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Dissecting the Classics – Captain America: The First Avenger

February 2, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Captain America: The First Avenger Image Credit: Marvel Studios

So this week’s column was always planned to coincide with the release of Black Panther, which is my most anticipated film of 2018. Ultimately though, I decided to change course. I’ve been doing the “One MCU Movie A Week until Infinity War” thing that you might have heard about, which put this movie in the last week of January/first week of February slot. And I decided to do the column now while the film is still fresh in my mind.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Joe Johnston
Written By: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Produced By: Kevin Feige
Cinematography By: Shelly Johnson
Edited By: Jeffrey Ford & Robert Dalva
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan as Sgt. Bucky Barnes
Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark
Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull

What Do We All Know?

I don’t review movies from this decade very often, and for good reason. This column is focused on “Classic Movies”, movies we mostly agree are good but maybe take for granted, not really bothering to analyze what makes them good or why they endure as pop culture touchstones. And generally we need to let some time pass to see whether a movie actually endures or not. I mean, we all saw Avatar in 2009 and does anybody really care about that movie in 2018? But there are exceptions, and one of those exceptions is a movie I will be reviewing in May; a little independent project you may have heard of called The Avengers.

But before I can review that movie, it seemed prudent of me to establish the two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies before The Avengers that actually hold up as terrific movies in their own right. You can read my review of Iron Man here. And no, I will not be reviewing Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk or Thor despite liking all of them to some degree. They just aren’t particularly well made movies. But Captain America: The First Avenger is the most overlooked gem in the entire MCU, and possibly the entire superhero genre.

What Went Right?

Captain America is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways and yet somehow didn’t. Were audiences in 2011 going to embrace somebody as inherently corny as Steve Rogers as a hero worth buying into and getting behind? Was the global audience that Marvel Studios was trying to expand into tolerate such a brazenly American hero as the world’s greatest human being? Was Marvel going to ruin it by making Steve an obnoxious nationalist jerk like the Ultimate Comics did because boy scout Steve Rogers was just too difficult to relate to? Man, that would have sucked.

Instead, Captain America doubles down on being an old-fashioned, no-nonsense, irony free superhero movie with an old-fashioned, no-nonsense, irony free superhero. Taking more than a few cues from Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, Joe Johnston and crew recognize that Captain America is actually cool enough exactly how he is and the point of the movie should be proving to cynics that he actually is awesome. Captain America may be fighting the Red Skull and Hydra, but Steve Rogers is fighting the fact that nobody believes in this too good to be true boyscout who just wants to do the right thing. And by proving that to his on-screen peers, he proves to the viewing audience that he is the real deal and we can believe in him.

How does this movie accomplish this? By taking advantage of the origin of Captain America’s powers to tell a story about a scrawny kid who doesn’t have the physical power to back up his desire to do good in the world. The tiny Steve we see at the beginning doesn’t have anything super about him except for guts, heart, brains, and a moral compass. He believes that his handicaps don’t exempt him from serving his country in battle against the great evil of his time. He’s clever enough to work around the flagpole challenge, but also brave enough to risk his life to cover up a grenade to save everyone else. When Steve finally takes the super soldier serum, he has earned the right to be that powerful and we feel vindicated when he can finally put his ideas into action.

But just because you get through the first half hour of the movie and are behind Steve Rogers, doesn’t mean you’re sold on this goofy Captain America idea. Again, the movie approaches this problem cleverly by fully embracing what the character is; a cartoon character made to sell war bonds to the parents of twelve year olds who love superheroes. Alan Silvestri and Alan Menken’s “Star-Spangled Man With A Plan” is the most intentionally cheesy thing that Marvel has ever put on screen, creating a logical explanation for how this idea could be made up. The song-and-dance sets the stage for a great mood whiplash moment when Cap takes his routine to actual soldiers. When Cap makes his big rescue at the end of the second act, he goes in Captain America gear because he has to. But he realizes that “Captain America” means what he wants it to mean, and it can help him be the inspirational figure he wants to be, to adults and kids.

I’ve talked at length about how this movie has handled Steve Rogers, because he’s not an easy character to make work and this movie somehow did it. But Chris Evans (and body double Leander Deeny) are far from the only good things in this movie. Tommy Lee Jones is doing his Tommy Lee Jones routine but it fits the movie, Sebastian Stan is an effective Bucky Barnes, Stanley Tucci really sells us on Steve’s worth, and Hayley Atwell kills it as Peggy Carter. Unlike the vast majority of non-superpowered love interests, Peggy is in the film a substantial amount, has plenty to do that doesn’t involve Steve directly, and we buy their romance. Which is difficult because the sexual tension is muted by the era and their dialogue isn’t great. But these two had to make it work if the ending was going to play at all, and it plays very well.

Lastly, this movie gives Captain America some truly great antagonists. Hugo Weaving was perfect casting for The Red Skull, playing a purely evil character with relish and dignity. The movie had another problem here, but found just the right mix of makeup and cgi to make the Red Skull work visually. The film also cleverly foreshadows the reveal, which is a great scene itself. Maybe it’s a consequence of this movie being generally overlooked, but it always annoys me that Red Skull isn’t brought up as one of the MCU’s best villains. He also has a great second in Toby Jones’ Arnim Zola, and the Hydra agents give us plenty of chances to see Steve in action in the film’s third act.

What Went Wrong?

While the film gets most everything right, there are a few notable moments where it doesn’t quite work. The obligatory Stan Lee cameo is exceptionally pointless and tacked on. The beginning of the third act leans a little too much on montage as it tries to make up for a lack of actual Captain America action in the first two acts. Some of the dialogue between Peggy and Steve is awkward and only barely works because the actors have a good chemistry. I feel like the scene where Steve is kissed by the random woman to create some romantic tension with him and Peggy doesn’t quite work for me. Despite my overall praise for how the character works, the final showdown with Red Skull is not satisfactory and I think it’s a big reason he’s not considered a great villain by most. Lastly, I think the very last scene would have worked better as a mid-credits extra, especially since this movie lacks a proper post-credits bit and just has a trailer for The Avengers.

There is a slightly bigger problem with Red Skull that I do want to touch on. He and Hydra are definitely stand ins for Hitler and the Nazis, and I get why some people aren’t super big on the movie focusing on Saturday morning cartoon versions of real life monsters. But this is a creative decision I will defend. While Captain America is tied to World War II, having him defeat Hitler and freeing people from concentration camps would have felt a bit tacky to me. This is a fictional version of the real world, and adding to those events with Hydra allows Captain America to be a hero in his own right without taking away from the real-life heroes of the war, or sanitizing the very real pain of Hitler’s victims. To me, it was the only way to approach this story tastefully.

And In Summary…

Captain America: The First Avenger is an underappreciated modern classic. It fits right in with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman and Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer as a thoroughly old-fashioned adventure movies. Chris Evans perfectly embodies the pure goodness of Steve Rogers while also playing it cool, and has a great supporting cast that are all on board with what kind of movie they are making. Joe Johnston and his screenwriters craft a story that is designed to sell us on the dubious concept that “Yes, Captain America is awesome even in 2011,” and does just that. Alan Silvestri’s score is the first really good one in the MCU, and speaking of the MCU; this is the first movie where the “shared universe” concept worked completely smoothly. Howard Stark is in this movie and they don’t have to explain that, magical artifacts from Odin’s treasure room show up, and we even get a visual nod to The Incredible Hulk, which first introduced the super soldier serum concept.

Sometimes, I think it just comes down to placement. This movie was almost immediately overshadowed by The Avengers. And it probably doesn’t help that both The Winter Soldier and Civil War are improvements, making this great movie the weakest in its own trilogy. But the reason those films work is largely because this movie did it’s job; it presented Captain America on his own terms with little care to update him for our sensibilities. The MCU Captain America is exactly the inhumanly decent person that you expect would unironically dawn a spangly outfit to embody a nation’s best ideals. And it’s this movie that establishes the old-fashioned heroic ideal that the MCU and The Avengers specifically has been trying to sell us on for the better part of a decade.

And they’ve been doing pretty well.

Like This Column?

Check out previous editions!

Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Mad Max and Blade Runner 2049. You can also read more about this movie and the previous MCU films as I take an in-depth look at each film’s themes.