Released: 22 July 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $140 to 216.7 million
Stars: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Stanley Tucci
Steve Rogers (Evans) wants nothing more than to enlist in the United States Army to combat the Axis Forces in the Second World War but has been repeatedly rejected because of his frail body and ill health. Intrigued by his resolve, Doctor Abraham Erskine (Tucci) enlists him into the experimental super soldier program, transforming him into a veritable superhuman. With the tide of the war teetering on a razor’s edge after his Nazi counterpart, Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Weaving), acquires the mysterious Tesseract, Steve defies orders and engages on a crusade to bring down the Red Skull’s Hydra forces as Captain America.
Captain America: The First Avenger was the fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but a big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comic’s patriotic super soldier was actually in development as far back as the year 2000. After settling an ugly lawsuit regarding the character, and bolstered by the early success of the MCU, producer Kevin Feige soldiered on (no pun intended) with his plan to introduce some of Marvel’s classic characters in solo films before bringing them together for a big team up and chose to focus on setting the stage for Cap’s “man out of time” story arc in the wider MCU. After signing director Joe Johnston, production began in earnest in 2010; after some hesitation, Chris Evans (who had previously starred as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in separate, unconnected Marvel adaptations) joined the film in the title role and cutting edge digital effects were used to portray him as a weak and frail man prior to showcasing his impressive physique. Perhaps because audience anticipation for the upcoming Avengers movie was reaching its peak, Captain America: The First Avenger was a resounding box office success; the film made over $370 million in worldwide gross and was met with widespread critical acclaim, though some noted that it was maybe playing things a little too safe, which I agreed with at the time. Nevertheless, the film’s success led directly into the aforementioned Avengers movie and galvanised Captain America as an icon for an entirely new audience, one who would go on to become a major part of the MCU as it continued to unfold in subsequent years.
Captain America: The First Avenger is bookended by scenes set in the then-modern day; the opening sequence depicts a team of scientists (and a few representatives from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.)) discovering a futuristic aircraft buried in the Arctic that houses the frozen body of Steve Rogers. From there, the film jumps back to 1942, at the tail-end (and height) of the Second World War; Nazi Germany is aggressively spreading death and destruction across most of Europe and the Allied Powers (mainly the United Kingdom and the United States of America, especially in Hollywood) are frantically trying to push them back. As a result, the U.S. continues to ask for volunteers to join her ranks to fight for the ideals of freedom and equality. None embody these beliefs more than young Steve Rogers, a frightfully malnourished man whose family were killed as a result of the War and who has been repeatedly denied his time in service of his country due to his many physical ailments.
Frustrated at his inability to “do his part”, Steve upholds his ideals on the home front; even when he is clearly physically mismatched against bullies and braggarts, Steve continues to get up and fight back in an effort to prove himself (and to vent his frustrations). While his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan) is often on hand to help him out, both physically and with the ladies, Steve desperately wishes to contribute to the war effort despite him being basically infirm and more than a little unlucky in love. His latest effort to lie his way into active service catches the attention of Dr. Erskine, who is inspired by Steve’s moxie and his lofty idealism. Dr. Erskine sees Steve as the perfect candidate to undergo the super soldier procedure not because he is a good soldier, but because he is a good man and Steve, who has no desire to kill anyone and simply wishes to stand up to bullies, jumps at the chance to be a part of “Project: Rebirth” and the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.). While Colonel Chester Phillips (Jones) is less than impressed with Dr. Erskine’s selection above the other far more physically capable recruits in his regiment, Dr. Erskine remains resolute in his choice and Steve’s adaptability and never-say-die mentality catches the admiration of British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). As part of their unit, Steve is put through the paces of basic training and demonstrates his bravery on numerous occasions but the one that stands out the most is when he willingly throws himself upon what is believed to be a live grenade to shield his fellow soldiers.
The super soldier serum is more than just a simple shot in the arm or a light show; in conjunction with technology provided by Howard Stark (Cooper), Erskine subjects Steve to a series of deep injections and a bombardment of “Vita Rays” that augment his physical stature and abilities far beyond those of a normal man. Now tall, muscular, and sporting a rapid metabolism, Steve is made a veritable superhuman but at the cost of Dr. Erskine’s life as Hydra agents strike following the procedure and cause the super soldier serum to be lost. Angered at being denied an army of super soldiers, Philips decides not to utilise Steve’s amplified abilities and he is, instead, reduced to touring the nation as the colourful “Captain America” to promote war bonds rather than fighting alongside the other troops. When Bucky and his unit are declared missing in action in Berlin, Steve disobeys Philips’ direct orders and goes in alone to rescue them; in the process, he meets his Nazi counterpart and learns of Hydra’s plan to attack major American cities with his Tesseract-powered weapons. Alongside Bucky and his unit, the “Howling Commandos”, Steve is officially drafted into the US army as Captain America and given an amazing suit of red, white, and blue and a circular shield made of the supposedly-indestructible “Vibranium” and sets out to put a stop to the Red Skull’s goals of world conquest. In the process, Steve earns not only the respect of his peers and fellow soldiers but also (after some awkward miscommunication) the love of Carter; however, his crusade against Hydra soon becomes as much of a personal vendetta as a mission to safeguard the world and Steve is soon forced not only into a desperate battle against the Red Skull but also into making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.
While the super soldier procedure is a success with Steve, Dr. Erskine’s earlier efforts were just as successful but on the opposite end of the spectrum. Johann Schmidt is an extremely charismatic and learned man; with a fascination and deep knowledge of legends and mythology, he seeks the ultimate tangible power in the form of the Tesseract. To acquire this magical object, he ransacks the small town of Tønsberg using both the imposing force of Hydra and his enigmatic personality. As charming as he is ruthless, Schmidt doesn’t hesitate to kill innocents in his pursuit of power and, having obtained the Tesseract, his goal expands considerably; thanks to the near-limitless power of the cosmic cube, Schmidt and his right-hand man, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), is able to develop incredibly advanced weaponry almost overnight and, very quickly, he sets his sights on conquering the world not in the name of his Fuhrer but in the name of Hydra and the Red Skull! Subjected to an incomplete version of the super soldier process, Schmidt has gained incredible superhuman abilities and found his intellect and brutality augmented a thousand-fold but at the cost of his physical appearance. Now sporting a blood red visage beneath a life-like human mask, the Red Skull is a horrific and formidable adversary even without the Tesseract but, once he begins experimenting with its powers, he comes almost unstoppable. Thanks to Weaving’s unparalleled screen charisma and some absolutely top-notch practical effects, the Red Skull is brought to gruesome life; as great as many of the film’s effects, period-appropriate technology and attention to detail, and even Cap’s costume are, the Red Skull’s appearance and portrayal are a constant highlight for me every time I watch Captain America: The First Avenger and I never fail to feel like we were robbed of subsequent appearances by the villain.
When I first saw Captain America: The First Avenger, I was extremely eager to get the film out of the way as it was the final step towards the long-awaited Avengers film; as a result, while I enjoyed it at the time, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. However, in the years since, I have come to appreciate what an impressive piece of superhero cinema it is. Setting the vast majority of its run-time in the 1940s was a brilliant way to separate it from other MCU movies and to devote the proper time to establishing the ideals and morals of Captain America, a character who could easily be seen as hokey and cheesy in modern times. Additionally, like I mentioned in my review of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), one of the things that really helped the MCU (and other superhero movies of this time) out was the quality of its casting. Although the film doesn’t ask much of Tommy Lee Jones other than to be every gruff and jaded military commander you’ve ever seen, he steals every scene he’s in; Hayley Atwell is both gorgeous and impressive as Agent Carter (a woman living in a man’s world who is striving to prove herself as much as Steve is); and even the smallest roles are bolstered by some well-placed humour and appealing character actors.
Considering how grounded and gritty the film is compared to the other MCU films from that era, Captain America: The First Avenger is no slouch in the action and effects department; while some of the special effects are a little iffy compared to other MCU films as the film came out around the time when it was in-vogue to cater to the 3D market, the costume and set design is incredibly impressive. All of the Hydra forces and weaponry are ripped right out of the comic books, the quaint 1940s technology is given a suitably futuristic flair thanks to the efforts of both Stark and Hydra, and once Cap launches his campaign against the Red Skull the film really ramps up. Thanks to his superhuman metabolism, Cap is virtually inexhaustible and a formidable opponent despite his lack of training and experience compared to his fellow soldiers; crucially, he’s also still a man and capable of being injured, which helps as much as his uncompromising commitment to justice and fairness to make him extremely easy to root for. Much of this is down to Evans’ likeable charisma; he portrays Steve as a shy, quirky man just trying to do the right thing even after he balloons out into a muscular physique and it’s impossible to not be won over by his idealism and rugged good looks.
This goes a long way to empathising with Steve after he is left devastated when Bucky falls to his apparent death during his team’s successful mission to capture Zola; although anyone who is familiar with the characters and comics knew that Bucky was destined to return later in life, this is still a powerful scene and motivation for Cap’s renewed efforts to strike back against Hydra using information given to the S.S.R. by the seemingly remorseful Zola. This leads to a physical confrontation between Cap and the Red Skull on a Hydra aircraft carrying devastating weapons of mass destruction. Though physically even, the fight remains a brutal slugfest between the two that sees the Tesseract damaged; when he touches the cube, Schmidt is seemingly vaporised by an intense blast of rainbow energy and Steve is left with no choice but to pilot the craft to a suicide dive into the frozen wasteland. Of course, the film ends with Steve awakening in then-modern times and finding the world has moved on over the last seventy years; though despondent at having missed his chance with Peggy, Steve is immediately approached by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., with a new mission to defend the world from an approaching danger. One aspect that I’ve always enjoyed about the film is the incredible attention to detail to its setting and the wider MCU; not only do we get the prerequisite cameo from Stan Lee but Cap dons a fabric version of his costume that is a direct one-to-one interpretation of his comic book counterpart (and still somehow looks better than the suit in the 1990 movie). The film also includes a brief cameo from Jim Hammond/The Human Torch and iconic Howling Commandos such Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough). Additionally, when we’re first introduced to Zola, he’s framed in a magnifying glass to resemble the android body of his comic book counterpart, Hydra’s Tesseract weapons emit the same distinctive whine as Tony Stark/Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) Repulsor Rays, and Schmidt makes frequent references to Norse mythology.
Honestly, of all the colourful superheroes in Marvel Comics, I’ve never had much of an affinity for Captain America. This may have something to do with the fact that I am British and not really much of a patriot but, in my experience, he generally falls into the unenviable role of the staunch, righteous leader rather than being an especially interesting or engaging character. My indifference towards the character was changed by this film, and Cap’s portrayal in the MCU in general, though. As I mentioned, on first viewing, I didn’t think much to it; it was just another by-the-numbers superhero origin story that was a necessary step on the road to the Avengers movie and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t exactly blow me away beyond some impressive special (and practical) effects and performances. Very quickly into the MCU’s second phase of movies, though, I came to appreciate just how entertaining this film is; all too often, many people complain about the MCU being too derivative and indistinguishable but I generally believe to be nonsense as the first phase of films alone dabbles in science-fiction, fantasy, and this period piece that all mesh as part of a greater whole thanks to the film’s having a focused goal in mind. Captain America: The First Avenger is, perhaps, one of the under-rated gems of the MCU that quickly became eclipsed by its bigger, better sequel but make no mistake about it, this is one hell of an entertaining watch that is full of action, heart, and some fantastic performances from the likes of Chris Evans and, especially, Hugo Weaving.
What did you think to Captain America: The First Avenger? Were you a fan upon first viewing or, like me, did you come to appreciate it more over time? What did you think to the film’s presentation and special effects, especially the Red Skull and Captain America’s suit? Were you also disappointed that we never got a rematch between Cap and Schmidt? Where does this film rank against the other Captain America movies and the larger MCU? How are you celebrating Captain America this month? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Captain America content throughout July.