-super-soldier Steve remains remarkable and convincing. Scenes featuring the skinny Steve were shot four times: with Evans giving his performance on set, with Evans absent from the shot, with a smaller body double mimicking Evans’ actions, and finally with Evans giving his performance in front of a green screen. Visual effects company LOLA was then able to digitally slim down Evans and convincingly place him in the scene. The idea of having a body double perform the scene and digitally replace his face was originally suggested, but the filmmakers wanted full continuity of the performance. This was vital, as the strength of Steve’s character before he is embiggened needed to be firmly established.
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America (IMDB)
That strength is on full display throughout these early scenes. Steve desperately wants to do his part for his country and the world, and feels guilty about staying home for being medically unfit. At a theatrical newsreel about the war, Steve notices upset audience members, and shushes a rude man heckling the footage. This results in Steve getting beaten up in an alley by the heckler, who is twice his size, but Steve refuses to back down. He is devoted, compassionate, courageous and unshakable. He is also a little jealous as his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), prepares to ship off. Steve tries once more to enlist and is spotted by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine recognizes Steve’s character, and asks him why he wants to fight. Steve insists that he does not just want to kill Nazis. He says “I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from.” This line, more than anything, defines the character’s motivations for the rest of his films. Steve Rogers does not want to fight for the sake of fighting, and he is not blindly loyal to his country or superiors. He follows his own moral compass. In the future, this will serve him well against Hydra, Loki and Thanos, but it will cost him dearly against the likes of SHIELD and Iron Man.
All of the scenes with Steve and his allies are shot with a sepia tint, making them seem warm and old-fashioned. Johnston contrasts this with Hydra scenes, which have a cold, blue tint. Steve is sent to a training camp for Erskine’s top secret project where he and other recruits are judged by Erskine, General Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). By this point, Marvel Studios films had already demonstrated a knack for casting, and The First Avenger continues this trend. Tucci is effortlessly warm and kind as Erskine, a motivational father-like figure for Steve. Jones, meanwhile, offers perfect shorthand for a tough, no-nonsense career Army man, but also has ample opportunity for funny asides. Atwell is the true discovery, however. Her Peggy Carter is strong, capable, and feminine. So memorable was her performance that fans clamoured for some kind of spin-off project after this film, resulting in two seasons, eighteen episodes, of Agent Carter (2015-2016).
Steve continues to set himself apart in training, demonstrating his greater intuition and courage than other recruits. Once he is chosen to undergo Erskine’s procedure, Erskine explains that he initially worked on the super-soldier formula for the Nazis. He was coerced into testing it on Schmidt, with disastrous results. This bit of exposition is a visual highlight of the film, as the montage of images and abstract scientific backgrounds invoke old comic book panels. The moral of the exposition, however, is that the super-soldier procedure will not just exaggerate physical features, but every part of a person. Schmidt became crazed because he already was a little crazy, whereas Steve is good and pure.
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter (Photo by Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios – © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM &2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)
Peggy brings Steve to a secret lab in Brooklyn where onlookers observe the procedure. The sequence is an absolutely perfect representation of comic book science. There are blue vials of serum, a mechanical sarcophagus that bathes Steve in “vita-rays,” and banks of endless switches, wheels and dials manned by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Fans of Iron Man 2 will remember that Howard is Tony Stark/Iron Man’s father, while other viewers will not dwell on the character. Steve emerges from the procedure as an example of the perfect human specimen. As in Thor, filmmakers use this as a chance to employ the female gaze for a chiselled male superhero. In this film, the moment is memorably punctuated when a flustered Peggy briefly touches Steve’s chest. This was improvised by Atwell, but I cannot imagine the scene without it. The elation over successfully creating the first super-soldier is shattered, however, when Heinz Kruger (Richard Armitage), a Hydra assassin, shoots Erskine, steals the last vial of formula, and sets off an explosion to cover his escape. After a touching death scene for Erskine, Steve rushes off to chase down Kruger. This foot chase is an efficient, exciting way to demonstrate Steve newfound strength, speed and agility. Steve gets his man, but the last vial is destroyed and Kruger swallows poison. And so, the first super-soldier becomes the only super-soldier.
The military is disappointed, but sees an opportunity in Steve. Rather than having him fight in Europe, they dub him Captain America, give him a spangly costume, and send him on a propaganda tour to sell war bonds. I love this section of the film, as it accomplishes so much at once. It credibly gives Steve his superhero name and costume, which may have been difficult to justify otherwise. It also raises his level of fame across America, which is important for establishing his legend. His show is set to “The Star-Spangled Man,” an period-appropriate show-tune written for the film by Disney musical legend Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel. The show features Steve punching out Adolf Hitler, in a direct reference to the classic cover of Captain America Comics #1. But finally, from a character perspective, it highlights the publicity and propaganda side of war, and Steve’s distaste with being used by the government in this way since, from the beginning of the film, all he wants to do is fight. The sequence reminds me Flags of Our Fathers (Eastwood, 2006), an interesting film that focused on the propaganda tour undertaken by American soldiers after the Battle of Iwo Jima and stood in interesting contrast to the Japanese-centric, and superior, Letters From Iwo Jima (Eastwood, 2006).
Steve’s publicity efforts eventually lead to a USO Tour in Italy, where real soldiers are less-impressed by his silly posturing. When he learns that over a hundred men, including Bucky, are missing after a failed attack on Hydra nearby, Steve finally decides to take action. With help from Peggy and Howard, Steve infiltrates a nearby Hydra base. Hydra is run by Schmidt as an experimental science wing of the Nazi regime, with Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) as its nebbish, hesitant chief scientist. They are using the Tesseract to make extremely powerful energy weapons. An earlier scene demonstrates the dangers of Hydra by establishing that Schmidt is more extreme than the Nazis by having him kill his Nazi overseers and threaten the entire world. Weaving, having established his genre-villain credibility as Agent Smith in the Matrix films, makes a fun, over-the-top villain. However, I have always found the focus on Hydra over Nazis in The First Avenger to be one of its chief disappointments. Certain Nazi characters wear swastika armbands, but they are never shown clearly. This is particularly noticeable immediately after X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), which featured unabashed Nazi hunting. The screenwriters claimed that they decided to focus on Hydra as Steve’s chief enemies to depict “Marvel’s World War 2,” rather than place Captain America in some semblance of the real war. I understand their perspective and in retrospect their focus on Hydra here served them well in future films. I am still disappointed that we did not get to see Captain America fighting some Nazis, or storming a beach, or liberating a concentration camp. But, we must judge these films by what they are, and not by what we wanted them to be. Take heed, toxic Star Wars “fans”.
(Photo by Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios – © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM &2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)
Steve rescues thousands of prisoners, including Bucky, and they stage an escape from the Hydra facility. Schmidt self-destructs the base, but still takes the time to confront Steve face-to-red face. It’s revealed that Schmidt gained powers similar to Steve in his procedure, but it left him with a red, skull-like head. Schmidt removes his human mask and burns it, inspired by Steve to be his true self. I enjoy it when villains have a healthy respect for heroes in this kind of film. Steve’s liberation of the facility begins his legendary war career in earnest. He recruits a group of soldiers from the escapees, and begins hunting down Hydra facilities one at a time. Howard gives him a new, round vibranium shield and a more practical costume. The costume looks a bit padded (it took the filmmakers a few films to get Cap’s costume right), but it works. Like many Marvel films at this point, the costume design seems inspired by Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics, which updated classic stories and characters to be more modern and practical.
The montage of Steve’s exploits is one of the low points of the film for me simply because it does not fit with Johnston’s otherwise classical style. It’s full of quick cuts, slow motion, and showy shots meant for 3D presentations. Johnston reportedly shot for one day with 3D cameras and hated it. Still wanting to release the film in 3D, however, Marvel decided to convert it afterwards. And so, the montage feels like a glaring compromise. Another rough patch in the film is the Steve/Peggy romance. It’s sweet, since she knew and liked him before his procedure, but the screenwriters spoil the chemistry between the characters by clumsily finding ways to keep them apart. The goal was clearly to leave their love unconsummated, adding to the tragedy at the end of the film, but it feels contrived.
In a late mission, Steve’s team captures Dr. Zola from a train, but Bucky is lost. It was a smart choice to move up Bucky’s apparent death, rather than having it coincide with Steve’s as in the comics, to allow Steve to mourn for his friend. Moments like these introduce a sombreness to the film that keeps it from being as lightly fun as Raiders of the Lost Ark but, as with the focus on Hydra, this tonal choice betters sets up the films that followed. The filmmakers were playing the long-game in this film, and it ultimately paid off. Zola betrays Schmidt, pointing Steve directly to Hydra’s main base on the eve of their big attack. Schmidt plans to fly his enormous plane around the world, attacking major cities with his Tesseract-powered weapons. Steve leads an invasion of the base, and manages to get onto the plane as it takes off. Steve faces off with Schmidt in the plane, and the Tesseract is knocked loose. Schmidt picks it up, but it opens a portal to space and sucks him in. Viewers would later learn that this is the Space Infinity Stone but, at the time, Schmidt’s fate was unclear and a bit anticlimactic.
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt / Red Skull (© 2011 – Paramount Pictures) (IMDB)
It did pave the way for the true climax of the film, however, which is brilliantly done. The controls of the plane were damaged in the fight, and Steve sees no other choice but to manually crash the plane to save the world from its weaponry. Self-sacrifice to do the right thing is perfectly in keeping with his character, and the filmmakers are bold enough to let the sacrifice play out. Given the comics history, they had no other choice, really, but it feels refreshing here. And those viewers unfamiliar with the character’s history may have even been shocked by his apparent death. Steve makes plans for a date with Peggy over the radio until the plane crashes. Afterward, the Tesseract is found by Howard Stark, the war ends and kids are shown playing “Captain America” make-believe in the streets. This is key, Steve’s legend is cemented, and he will be remembered as a hero. And the film ends.
Well, no it doesn’t, but wouldn’t that have been amazing? Over a black screen, we hear the sounds of blowing Arctic winds recalling the beginning of the film, and Steve awakens in what seems to be a 1940s New York hospital room. Steve immediately sees through the ruse, and he bursts out of the fake room, out of the building, and into Times Square circa 2011. It’s legitimately jarring to be confronted with the ads, lights and imagery of Times Square after two hours of ’40s war imagery. The filmmakers were smart to choose such a visually-dynamic representation of modern culture. Steve is surrounded by SHIELD agents and approached by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who explains that Steve has been asleep nearly seventy years. Sweetly, Steve’s first thought is that he missed his date with Peggy. Then the film ends for real.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the first MCU film to feel truly different from other superhero films. It’s set in the ’40s, during the Second World War, and it extolls the values of that time. At its centre, Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers with conviction, strength and sincerity, rather than sarcasm or gloom like most cinematic heroes of the time. He manages to portray true goodness as compelling rather than boring, which is not easy. Inspired by the success of this film, Marvel Studios would continue to experiment by combining genres with the superhero formula such as paranoid thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014)), space fantasy (Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)), heist comedy (Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)), and coming-of-age comedy (Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)). This is how they would continue to keep comic book films fresh and entertaining to audiences, and sidestep the constant predictions of imminent superhero fatigue.
But it’s not a perfect film. It’s not quite as fun as one might imagine from a film so clearly emulating Spielberg. It’s a bit dour at times, and does not fully capitalize on the romance. It also misses the opportunity to see Captain America beat up Nazis. I don’t consider these criticisms to be constructive, however, as they malign the film for not being exactly what I wanted it to be rather than judging it on its own terms. More valid criticisms would involve the focus on world-building over telling its own cohesive story. The film does tie directly to Thor, Iron Man 2 and even The Incredible Hulk. It also sets up the Avengers directly by bringing Captain America into the present day so that he can join the team the following year. The film even includes the word “Avenger” right there in the title, in a perhaps cynical effort to leverage excitement over the next film into success for this one. I do feel, though, that Johnston and his team manage to make this film just fun, inventive and unique enough to make viewers forget about all of that and just enjoy the ride.
The film was not as enormously successful as the Iron Man films, and it even grossed less than Thor from earlier in the year, but it performed well enough. Interestingly, the filmmakers were often asked whether negative sentiment towards the United States in certain parts of the world would hurt a film called “Captain America.” They responded hopefully, indicating that the Marvel brand was popular enough to make the character well-known and that Barack Obama’s election in late 2008 had encouraged them. Despite all of that, however, Captain America: The First Avenger has one of the worst box-office performances, proportionally, outside of North America of any MCU film. Luckily, The Avengers would introduce the character to a wider audience the following year, bolstering the success of Captain America sequels. The Avengers would also be the first Marvel film officially distributed by Disney, as The First Avenger ended Marvel’s distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. All of this is to say, the preamble was now over. All of the key characters had been introduced, and were in the right time period. The stage was set for the coming of The Avengers, and Marvel Studios was about to change Hollywood.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan Lee as a general, next to ’70s Captain America Reb Brown, waiting for Steve to be presented with a medal in Washington. That is 14 cameos in 24 films. (RIP Stan)
Rather than creating that an original post-credits scene, Marvel instead presented the first footage of The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). The clip opens with a scene of Nick Fury approaching Steve with a mission, thus making it feel like a follow-up to The First Avenger. This is followed by quick shots from the rest of the film. To those of you who take the existence of The Avengers for granted, I cannot express how thrilling it was to see Captain America, Thor, Black Widow and Tony Stark interacting together on-screen for the first time. It was mind-blowing, and the nine month countdown began.
– Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely would go on to shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe, writing Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), and the fourth Avengers film
– Hayley Atwell would reprise her role as Peggy Carter in Agent Carter as well as later MCU films. Sebastian Stan would also reprise his role as Bucky in at least five more films. Toby Jones would return as Dr. Zola in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Finally, Kenneth Choi, who plays soldier Jom Morita here, would go on to play Principal Morita, Jim’s grandson, in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
– Laura Haddock appears here in a small cameo asking for an autograph. She would go on to play Meredith Quill in theGuardians of the Galaxy films
– Alan Silvestri composed an excellent, classically heroic score for the film. He would expand on this work for The Avengers the following year, making me wish that Marvel Studios had one composer to musically unite its films. Silvestri would return to Marvel for the third and fourth Avengers films.
– Editor Jeffrey Ford seems to work exclusively for Marvel Studios following this film, editing six more MCU films so far
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:
Despite being the first film in the series chronologically, as it takes place mostly in the ’40s, the references play much better after seeing the previous four films. Also, the title and post-credits trailer make this the perfect lead-in to The Avengers.
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Captain America: The First Avenger
Next Time: Before the Avengers can assemble, we take a brief detour through the insanity of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.