CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER Rereview

We’re 18 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with another two to come this year. We’re 123 superhero films deep, according to BoxOfficeMojo (but they don’t have Abar, The First Black Superman on their list, so who knows how many other holes there are. But 123 sounds fine for the purposes of this rereview). And not one of those 18 MCU movies, and not one of those 123 superhero movies have a moment of pure, beautiful, inspiring, chest-tightening, hope-raising heroism as good as the one featured in Captain America: The First Avenger.

And get this: the moment happens before Steve Rogers even turns into Captain America.

If you’ve seen the movie you’re probably guessing that I’m talking about a moment at Camp Lehigh. Scrawny Steve Rogers, with his big bobblehead on his stick figure body, sees the grenade that Colonel Phillips throws into the crowd of assembled super soldier wannabes and, without a moment’s hesitation, hurls his frail body upon the explosive. It’s not even correct to say that he does it without a moment’s hesitation – he does it with the same sureness that you or I go down familiar steps we’ve descended a hundred times, without conscious thought, without calculation. It doesn’t matter that the grenade is a dummy – Steve doesn’t know that. He’s not only willing to die to protect those around him (men who don’t respect him, mind you), it’s the only option for him in that moment.

I can’t watch this sequence without tearing up. That’s my thing – I tear up at triumph and intense self-sacrificial heroism (among other things. But those two get me crying more often than sadness does). This scene brings a lump to my throat and a burning to my eyes.

This moment would be powerful at any time in the story of Captain America: The First Avenger, but it’s brilliant that it comes when Steve is still unpowered. One of the problems I had with Thor on this rewatch was that the movie doesn’t establish the God of Thunder as a great leader or warrior, only as kind of a dunce. The First Avenger, on the other hand, spends a lot of time showing us who Steve Rogers is before he gets the supersoldier serum and a dose of Vita-Rays. He’s the same guy he will be after. His heroism doesn’t come from his muscles or his height or his shield or his costume. It comes from him, from his heart, from how he sees the world and his place in it.

A cynic who is too in love with story structure and the mythology of the supremacy of character arcs would say this is the problem with Captain America – he is fully formed as a hero and do-gooder from his first appearance (where he gets beat down by a goon who is heckling newsreels about the war effort), and thus he has nowhere to go. And here’s the thing: Steve Rogers does not fundamentally change over the course of the three Captain America and two Avengers movies. There are quirks of having words put in his mouth by different writers (although Steve has had the good luck of mostly being written by the dynamic duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose guidance on the three Cap films and the upcoming Infinity War must be recognized as one of the backbones of the MCU), but generally Steve Rogers is Steve Rogers throughout all the films. It isn’t Steve who changes – although he is tested – it’s Steve who changes everyone around him.

This is what makes him so inspirational. Spider-Man is historically my favorite superhero because as a hard luck dork who grew up in Queens I recognized myself in Peter Parker. Seeing Peter struggle with being good, with doing the right thing, with wanting to just take care of himself and tell everyone else to buzz off, was always important to me. I needed to identify with a character who also found it hard to make the right choices. But as an adult I have found Steve Rogers, especially as he is depicted in the MCU, to be the role model I need. I’ve struggled long enough with ethics and morality; now as a grown man it’s vital that I live my ideals and actually take the actions that I know are for the best. In Steve Rogers I see a north star, a guy who will do whatever it takes no matter the consequences.

Again, this isn’t to say Steve isn’t tested. In The First Avenger there’s a wonderful scene after his best pal James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes seemingly dies where Steve is almost fully defeated emotionally. He sits in a London pub where he and his Howling Commandos had shared drinks and camaraderie; now it is a bombed out husk. Steve knocks back drink after drink, discovering that the supersoldier serum has essentially rendered him immune to drunkeness, thanks to his heightened metabolism. Yeah, it’s a high bottom, but it’s a dark night of the soul nonetheless, and it serves as an opportunity to examine Steve’s other superpower (besides his unerring sense of the right thing): the loyalty he engenders in others. Peggy Carter comes to the bar and gets him out of the dumps and back into action. Where Tony Stark or Thor are largely solo guys, Captain America is at his best and most comfortable when part of a team. And he’s not ashamed of needing the help.

Of course there are darker nights of the soul to come for Steve – the truth about SHIELD shakes him in The Winter Soldier, and the events of Civil War push him to the very edge – but in every moment of darkness you know how he will react, and it all comes from a line he has before the serum changes him:

“I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”

That is the beating heart of Captain America, and it represents an ideal of the United States of America that has been part of our national psyche since the 1700s. It’s the foundational myth of this country, the idea that a bunch of colonials got tired of being pushed around by the increasingly tyrannical and violent British bullies (the true facts are unimportant in foundational myths, but do look into the reality of the Boston Massacre the next time you find yourself driven to complain about unruly protests). It’s the (delusional) self-image of the US that we’re the strong, powerful guy who only wants to look out for the little guy. That these things aren’t true in reality are why we need them to be true in fiction, and why the character of Captain America is so goddamned important at this juncture of the 21st century.

{Note: some of the dates in the following paragraph are wrong, because I can’t time good. That means some of the geopolitical thinking in the paragraph below is BAD. I won’t delete it, but an update is coming}

Before The First Avenger came out there was a lot of concern about a guy named Captain America who wore a star-spangled outfit. Was the imagery too corny for domestic audiences? We were out of the gung-ho phase of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars where we were eating freedom fries and banning the Dixie Chicks, and the population had returned to its standard laissez-faire patriotism. As for overseas audiences – if the world thinks of America as a loose cannon manned by a clown, back in 2011 they thought of us as a dangerous brute that wasn’t looking where we stepped. We were still a year out from Barack Obama’s revitalization of America’s image, and the idea of an all-American superhero seemed ill-timed. That’s why the movie has the subtitle The First Avenger, to sell people on giving this guy a chance because he would later be connected to Iron Man.

But the timing was actually totally correct; it’s like Marvel was looking ahead and saw the Obama years coming down the pike, saw that people were interested in a vision of America that was about doing good rather than doing violence (although Captain America and Barack Obama alike both did plenty of violence). It’s interesting: America occupies a central spot in the global imagination, and even when people are hating on America they want America to somehow transform into the image it has presented for itself since WWII. It’s possible those days are coming to an end, as Trump destroys everything about this country, including its dream status, but that just makes it all the more appropriate that many of us believe Captain America will die in Infinity War or Avengers 4.

The embodying of Captain America needed to be done right, and the hiring of Chris Evans must rank among the all-time greatest casting decisions in history. For those who know Evans mostly through the Cap lens it’s important to remember that he was previously a pretty boy actor who had played a number of vapid or silly roles. It wasn’t that he was bad in those films – he’s quite enjoyable! – it’s just that nothing in those movies indicated he could have the moral gravity to play Steve Rogers (except, maybe Sunshine, a film not many saw). But Evans has that gravity, and in the years since he picked up the shield we’ve seen that gravity present in his personal life – follow him on Twitter to see him making Cap-worthy pronouncements about the crooks and liars who are defrauding our country from the White House today. Evans’s Twitter persona is partisan, but his anger about the current administration is only righteous, and it comes from having clearly internalized the values of Captain America (there is literally no chance Captain America would have voted for Trump. It actually pains me to say this, but as a New Deal Democrat I suspect that Steve would have been a Bernie guy).

With Evans at the center of the movie Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t need to have a strong structure. Which is good, because it doesn’t! A friend has noted that the movie doesn’t really have a third act, and he’s right – the film is like two big acts and a quick climax, but I think it all really works. Director Joe Johnson, the single most underrated director to come out of the Lucas/Spielberg orbit, gives the movie an episodic serial vibe that works for it, especially in the second act, which is full of whizzbang fun visual action moments that don’t need to be tethered to story.

There are a lot of people who say that the MCU movies are samey, but I’ve never understood that. Even before Guardians of the Galaxy blew up what a Marvel movie was, the films all felt quite different to me, and I think they were visually distinct. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that the Marvel Studios machine uses the same post-production process on all their films, so that at least in Phase One and some of Two there was a similar approach to the color timing among other things. It never bothered me – it always felt like the way a comic book company has a house style, and within that house style artists still have leeway to make things their own.

The First Avenger doesn’t look like Iron Man or Thor. Johnston is going for an 80s Amblin vibe with his framing and shot composition and purposeful lens flares, a vibe that is basically a 21st century recreation of an 80s version of a 50s ideal that comes out of a 30s pulp magazine cover sensibility. It’s nostalgia all the way down. But it also feels modern (nothing is more modern than being retro). More than that, though, The First Avenger is an adventure movie, which is a totally different genre than Iron Man’s technothriller and Thor’s fish out of water royal intrigue. I’m not even sure how to have this discussion with people because I simply can’t imagine watching the six films of Phase One and saying “This is all the same,” unless we’re only talking about the most generalized of signifiers. The “they’re all the same” argument always strikes me as the same kind of dismissive intellectual laziness that leads to people writing off other genres of art or music (“I like all music but country and rap” is one of the least defensible, low effort positions, IMHO). I’ve come to a place where I just simply nod and smile and take comfort in knowing that I love these movies.

We’ve already talked about the villain problem in the MCU, but that problem doesn’t extend to The First Avenger. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is a blast, a guy so crazy and evil even Hitler is against him. Using a note perfect Werner Herzog accent, Weaving finds something amazing at the center of the Skull. He plays the role with malice but also with a level of wackiness that I think truly captures the tone of old style comic books. The key is taking the character and his threat seriously while not being serious about it; this comes from comics originally being trash literature for children, often created by people who didn’t consider what they were doing art. They would sneak in things that were meaningful or personal, but they would have to wrap them in packages that would appeal to 10 year old boys looking to spend a dime on something cool. All the great pre-80s comics have this internal tension between smart and silly, and I think Weaving embodies it.

He’s also a perfect foil for Captain America. The standard superhero movie villain is the crooked mirror image of the hero, and while Skull is no different, I think there’s a reversal at play here. Skull isn’t the broken reflection of Cap, Cap is the perfected reflection of Skull. Most supervillains are transformed by the appearance of the hero, and they feel like reactions to the hero (this is Christopher Nolan’s big topic). But Captain America is a reaction to the Skull; he’s Professor Erskine’s attempt to right the wrong he had made by giving Skull the supersoldier serum.

That makes Captain America an icon of progress, the idea that we can get better. Cap’s movies are all about power dynamics and who holds power and how it is wielded, and that makes Red Skull and Captain America ideal adversaries in the beginning. And I think this is why I’m okay with Marvel Studios working to disconnect Red Skull from the Nazis; by removing him from bad guys we know to hate (at least we used to. Imagine, back in 2011 it was still obvious that Nazis were bad guys, we didn’t think they were very fine people) The First Avenger allows the Skull’s power hungriness to be separated from dismissable stuff like racism and eugenics. He has been reduced to the drive for power – he just wants to rule all. He doesn’t have bigger ideological aims. And so here is a bad guy who wants to use his power to enslave all of humanity, while our hero uses his to protect it. It’s the Manichean divide at its best.

I think Captain America: The First Avenger might be my favorite of all the MCU films. Maybe. It’s in competition with Civil War, for sure, and The Winter Soldier is up there. I don’t think any of us, way back in 2008 when the Avengers Initiative was first announced, thought that the Captain America films would be the far and away highlights of this universe, but here we are. I love all these Cap movies, but there’s a purity to The First Avenger that cannot be present in its sequels. Even though The First Avenger is designed to lead right into The Avengers there’s still a sense of completeness at the end; we are seeing an entire portion of Steve Rogers’ life come to an end as he crashes that plane, re-enacting his moment with the grenade back at Lehigh. If you ended this movie with the kids running through the street in Captain America masks I think you’d have a complete, total story that would satisfy, move and inspire you. That it continues (and that the following movies are, almost inarguably, even better made) is just the bonus.