in Retrospecticus, Review

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Original Review: O Captain! My Captain! (three and a half stars)

The one thing stopping my MCU Retrospecticus from being in chronological order is Captain America: The First Avenger, which is mostly set way before the dream of the Nineties in stupid World War II. Way to ruin it for me, Cap! Actually, chronology gets super complicated later on, you’ll have to read a bunch of Wikis to find out when exactly movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange take place. And that’s without even mentioning how confusing things get thanks to the “eight years later” thing in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Nonetheless, historically, I’ve had an odd apathy for the first Captain America MCU movie.

Back in 2011, Captain America was to me what a lot of people incorrectly believe Superman is: the boring leader super hero. Why would I be excited about a dude who is merely preposterously strong after watching Thor kill a robot with a hurricane of lightning? Sounds like a downgrade to me. Plus, I was so pumped for The Avengers that The First Avenger seemed like an obstacle; one last hurdle to clear before we reached the apex of super hero cinema. John even complained in his review that the movie is too concerned with setting up the team up! So I was glad to see it outside of that context, because I now believe it to be the strongest origin story in all of Phase One. Yes, even better than Iron Man. Let me explain.

So the thing about seeming boring. It all starts with the first incarnation of Captain America in the comics, who was popular but mostly a work of propaganda. Empowered by a super soldier serum created by, I shit you not, Dr. Reinstein, Steve Rogers was a tough dude who spent his time clobbering our enemies during WWII. Post-war he started fighting commies and lost popularity and eventually the title was cancelled. Then in the sixties, Cap was brought back to lead the Avengers. Marvel retconned the unpopular version of the character from the early fifties away, changing it so the real Steve and Bucky had been frozen at the end of the war. This is what makes Cap a compelling character and not just a lame tough guy: he’s a man out of time.

The idea of a character being a “Captain America” is one that has aged poorly since the forties. Audiences’ perception of blind patriotism has changed from an admirable quality to a dangerous personality defect, as shown in characters like Nuke. Modern iterations of the character, including the one in the MCU, have veered away from him representing the stars and stripes and instead have him fighting for America’s ideals – which are just his ideals. In The First Avenger, this is shown when Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci’s mercifully renamed Dr. Reinstein) asks Steve if he wants to kill Nazis and Steve replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.” Well, isn’t that cute.

Steve Rogers has a whole lot of heart. He’s the kind of guy who gets beat up all the time because he refuses to run away from a fight. He refuses to let his frailty or the fact that he’s an orphan get him down. He would (and does) jump on a grenade for his fellow soldiers. Erskine sees that Rogers is a good man and decides that he must be the one to get super powers. He says that Rogers, as a good man, can appreciate the power he’s being given, while others would abuse it. I’ve talked before about wanting to be Iron Man, and that’s part of it here, but really, I only want Steve Rogers to be Captain America. He’s an old school super hero, and even though most of this movie takes place during WWII, that still makes him out of place.

The First Avenger‘s version of WWII does have a wholly integrated American military and evil super Nazis with laser weapons, but it’s still a darker portrayal of the war than you might expect in such a campy film. After Erskine is murdered and Rogers is left the only super solider, the military decides to use him to sell war bonds, a clever send-up of its comic roots. The soldiers actually fighting the war aren’t amused by this Captain America, and the top brass consider him a novelty at best. The only way Cap can actually help in the war is by violating orders and going out on a rescue mission by himself. The movie is saying that our idealized heroes didn’t actually exist and don’t fit in, even in what some people consider a “good war.”

Hopefully I haven’t made it seem like I’m taking this movie too seriously, because mostly it’s a good time. The musical montage of Cap selling bonds is amazing. Seeing a super hero shoot soldiers with a gun isn’t totally bizarre, it works. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is fine. I mean, he looks real cool, but you’d think Agent Smith would be having more fun playing the ultimate Nazi. Tommy Lee Jones gets a few laughs and seeing Hayley Atwell again made me really miss Agent Carter. Is Joe Johnston retreading some of what he did with The Rocketeer? Yes, but who cares? That was a great movie and so is this one.

As far a canon, obviously a lot of this ties into Agent Carter, which is set a few years later and brings back Dominic Cooper’s young Howard Stark, the Howling Commandos, and SHIELD predecessor the SSR. Dr. Zola is captured and not heard from again, setting up his eventual return as a computer in The Winter Soldier. Speaking of that guy, Bucky is shown being experimented on before he falls to his death, I guess setting up that aspect of the sequel too. This is also the second appearance of the Cosmic Cube, called the Tesseract in the MCU, after Fury showed it to Selvig in Thor. That thing is in a lot of these movies. The ending of this movie is revisited and expanded on in The Avengers, and the after-credits stinger is literally just the first trailer for that movie. It was a big deal!

MCU Power Rankings: I’m putting in the top spot, my favorite so far.