Captain America: The First Avenger – Revisited
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Stars: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Tobey Jones, Stanley Tucci
Review by Mike DeAngelo:
The execution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Phase One” (Comprised, in order of release, of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, & The Avengers) was a mixture of genius, skill, foresight, and, seemingly, just plain luck. Watching many of the films back today, you can clearly tell that they’re still finding their footing with the whole “shared universe” idea, as well as simply introducing these characters correctly.
It was also a huge gamble on Marvel’s part – one that started with the teaser at the end of Iron Man’s credits. Like Babe Ruth calling his shot, Marvel showed you where they were aiming – and it was friggin' ambitious. If they fell on their face, they’d be the laughing stock of Hollywood and their new movie studio would implode. If they succeeded, they’d be referred to as brilliant masterminds and everyone would try to copy their success. Not only did they have to introduce each character leading up to The Avengers, each movie had to be a success. If any of the characters were introduced incorrectly or if the audience didn’t accept them, The Avengers would be all the weaker for it.
Obviously, we all know which way the proverbial pendulum swung – Marvel is now one of the biggest brands in Hollywood filmmaking today with no signs of failure on the horizon; however, back in 2010/2011, things were still very much up in the air. Marvel was releasing their two riskiest movies yet with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. While neither reached the heights, critically or culturally, as Iron Man, both were surprisingly solid films that confidently increased the momentum and brand-awareness for Marvel going into The Avengers.
I have to admit that the first time I saw Captain America: The First Avenger I thought it was just OK. They proved my hesitance to accept Chris Evans as Captain America wrong, but I think I walked in wanting to see something else. Each time I’ve revisited the film since, my appreciation for it grows in leaps and bounds. In hindsight, knowing what has come since and where it sits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would likely make my top 5 Marvel films.
One thing you can’t accuse the phase one films of being is similar – all of them have wildly different settings, tones, and heroes. To me, Captain America: The First Avenger feels the most confidant and comfortable in its own shoes, largely thanks to veteran director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Young Indiana Jones, Jumanji, October Sky). It’s a period war film, an Indiana Jones-esque adventure tale, and a superhero origin film all-in-one – and, surprisingly, all of the pieces work great together.
One thing Marvel does extremely well is hire the right people – whether it’s directors, writers, or cast members. Looking back on it, this movie in particular is a shining example of that on all fronts. As previously mentioned, Joe Johnston couldn’t be better for the director’s chair. Also, Marvel took a real chance on a couple of lesser known writers in Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who were really only known for their work on the underwhelming Chronicles of Narnia film franchise. They’ve since become two of the strongest writers that Marvel has ever hired, with credits for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the upcoming, highly praised Captain America: Civil War, and the two-part Marvel Cinematic Universe finale event, The Avengers: Infinity War.
The cast itself is jam-packed with pitch perfect performances. As I noted above, I had to eat a bit of crow when it comes to Chris Evans and his ability to properly capture the essence of Cap. While I didn’t outright hate him in his movies prior to The First Avenger, I didn’t see him living up to the Marvel hero we all know and love. Luckily, Marvel saw what I didn’t, because he perfectly embodies the purity and old-school heroism that makes Captain America unique.
Hugo Weaving also deserves to be recognized for delivering what Marvel has a hard time delivering on a consistent basis – a compelling and genuinely threatening villain. Yes, he’s another “world domination” type, but he’s well-written and too expertly performed to not enjoy. I’d love to see him back in future installments, which is entirely possible based on how things are left with his character.
Another character this movie nails is Peggy Carter, played by the amazing Hayley Atwell. Not only is she a strong love interest for our hero, she’s a strong hero in her own right. Her and Cap also have one the most natural and organic feeling love stories in the MCU, making it even more heartbreaking that they never get to be together.
Even with servicing those three main characters, we still get multiple fantastic side character performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Tobey Jones, Sebastian Stan, & Stanley Tucci. They even were able to throw in the Howlin’ Commandos. I couldn’t believe how many fantastic characters and performances this movie had when I most recently re-watched it. It’s a damn goldmine! It’s also a complement to the writers that the characters never feel shoehorned into the movie. They all organically service the story and Cap’s journey.
One thing I often hear mentioned in criticism of The First Avenger is that Captain America himself doesn’t have an arc and that Cap never changes. Re-watching it, I couldn’t disagree more with that point. The movie isn’t about Captain America changing, it’s about him becoming the hero he believes himself to be.
The film uses each act as a different phase in Cap’s journey to becoming the fully realized version of Captain America. The first act brilliantly allows us a good amount of time to get to know Steve before he’s transformed. He’s chosen specifically because he’s a good man who stands up for the bullied and will jump on the grenade for the good of the whole – The serum doesn’t make him a hero, he just instinctly is one.
The second act sees him transformed, but not properly utilized as the hero we know him to be. After foiling Hydra’s plan to steal the final bit of the super solider serum, Steve’s misused as a celebrity face of the military’s wartime propaganda and fundraising. It takes his childhood friend Bucky going MIA to kick him back into hero-mode. Act three is Steve finally going full American hero – gloriously kicking hydra ass and taking names. So, emotionally, does he remain the same throughout? Yes, but that’s kind of the point. He's an old-fashioned hero that embodied the values of the era.
As a total package, Captain America: The First Avenger stands out as one of the most complete and ambitious origin films in the MCU. It set a high bar for its sequel to top. Later in the week we’ll revisit Captain America: The Winter Soldier to break down how the sequel not only does just that, but raises the bar for the entire genre.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10 Shields to the Face