Welcome back, True Believers! To mark the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, join us as we rewatch the entire series, one film at a time.
In our latest entry, we travel back to 1942 to meet Steven Grant Rogers AKA Captain America, and as we assemble the final part of the Avengers, discuss how the film balances earnestness and grit, whether Captain America should kill, and spot the MCU’s first bare arse.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Alex: Let’s start with a confession: this was the first MCU film I didn’t see in cinemas – or, in fact, for a couple of years afterwards. The first time I saw it, I was drunk and it was on silent in the background, while friend of the blog David Inkpen added our own dialogue and sound effects.
Tim: That is not really an optimum viewing experience.
Alex: It is not. For that reason, I’ve always been a bit dismissive of Captain America – the film and, possibly, the character as a whole. And I am here today to say, to the good people of T+AKTMCU, that I was wrong.
Tim: So watching it properly now, what were you most struck by?
Alex: Probably the film’s tone, which is markedly different to its MCU predecessors. The dialogue is a lot less focused on that acerbic wit, it’s less afraid of being a bit cheesy. It feels more like an old-fashioned family blockbuster; in the sepia-tinged wartime setting, obviously, but there’s also a lot of Spielberg and Lucas in there, and a good dose of the films I grew up with the ’90s. Which makes sense, given the director made a lot of them.
Tim: Yeah, Joe Johnston’s history with films like The Rocketeer in particular made him a natural fit for the period piece action we get here.
Alex: Rocketeer is the comparison I always heard people make, but I only recently found out – through you mentioning it on a podcast, actually – that he also directed Jumanji and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. And that really informed this viewing.
Tim: There’s an earnestness that Captain America has to tap into that the other Marvel films don’t. It makes sense that someone skilled at producing family films would be able to bring that out
And it helps that the period setting makes us more accepting of that uncynical viewpoint. World War II makes it fairly easy to tell a straightforward good-guys-vs-bad-guys story if you want to. Cap’s later films will get more morally complex, but this one sets him up as that straight arrow that we can always rely on.
Alex: As I said, I’ve long dismissed Chris Evans’ Cap as my least favourite of the Avengers. I don’t have a real sense yet of whether that’s going to change as our rewatch continues, but after this, I’m certainly going to be giving Steve Rogers a fairer shake of the stick.
Tim: I think Evans is excellent in the role, and I’m really glad we get to spend as much time as we do with him as pre-serum Steve. Not just because the effects are still stunning (although hearing Evans’ reassuringly deep voice issue forth from such a skinny bod is a little disconcerting) but because it roots the character as someone willing to stand up for what’s right even when he doesn’t have the power to change things.
Alex: It’s notable how different Cap’s role is to the other Avenging types that we’ve met so far. He’s this universe’s Superman, essentially – an icon to be looked up to. Like you say, Evans pulls that off with aplomb, but I do wonder about how much room it leaves the character to grow.
It’s almost the inverse of that classic Spider-Man origin – Steve is given the power because he has the responsibility – so he doesn’t really have a lesson to learn as part of his origin story, and he doesn’t really change in this movie. The circumstances just shift around him.
Tim: In a lot of ways, his journey in this film is the opposite of both Iron Man and Thor’s. He begins the film as a selfless, responsible person, and then has to struggle to get the power to make changes in the world. Not just in terms of getting his ridiculous bod – he also has to work to gain confidence, and be respected as a leader.
Alex: I’m not sure I’d buy that plot in a standalone movie, but it works here because it’s a point of contrast – unlike Stark or Thor, Cap is a reliable constant. That kind of contrast is a fascinating side effect of the interconnected, serialised cinematic storytelling that the MCU is known for.
There’s one moment that really sums up how different Cap’s role is, for me, is the moment he gets his powers. It’s not that different to Iron Man or Hulk’s origin, in terms of science granting a man supernatural abilities, but when we first see him use them it’s not monstrous, like Iron Man emerging from the cave or Hulk in the factory… It’s inspiring.
Alex: Something that is significantly less inspiring, though, is this movie’s villain – Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull.
Tim: Well he is a Nazi, Alex.
Alex: But if there’s one thing Nazis are good for (and there is only one thing), it’s seeing them get punched in the face. And yet, for my money, Red Skull is the least interesting MCU villain yet – a bar that, between Obadiah Stane and Laufey, honestly has been set pretty low.
Tim: With the fairly flat characterisation and the heavy makeup job, I can understand why Hugo Weaving didn’t return.
I do like the contrast the film establishes between Skull’s Ubermensch philosophy and Rogers’ “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn” humility, and that his arrogance extends to recognising Steve as an equal. When he spots him during the prison break sequence, his line of thought seems to be “well, I could easily destroy this facility all by myself, so I guess this other serum-beneficiary can too”, and then he promptly self-destructs the place and takes off in his very fancy spinning jet-copter thing.
Great taste in vehicle design aside, though, there’s very little to differentiate him from Standard Nazi Villain #48.
Alex: This is definitely my main problem with Red Skull. He cycles through all the standard villain tropes: shooting his own men, turning on the higher-ups who think they’ve got him under control… Worse, though, I don’t really understand why he’s doing this stuff, or why anyone would follow him.
Tim: I think in a way the film recognises that with the way Zola reacts to the Red Skull’s actions. And it’s fascinating that Zola goes on to be one of the steering forces of Hydra going forward in the MCU – Red Skull’s legacy basically ends here.
Alex: Speaking of Hydra – which is this film’s biggest contribution to MCU villainy – I’m amazed how quickly it sidesteps the whole ‘Nazi’ thing, and makes Red Skull and his fascist baddies very much their own thing.
Tim: Yes – apparently there was a lot of back and forth about that during the making of the film. Up until fairly late in the process, they were going to be more closely tied with the Nazis, with associated iconography on their uniforms etc.
But once they made the decision to separate them slightly, there were even plans to show them attacking Axis forces as well as the Allies. While that didn’t quite make it in, there’s still hints at it when Schmidt is eliminating the visiting Nazi officers.
Alex: Honestly, it’s hard to know what to make of that. Is the enemy of a Nazi my friend?
Tim: In a way it feels like the film is trying to one-up reality – you guys have heard of the Nazis, right? Well these are the ones who were too hardcore even for the Nazis! But it’s also in line with Marvel’s recent attempts to separate Hydra a little from its Nazi history in the comics.
I’m glad that we still get Captain America punching Hitler, though, even if it is in a fictionalised version of the real-life first issue of the comic.
Alex: The Hitler-punch is a great example of the film adapting an iconic moment from the comics – how do you reckon the rest of it fares as a superhero story?
Tim: Captain America presents an interesting compromise. Even though his actions are more focused on saving lives than perhaps any Marvel hero yet, because we are so thoroughly rooted in the wartime setting and his place within it, he doesn’t really read as a ‘superhero’. At least, until that final ‘40s-era shot of the child with the trash can shield.
Alex: The film is kind of ambiguous on the question – one that I think is vital to all superhero fiction – of whether Cap kills people.
Tim: I mean, he definitely kills people in this film. One dude gets blended in a plane rotor, in classic Indiana Jones style.
Alex: Ah, good point. I think the thing that grabbed my attention was specifically Cap’s relationship with guns, which is one of those inviolable rules of superheroes for me. Ignoring the two inside his uniform sleeves, Cap definitely carries a gun, and we even see him fire it, but his target always remains off-screen. We never actually see him (sorry) pop a cap in someone’s ass. It feels like a case of plausible deniability.
Tim: The line during his medical exam, about not wanting to kill Nazis, just wanting to stop bullies, feels very telling in this regard. As does his choice to adopt a shield as his main weapon (obviously drawn from the comics).
Alex: Back to the wider superheroic question, though… I said earlier that The First Avenger isn’t afraid to be a little corny, and I think part of that is embracing its comics heritage. I was amazed at quite how red the Skull is. And even though they’re just a bunch of soldiers, the inclusion of the Howling Commandoes feels like the most perfectly Marvel Comics deep cut in any of the films yet.
Tim: I love the costuming of the Howling Commandos – similar enough to feel like a uniform, but each distinct and full of individual flair.
This is a film full of beautiful costume and production design, actually. They do a tremendous job on realising Cap’s costume. From the completely accurate but completely ludicrous USO show uniform, evolving through his prison break outfit to the final full-blown but practical Captain America uniform, it realises an iconic but very comic-booky costume design while rooting Cap in the ‘real world’ that has been established by the other Marvel films.
Alex: I feel like it’s around this point that the idea of what a Marvel movie is begins to change. Captain America feels much more comfortable with embracing pure comics silliness, and this is the second film in a row which takes us outside of that modern-day ‘real world’ comfort zone.
You mention the grounding of Cap’s costume, and you’re right, but overall I’m honestly not sure how much of this film’s DNA I could trace back to the films that have preceded it.
Tim: The period setting definitely removes it from our existing preconceptions of a ‘Marvel film’ and, like you say, allows it to play around with tone a little more.
Alex: I’d note that, like Thor, this film does start out in a more recognisable setting – with the two SHIELD agents coming across the frozen Cap in the Arctic – before jumping back in time, to something more unknown.
Tim: I feel like both that segment and the ‘Cap wakes up’ sequence at the end are much more in line with ‘standard Marvel’, both in terms of the cinematography and the overall tone.
Alex: It’s similar to the first Iron Man, I think, where the film’s more distinctive tone – let’s call it ‘old-timey-ness’ – starts to fade away towards the end. That actually works neatly to communicate the disjunct with the modern-day scenes, but it’s also true of a lot of the ‘40s climax. Maybe it’s just a case of the visual effects being turned up to 11, but it certainly feels more generically ‘Marvel’.
Tim: Structurally, the film is interesting. The first 70 minutes, up to Cap returning from liberating the prison camp, could almost be the pilot for a season of TV showing his missions against Hydra. Instead we get a montage to skip over that and take us to the ‘season finale’ with the Skull’s bomber.
Alex: It’s worth noting that The First Avenger marks a major development, and one that can sometimes go unnoticed in a director-fixated medium – the entrance of screenwriting duo Markus & McFeely. The pair will become the definitive voices of the MCU, writing all three Cap movies, the second Thor, Infinity War and its forthcoming sequel.
Whether it’s down to the entrance of Markus and McFeely, the particulars of the source material, or Marvel getting more confident as a studio, I do think the MCU is starting to develop its own identity. It’s potentially a gestalt one, based on decisions that various writers and directors have made, but there are clear patterns which are just starting to form, like building a broad and charismatic supporting cast, for example.
We saw it in Thor, and this film does similar work, introducing Bucky, Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos. It’s a great way of making a relatively static hero – like Cap, or later Black Panther – really pop.
I promise I haven’t just brought this up as an excuse to talk about Peggy Carter but… how have we gone this long without mentioning Peggy Carter?
Tim: PEGGY CARTER IS THE BEST.
Alex: She’s not reaching her full potential here, partly due to being written as a slightly generic badass woman who proves herself by being aggressively badass, but she is undeniably striking (and I don’t just mean because Hayley Atwell is an enormous hottie). The groundwork is certainly laid for Official MCU Masterwork Agent Carter.
Tim: I think she’s still one of the MCU’s best female roles at this point. Obviously she occupies similar territory to Black Widow, with the whole female spy thing, but Widow is always written as something of a cipher, whereas we get to see a little bit more of Peggy. I love that she stuck around as long as she did, not just with the TV series but with her various cameos later in the MCU.
Also worth noting – she never misses a shot unless actively being thrown off of it or almost hit by a car. She’s like Princess Leia that way.
BUILDING A UNIVERSE
Alex: Something that is fascinating about assembling such a strong supporting cast is that, at the end of the film, Steve – and the audience – permanently jumps to the modern day. It feels like a waste, as 70 years passing essentially wipes the slate clean.
Of course, with the power of hindsight, that doesn’t really end up being the case. We get plenty more Peggy, Bucky and Zola. Even the Howling Commandos have a bit of a presence in Agents of SHIELD, through their legacy if not in person.
And then there’s Howard Stark. I’ve talked before about how surprised I was to realise Howard is a lynchpin of the MCU in these early days – up until Civil War, in fact. That really comes into focus here because, for all that his influence has been felt in other films, this is the first time we properly meet him.
Tim: It’s fun comparing the figure we’ve briefly glimpsed in Iron Man 2 (played by Mad Men’s John Slattery) to his portrayal here, seeing the common ground between both his older self and Tony Stark. Dominic Cooper certainly manages to put across the same showman charm that we see in Tony.
Stark isn’t the only connection that gets established here, though. We have the Tesseract, which will prove to be extremely important in both the immediate and long-term future of the universe, and is used to trot out the same ‘magic and science are one and the same’ line that we got in Thor. This film ties the Tesseract pretty closely to the Asgardians, but seven years on, we know it doesn’t strictly belong to them.
Alex: The Asgardian stuff makes perfect sense, too, given the Nazi obsession with Teutonic myth.
Tim: In terms of other ties to the MCU’s mythology, we’ve already had one set up in The Incredible Hulk, which established that Erskine’s formula was involved in the creation of both the Hulk and the Abomination. Tying those two origins together certainly casts Banner in a new light when you consider Erskine’s speech about it unlocking the qualities inside you, and makes a lot of sense given Hulk’s later characterisation during the Ruffalo era.
Alex: The First Avenger makes really nice use of the wider universe, I think. It finds a new way to contribute to the feeling that the MCU is a plausible setting – by fleshing out its history.
But the film also takes its unique position as part of this sprawling multimedia franchise, and uses it to very interesting effect. I’m talking here about the ending.
The film ends multiple times, really. We get the emotional climax, which is (literally and figuratively) a pretty huge downer – a rare choice for such a straightforward blockbuster, and something we won’t see again in the MCU until Infinity War.
Then we get the bittersweet ending showing Cap’s legacy – something that we already have a sense of because characters in previous films have hinted at it, and that we’ll continue to see in future films. In a way, the film proper ends at that point.
But then we return to the bookending sequence, as Cap wakes up in the modern day. And that transforms it back into a (relatively) happy ending. We won the war, New York wasn’t destroyed, and our hero is still alive. You could maybe get away with that in a normal movie franchise, as set-up for a sequel – but because of the way the MCU functions, it becomes this fascinating experiment in fractal storytelling.
As well as Cap’s impact on the wider world, we’ll also get to see – in full serialised detail – the effect that his death has on Peggy, and then eventually their reunion. It might be a happy accident, but it feels like a fascinating way to utilise this weird superstructure the film exists within, and makes Cap’s story feel like a genuine saga.
Tim: That downer ending, with him crashing into the ice, is shown to us right at the beginning, too. So even if we aren’t aware of the comics, we know he’ll end up there. And no matter how much we enjoy his WWII adventures, there’s that knowledge of his destination at the back of our minds, and that lends the whole film a subtle tragedy.
Alex: It’s a strangely experimental bit of non-linear storytelling for such a big cheery crowdpleaser, right?
Tim: If you’d have told me that Captain America would involve a musical number, I’d have laughed at you then despaired at Joe Johnston’s plans, but Star Spangled Man is probably the single best sequence in the movie. We essentially flipped a coin to see who’d get to take it as their Infinity Gem pick.
It really taps into that earnestness and, dare I say, cheesiness that the period setting allows for. Plus, it provides us with a plausible explanation for how a timid young man from Queens could develop the confidence to lead troops into battle.
The way the sequence brings in iconic elements from the comics, like him punching out Hitler, and his costume – complete with red buccaneer boots and ear-wings – is perfect, as are the glimpses we get of his footprint in pop culture, with Captain America comic books and films.
It also establishes one of the running themes of the Captain America films: Cap as a symbol, and who exactly controls that idea. The only reason he’s doing the bond shows is because he wanted more agency than just being a lab rat, but now he finds himself serving someone else’s agenda. It’s fascinating to watch Rogers wrestle with taking control of his own destiny, and how that theme will return multiple times throughout the MCU.
Alex: I also love the Star Spangled Man sequence – I have two working eyes and a heart, after all – but inevitably, as our resident grumpus, I love what follows. The film hard cuts from its most bombastic sequence straight to the grey of the Western Front, as Cap absolutely dies on his ass in front of a mass of unimpressed soldiers.
It’s a remarkable contrast, that strengthens both scenes. All the colour drains out the film, and Steve Rogers’ confidence with it. It really underlines your point about who has control, which culminates in Steve sketching the Captain America performing monkey doodle.
It briefly gestures at a grittier and harder-edged portrayal of WW2 than the remaining film actually delivers, but it’s a great second-act low point on the character arc you mapped out earlier.
And there’s a mooning. Who doesn’t love a good mooning?
Tim: Speaking of mooning, in a very different sense… that’s what Steve is doing over Agent Carter for large chunks of the film – and who can blame him?
So my second pick is the car ride that Rogers and Carter share to Erskine’s secret lab. Their dialogue is the perfect mixture of earnest, awkward and romantic, with still-tiny Steve trying to talk to Peggy despite his nervousness around women (and clearly also working to unlearn some of his sexism in the process). Coming after the training montage at Camp Lehigh, it’s also clear that Agent Carter is already falling for him, well before the infamous pec touch, a factor that makes their romance all the better.
The dancing as sex metaphor is a well-worn one, but is just opaque enough that their conversation is sweetly chaste for anyone who wants to think of them that way, and incredibly thirsty for those of us who prefer our superheroes like that.
Alex: I utterly love Carter, but her relationship with Steve isn’t my favourite in the film. That’s narrowly edged out by Steve and Dr Erksine. They only get a few scenes together before Erskine’s unfortunate but plot-necessary demise, but one in particular is a real stand-out: the two of them talking over a bottle of schnapps, in the barracks the night before the super soldier operation. Or rather, Erskine soliloquising over a bottle of schnapps.
We somehow haven’t mentioned Stanley Tucci in this discussion yet, but he’s a real highlight of the movie, and this scene is where he shines brightest. It’s where he lays out the history lesson about how Nazis and Germans aren’t the same thing, and the idea that the super soldier serum just amplifies what is inside someone. And as he softly talks his way through all this exposition, you get those brilliant mini-montages, another example of the film calling directly back to old-fashioned cinema.
It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything I realised I loved about Captain America this time round: the eccentric warmth of Tucci’s performance, that golden-hour sepia tone, the feel of the movie itself coming from a different time as much as Cap himself does.
God do I want Stanley Tucci to give me one of those encouraging smiles and tell me everything will be okay. Tim, I think you might be the nearest thing I have.
Tim: I will definitely attempt to point my finger at you just as I die.
Alex: That’s all I’ve ever asked of this friendship.
- The arctic explorer types welcoming SHIELD at the start note that “this landscape’s changing all the time” – is climate change responsible for Cap thawing out?
- The Nazi spy who disrupts Cap’s transformation goes full Timothy-Dalton-in-Hot-Fuzz as he makes his escape, grabbing a redheaded kid as his human shield. He falls just narrowly short of shouting “stay back, or the ginger-nut gets it!”
- At the end of the chase to the docks, Cap survives as the car he is on top of goes out of control and spins over. A variation on this will happen at least once in every Captain America film.
- I may not be a big fan of the Hydra villains in this movie, but gosh do I like their costume designs. They bring back such fond memories of shooting Nazis in the Wolfenstein
- It’s hard not to wonder why Howard Stark uses up his entire supply of vibranium on a prototype shield.
- I feel like the moment during the Star Spangled Man sequence with the women seeking an autograph (played by the same actress who will go on to be Peter Quill’s mum) is there for plausible deniability over whether Cap went off to war a virgin.
- Did Skull & Zola’s relationship remind anyone else of Burns & Smithers? Especially the bit where Skull escapes in his rocket. He might as well have told Zola “I like to put my feet up”.
- So it turns out Cap can’t get drunk. What effect do you reckon other substances have on him? Can Captain America get stoned? What if it’s the absolute dankest herb?
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Agent Carter’s red dress (originally intended for Diane Kruger in Inglorious Basterds), especially in combination with her iconic lipstick.
- People who get to use Captain America’s shield in battle: Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, James Montgomery Falsworth.
- We haven’t really mentioned Tommy Lee Jones, who for the most part is perfectly serviceable as Colonel Phillips, but his delivery of the line “How about cyanide, does that give you the rumbly tummy too?” is excellent.
- The forest bike chase is so ridiculously close to the Endor sequence in Return of the Jedi. I swear some of the shots are lifted directly. The Last Jedi appears to have returned the favour, with its ending switching out a dustbin bin lid for a floating broom.
- When the screen goes black between our final shot in the ‘40s and Cap waking up in modern day New York, we get the sound of the whistling arctic wind, a great little audio nod towards the decades he’s spent frozen.
- We get to see Cap’s exploits playing in a cinema during the film, but surely that wouldn’t be the last version that an MCU public would view between Rogers going into the ice and coming back out. There’s a fantastic collaborative fanfic here that explores how Captain America’s life may have been explored on-screen within the MCU.
- The Avengers Fuckability Scale: With the introduction of Steve Rogers, Bucky and Agent Carter, this movie is a hand grenade tossed cavalierly into this recurring feature. Given that we’ve only covered our core heroes so far, we’ll leave the supporting cast to one side, but I think we can all agree that Chris Evans is a shockingly handsome dorito-shaped human, and that his good manners and politeness mean you could take him home to meet your parents too.
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