Originally published May 2, 2016, on comicbookmovie.com
In summer 2011, Marvel Studios capped off its first three years of Cinematic Universe excellence with an inaugural big screen outing for one of its longest-lived and most iconic heroes, Captain America. The result was a throwback action/adventure with plenty of heart and fine performances, which also served as the final piece in the prelude to the long-awaited superhero ensemble venture, The Avengers.
Though bookended by brief present-day sequences, Captain America: The First Avenger is primarily and appropriately a 1940s period piece, replete with all the peripherals that being such should entail. The retro setting is one of aspects that elevates, or at least separates, the film from most of its ilk. But like many of the best of its genre brethren, it’s founded on the questions of “If this superhero character actually existed in our world, how would he come to be?” and “How would this world react to his existence?” The answers that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide make for compelling cinema.
The characterization of Cap’s alter ego Steve Rogers, for instance, is completely believable within the context of the World War II, lower-class America setting. The guy is the epitome of the “90-pound weakling” stereotype at the story’s outset, plagued with health issues and susceptible to getting his rear handed to him by those looking for an easy target. (It’s also worth mentioning here that the digital shrinking of Cap actor Chris Evans’s head and subsequent placement on to a much smaller performer’s body for the film’s first act works surprisingly well.) But like many from his generation, Steve’s heart and courage far out-weigh the mass of his body. He’s ready, willing, and able to defend both his country and the entire world from the forces of evil. Though I enjoy dichotomous protagonists and oft-conflicted heroes as much as anyone, it is delightfully refreshing to see a hero with an unshakeable moral foundation, ever unwavering in his convictions. This is the appeal of Steve Rogers, and it’s also what makes his genetically-enhanced superhero persona so engaging.
As to the question of how “real world” America of the period would react to the appearance of a U.S.-bred super soldier Boy Scout (who is initially deemed too valuable as a test subject to be deployed for actual combat, by the way)—well, to the delight of legions of citizens, the American government would exploit him as the new poster boy for their propaganda machine as a recruitment/fundraising tool and morale booster, of course. The plot move is in keeping with the actual behavior of the officials and citizenry of the period and sets up a fantastically choreographed, full-scale, chorus girl-heavy musical number. Those not familiar with the context of the period might find the sequence old-fashioned, out of place, off-putting, and/or just down right silly, but as a student of both world and film history, I consider the sequence to be one of the best parts of the film in terms of both visual execution and period realism. The sequence is even staged and shot like the popular grandiose musicals of the ’30s and ’40s, grounding the film even further into its historical setting. Which brings us to director Joe Johnston.
Long before Captain America, Johnston served on two other WWII-set sci-fi/fantasy, action/adventure flicks, namely the Lucas/Spielberg legend Raiders of the Lost Ark , Johnson serving as cinematographer, and Johnston’s own directorial effort, early ’90s cult classic The Rocketeer. His experience with the time frame and the retro, “Saturday matinee” adventure feel shows throughout The First Avenger, particularly in the second half of the picture as we’re treated to an action-packed finale.
The film’s supporting cast of characters also give the film a huge boost. The ever-competent Hugo Weaving brings just the right mix of realistic menace and campy malevolence to the marvelously make-up ladened Red Skull, while veterans Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Toby Jones all turn in expectedly exquisite performances in their roles. More recent comers Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper also deliver solid work as Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes and the roguish Howard (Tony’s Papa) Stark respectively. But perhaps no single cast member/character combo shines as brightly as Haley Atwell/Peggy Carter.
I’d call Peggy the film’s “love interest,” but to designate such an exceptional character with such trite nomenclature would be a disservice to both the writers and actress who gave her life. For me, Peggy is the most well-written and well-acted leading female character in any superhero film, coming off as completely believable yet never cliche. As a female military officer in the male-dominated world of the 1940s, Peggy is tough, no-nonsense, and never falls into the damsel in distress tropes, yet remains unquestionably feminine. The well-played dynamic between her and Steve sets up a heartbreaking farewell sequence that is simultaneously one of the saddest, sweetest, and most poignant romance scenes ever featured in a comic book film.
To top off an exceptional exercise in cbm superheroics, The First Avenger ends with a magnificent tease into the future of Cap and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though as a whole, I personally prefer this entry to any other MCU origin tale thus far, when judged objectively, the film doesn’t quite possess the thematic weight, relevancy, or game-changing originality of the first Iron Man to be considered quite as good as that offering, though it features enough at other levels to come dangerously close. In short, stellar acting, writing, directing, and a well-developed period setting make Captain America: The First Avenger one of Marvel’s best action/adventures so far.