Even without the context of the wider Marvel Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger serves as an excellent example of alternate history world-building. In fact, for the uninitiated, it’d be hard to believe this is even a comic book movie at first. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) looks, acts and sounds like he walked out of an old Frank Capra film. But when Evans first appears, he doesn’t look anything at all like himself. Thanks to some masterful digital effects, he’s reduced to a very believable 90-pound asthmatic. His appearance may be the work of CGI magicians, but the performance belongs to Evans. It’s a bold blend of old and new, and it isn’t exclusive to the special effects. It works its way throughout the film, injecting some much needed energy into a well-worn formula.
Captain America lands at a point in time right between that place when comic book films have earned the right to be taken seriously, and when they’ve started to get a little tiresome. Every hero that steps onto the screen from a comic book page seems to carry a big bag of issues with him these days. They need it to give themselves enough weight to survive what a film requires. That, and they don’t lend themselves to parody as easily as plain, ordinary goodness.
Rogers doesn’t carry any baggage. He brings weight to his nobility all by himself. He’s much more of an anachronism for today’s cynical embrace of the anti-hero. Yet the film’s retro-grade observations of chivalry and honor work because the virtues themselves are timeless. They’ve been ignored for so long that Rogers’ actual heroism look more inventive than it really is. The setting helps. We’ve romanticized much of the past in the movies, but there is a facet to the greatest generation that’s been lost in the post-modern world. Rogers brings it all back.
So many of these movies build conflict around two opposing forces assembling an arsenal to blow each other away. It’s refreshing then, to find that much of the early conflict in the film is actually cold. Johann Schmidt, upon finding his source of ultimate power, knows that Erskine’s formula can still tip the balance of power in favor of the allied forces. Much of the film’s early plot centers around that tension. A “cold” conflict can’t rely on explosions to drive the plot; the story’s characters have to do all the heavy lifting.
For the first half of the film, we’re watching because Rogers earns our love. He’s a hero after the heart of King David, the smallest son of Jesse God had chosen to succeed King Saul. Anyone who had the prophet Samuel’s ear would have thought the old man was crazy, and that’s just the reaction Erskine receives after he recruits Rogers. Usually, the heroes of the Marvel Universe earn powers that their egos have to work against on some level. For Rogers, his super-powered heroism is an outward explosion of his inner fire. He’s an excellent example of how nobility and selflessness can rise above the hammy clichés those virtues tend to attract.
Thing is, this is still a comic book movie, and convention has to have a seat at the table. Let’s start with Hydra. What they want is a supercharged conquering of the whole world—Hitler’s ambition, powered by Marvel Comics invention. In this case: the tesseract cube, which seems to come from the realm of Thor and his father Odin, a source of unlimited power, capable of vaporizing anything or anyone, except for Captain America’s shield.
With the cube in hand, Schmidt sets out to supplant Hitler and eventually rule the world. Here, I think, is the film’s second biggest weakness. Schmidt—the Red Skull—is a cartoon. Hugo Weaving brings about as much to the character as he can. There’s no high fructose corn syrup used in his brand of villainy; the Red Skull runs on raw sugar alone. He’s fun to watch, and that’s about all.
Once the Captain’s campaign against Hydra begins in earnest, the film starts to feel more like it’s filling in blanks. A second act tragedy picks up some of the predictable slack. Some instances of smart writing help as well—like how Rogers’ enhancements make it impossible for him to get drunk. As the film shifts into the third act, though, more logical inconsistencies step up to the plate, and pretty soon the field is littered with pop flies and easy outs. How it Should Have Ended does an excellent job unpacking the movie’s numerous third-act problems. A word to filmmakers: if HISHE gets hold of your movie, take notes and do better next time.
Though it isn’t perfect, it does represent a good benchmark for what a comic book film can do. It carries just as much thematic weight (especially in the first act) as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but without the brooding lassitude. It succeeds in endowing a hero with a strong sense of justice and integrity without turning him into a joke. It builds his relationship with a woman on something other than sex. It embraces a sense of antiquity to the point where things once old feel new again.
Chris Evans (Steve Rogers)
Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes)
Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter)
Tommy Lee Jones (Colonel Chester Phillips)
Hugo Weaving (Johann Schmidt)
Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed By Joe Johnston