Why It Worked: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
CinemaSins who? With the days quickly flying by before the much-hyped Captain America: The Winter Soldier roars its way into theaters, join SauronsBANE1 in looking back at the fantastic origin story of the Star Spangled Man and see why Captain America: The First Avenger worked so well...
It almost goes without saying that it was an incredibly tough task to bring Captain America to the big screen and overcome the myriad of risks that stood in the way.
I realize it may not be entirely fair to say that, especially when you consider how this year's upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy has easily claimed the title of being the riskiest, most out-there idea that Marvel has had since they started this cinematic universe back in 2008.
But as most of you probably know, believe it or not, there was actually a time when characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America were dismissed as being far too "comic-booky" for a general audience to embrace and accept. Even hardcore fanboys once had trouble figuring out how a studio could properly adapt and interpret these characters without making them seem lame or goofy or irrelevant.
The potential difficulties involved with bringing Robert Downey Jr. back into the spotlight and leading the Iron Man franchise were...uncomfortable, to say the least. The pitfalls and dangers of introducing a cosmic, sci-fi element in Thor were immense. And the risks inherent in modernizing, updating, yet staying true to the character of Captain America were just as paralyzing, if not more so.
Yet in the span of three years, Marvel managed to turn each and every one of these unknown, almost-laughable superheroes into normalized, widely-accepted, beloved characters.
Aside from Iron Man, which had the unenviable task of jump-starting this entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, The First Avenger was probably given the heaviest burden of being the film that would directly lead into the biggest risk of them all: the unprecedented team-up in The Avengers.
It's hard to deny the fact that Captain America was a hugely important film in the grand scheme of things.
And yet, some fans still give this origin movie the distinction of being Marvel's weakest Phase One film. Some claim the tone is too unrealistic and cheesy, or the romance is weak, or the costume is terrible, or the action is boring.
But I argue that Captain America: The First Avenger, despite its flaws, worked beautifully on several layers and laid the groundwork for us to actually care about the character and his personal journey through many more movies, perhaps more so than any other Marvel character. Let's take a closer look at just why this movie worked...
What Captain America Did Right:
1) Understanding & Respecting the Character.
A. His principles:
Now, I'm aware that this could probably be said for almost all of the characters Marvel has put on the big screen so far (cue hate for the Mandarin in 3, 2, 1...), but specifically in the case of The First Avenger, I believe that the attention to detail and immense amount of care involved in bringing him to the big screen can't be emphasized enough.
To state the obvious for a second, the character of Steve Rogers has certain definable traits that make him who he is. It's certainly debatable that these qualities haven't exactly aged well in the decades since he first showed up in comics in 1941, one year into the real-world conflict of World War II. But to their credit, the filmmakers don't shy away from unabashedly depicting and paying homage to the character's principles, his morals and his rich history.
The first major decision the filmmakers had to face was making this origin story a period piece, taking place during one of the most pivotal moments of U.S. (and obviously, world) history. This opens up a ton of opportunities to fully appreciate the unique era that shaped Steve Rogers, as well as find a way to stay as faithful to the comics as possible while still doing a fair bit of updating and modernizing of the character that was sorely needed.
Yet in spite of a few necessary changes here and there, the film manages to get two things absolutely right about Rogers and his motivations: emphasizing his repeated attempts at volunteering to enlist in the military, and completely nailing his deep-seated aversion to bullies.
How important are these two qualities? Well, one doesn't even have to look any further than Steve Rogers' first two scenes of the entire movie.
Right from the get-go, our first exposure to the future Avenger is a short, skinny Rogers waiting on an enlistment line, hoping against hope that this will finally be the time that he's actually accepted into the U.S. Army. This isn't the case, however, as yet another doctor turns him down because of his plethora of physical, health-related problems...but these refusals only serve to make him even more determined.
Immediate after this, we see Steve at the movies. During a newsreel depicting the ongoing war efforts in Europe, an obnoxious, loud-mouthed audience member couldn't care less and repeatedly shouts for the feature film to be shown already. Obviously annoyed at the blatant disrespect, Steve dutifully confronts the bully...only to be taken into an alleyway outside and beat up for his trouble.
But it's important to note that after each punch lands (and there's a bunch of them), Steve immediately makes an effort to get back up each time. The attention given to his defiance and unwillingness to simply give up says more about his character than any unnatural and forced dialogue, narrator voice-over, or lazy exposition ever could.
Combine that with Steve's passionate, earnest conversation with his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes later on at the World's Fair (which happens to be overheard by a certain Dr. Abraham Erskine). Here he explains his selfless duty and responsibility to lay down his life, which countless soldiers have already done in service of their country. These few scenes perfectly sum up Steve's character and his motivations right from the start of the film.
It's so fitting that this particular conversation becomes the catalyst for changing the course of Steve's entire life, while also having massive ramifications on the future through Erskine's super-soldier program.
As Dr. Erskine later questions Steve if he wants to go overseas and kill some Nazis (something that Steve correctly deduces as some sort of test), he gets the chance to show off more of his strong morals and personality traits: "I don't want to kill anyone. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from." It's safe to say this single line of dialogue, this summation of Steve's character, convinces Erskine to admit Rogers into the program.
The rapidly-growing theme of bullies is further explored in the boot camp scenes (complete with Tommy Lee Jones, who is obviously having fun with his role and is at his absolute, sarcastic best as Colonel Chester Phillips). The clear choice and top candidate for the super-soldier serum appears to be Gilmore Hodge...and he just happens to be yet another bully.
As Hodge and the rest of the soldiers pick on and look down upon the scrawny Steve, yet another chance arises for him to display more facets of his iconic character: in this case, his wit and cleverness.
During a brutal, punishing, long-distance run, a drill sergeant explains that anyone able to climb up a certain flagpole and retrieve the camp flag will get a free ride back to the barracks in the company of the gorgeous Agent Peggy Carter. When none of the would-be soldiers can do it, Steve simply walks up, unscrews a lever that brings down the entire pole, takes the flag, hands it to the shocked drill instructor, and calmly hops into the car as everyone else, Hodge included, looks on in disbelief.
These previous scenes are fantastic, but perhaps the defining moment of the pre-serum Rogers is the wonderful dummy grenade scene.
At this point in the movie, as I've said, Steve's natural cleverness and smarts have already been established, as well as his earnestness in wanting to join the war effort - not because the diminutive patriot feels he has something to prove to himself or others, as Bucky suspects, but because he genuinely believes he can do no less than the able-bodied soldiers already on the front lines.
The only thing left to show is possibly his most definable trait: his willingness to protect the lives of others, no matter the cost. The movie absolutely nails this aspect of the character in the following scene, in my opinion.
Intending to prove a point to Erskine that "You don't win wars with niceness...you win wars with guts," Colonel Phillips tosses the grenade into the mix of recruits. When each and every potential soldier dives for cover, Steve instead chooses to dive onto the dummy grenade (fully convinced that it's a real grenade), covering it up and fully intending to sacrifice his life for the other men who never had any ounce of respect for him.
As Erskine, Carter, and even Colonel Phillips look on with a mix of approval and admiration, he proves he has "guts." He proves that, at his core, he's more of a soldier than any other recruit there. He proves he's the perfect candidate for the program that would change everything.
This is one of the absolute, undeniable strengths of this movie: we get to spend a significant amount of time with Steve Rogers, getting to know his personality, motivations and principles before he's ever turned into the unnaturally strong, quick, fighting machine that we later see.
He's basically the perfect American right from the start, but trapped in an unfairly imperfect body. In fact, this concept is so fully realized and completely fleshed out that it can certainly be said that Steve actually has no character arc throughout the entire movie.
Seriously, ask yourself how he changes from the beginning of the film to the end (this certainly doesn't include his physical changes). The answer is that he really doesn't change and, in this case, that's perfectly okay. That's precisely the point. Rarely can a movie get away with having no clear arc for their main character, and this is one of the few.
By emphasizing his intangibles over the physical abilities the serum allows him to perform, it reinforces the notion that Steve's morals, his natural leadership and his inherent goodness makes him into Captain America...NOT the serum.
As Erskine later explains, his serum accentuates and strengthens the inherent qualities an individual already possesses: "Good becomes great; bad becomes worse." This is the main reason why Rogers was even chosen in the first place. Again, this is just more proof of the fact that Steve has already been Captain America all this time, by being what he is. "Not a perfect soldier," Erskine emphatically tells him the night before the big day. "But a good man."
B. His history:
Going hand in hand with the filmmakers' understanding of Captain America's principles is their grasp of the rich history that his comic book counterpart has gone through over the years. They even go above and beyond this by actively paying homage to and respecting classic moments from the comics. But in order for any of that to work and feel earned, they had to nail the overall tone of this period piece.
If I had to sum up the tone with one word, it'd be Earnestness. The whole film plays off the fervency of Steve Rogers and it filters through every other aspect of the movie: from the setting, to the action, to the humor, and everything in between.
When discussing the setting of the film, it's important to note that there's a reason the 1940's era basically gave birth to the most ideal, patriotic superhero to appear on this side of Superman. Patriotism was still in vogue, encouraged and even expected. Good and evil were much more clear-cut than it is now. Being a good person who sees the world in simple terms of black and white carried more weight back then.
With all that in mind, it's no surprise that director Joe Johnston goes for a more retro, old-school feel in The First Avenger (to the extent that it feels like this movie could easily take place in the same universe as a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Funny enough, as the former art director on that classic film, Johnston even manages to fit in a sly reference to the movie in one of Red Skull's lines). Of course, the inevitable side effect of this is the fact that large stretches of the movie come across as incredibly corny and over the top.
For most movies this could have been a major problem, but Captain America actually accepts its cheesiness and corniness. Realism is happily thrown to the wind in favor of HYDRA's tesseract-powered laser guns, giant-sized tanks, and just a general sense of fun adventure. It's campy without being overbearing.
This brings us to, in my opinion, possibly one of the best sequences of the entire film that absolutely embraces and references the character's history.
After the HYDRA sabotage of the super-soldier procedure, Steve's successful transformation is the one and only result from Erskine's vision and plan of a new, enhanced army for the Allies. The movie seems to be leading us on that Steve will be immediately promoted into a full-blown soldier fighting Nazis on the front lines, but the rug is pulled out from under us and the filmmakers smartly decide to go down a bit of a different path.
Faced with being confined as an experimental lab rat or serving his country, as Senator Brandt says, "on the most important battlefield of the war," Rogers chooses the latter...only to discover that, under the excuse of being a sort of symbol of hope for America, he's been recruited into participating in demeaning USO tours around the country, helping promote the sales of wartime bonds.
When the film first came out (and there was even a vocal outcry before it was ever released), tons of fans rolled their eyes at the intentionally cheesy, tongue-in-cheek musical number that follows, somewhat ignorantly missing the fact that this was a fairly on-the-nose, fun shout out to the origins of the character, his traditional (and sorely outdated) costume, and his wide-reaching impact on the nation as a whole.
This silly, light-hearted montage sequence allows the audience to revel in nostalgia, enjoy the respect and hat-tip to both Captain America and the fans of the comics, and witness classic moments like the Star Spangled Avenger punching out Hitler (over 200 times, apparently), starring in vintage 1940's-era television shows and even inspiring several familiar comic books for the masses to geek out over.
Then, in an awesome moment of subverting expectations (which proves the filmmakers knew what they were doing), the entire performance falls epically flat during Cap's rousing, patriotic pep-talk in front of battle-worn soldiers in Europe. Coincidentally, their reaction mirrors the same one many fans had when the first promotional photos popped up with Chris Evans wearing such a ridiculous outfit.
In any event, this entire sequence manages to be humorous, respectful, nostalgic, faithful to the spirit of the comics, and fan-servicey enough to place it among my favorite scenes in the entire movie. It perfectly sums up how a strict adherence to a perfect tone, an understanding of the character, and a respectful adaptation can go a long way towards successfully bringing a traditionally campy character like Captain America to life on the big screen.
2) The Romance.
When it comes to the romance department, it's no secret that comic book movies have had a bit of a mixed bag of results so far. Fortunately, the blossoming romance between Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers turns out to be one of the strongest emotional cores of any Marvel movie to this point.
The key to this particular relationship is the fact that we get strong indications that Peggy starts to fall for Steve before he ever becomes a super-soldier. This avoids falling into potentially uncomfortable territory involving shallowness and superficiality, which is a place the film really isn't trying to go. Indeed, that would end up going against and outright negating the themes and messages of the movie.
Keep in mind that, in many of the same scenes where we discover the major qualities that make Rogers who he is, Peggy is naturally present and watching intently as well. She's getting to know him right alongside the audience.
The seed is planted pretty early on that Steve is unsurprisingly down on his luck when it comes to women. Bucky kind-heartedly tries to appeal to the fact that, with himself and all the men off at war, Steve will become the most eligible bachelor in the entire city. But it's soon apparent that few women are able to look past his physical shortcomings and focus on the genuinely good man he is underneath. As he puts it, "Women aren't exactly lining up to dance with the guy they might step on." No one, that is, until Peggy Carter.
The turning point in their soon-to-be relationship comes on the very day of Steve's procedure, as they share a car ride that morning to the top-secret facility in Brooklyn.
While passing through familiar neighborhoods, Steve dryly "reminisces" about several beat-downs he's suffered in each alleyway, building and parking lot. Steve explains more about himself to Peggy (and the audience): his beliefs that if you continue to run away from fights, the bad guys will never let you stop. He knows how important it is to stand up and fight back, no matter how high the odds are stacked against him. Peggy realizes they have more in common with each other than one might think, as she sympathizes with his struggles because of her own - trying to rise through the ranks of the military as a woman.
This is also the first we hear about Steve's simple desire to dance with a girl. But faced with rejection and his own fears and insecurities, he has resigned himself to patiently waiting for "the right partner." You can almost see Peggy gaining more and more respect for Steve and, just maybe, becoming attracted to him.
From scenes where Peggy visits a forlorn and disillusioned Steve after his woeful pep-talk to the troops and expresses faith that he's meant for more important things, to risking her life and career by helping Steve fly to Austria to conduct a one-man rescue mission in Germany-occupied Europe, to Captain Rogers' triumphant return after the mission and the heapfuls of crazy eye sex they give each other, to their little lovers quarrel when she catches Steve making out with Natalie Dormer...if none of that is enough, add in seemingly little moments like Peggy and the pre-serum Steve sharing one last look before he undergoes the procedure, or their hilariously awkward exchange when the serum is revealed to have worked. There are countless other fantastic interactions between the two.
All of these instances go a long way towards justifying their attraction to each other and their eventual, albeit short-lived romance...something so many films completely miss out on and forget to do. Needless to say, that's hardly a problem here. The romance between Peggy and Steve is clear-cut, fully developed and totally believable.
Of course, that makes it all the more tragic when Cap has to put the Red Skull's plane down in the Arctic in the climax of the film, thus sacrificing his life and ruining the dance (and, perhaps, the life) they were supposed to share together. It's a testament to the film that this relationship works on so many levels and brings out so many different emotions. It's seriously well done, and another one of the movie's greatest strengths.
What Captain America Did Wrong:
1) The Villains.
Despite the enormous amounts of praise I just heaped onto The First Avenger, it wasn't perfect. Not even close. Unfortunately, one thing the film can't quite manage to get right is the villain.
Aside from Loki, we have yet to see a really stand-out, memorable villain in the MCU and it's a shame that the trend continues in Captain America.
I hate to say it, but it almost feels like Hugo Weaving phones in his performance as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull. Given his past comments that he wouldn't be interested in reprising this role in any future Marvel movies, it makes sense. It certainly says a lot about his interest and passion for this movie, in my opinion.
But even beyond that, stiff acting and terrible line deliveries plague both Weaving's character and Toby Jones' henchman character, Arnim Zola. Given the particular tone of The First Avenger, it's certainly not unexpected that both villains are campy and over the top...but it's taken to an extreme here. It's mostly tolerable, but when the two share scenes together, the hamminess, lame acting and cliché evil mastermind antics are raised to almost unbearable levels of ridiculousness.
2) The Supporting Characters.
Another one of the few disappointments in Captain America is how so little development is given to the supporting cast of characters.
Dr. Erskine, Colonel Phillips, Howard Stark, and of course Agent Carter are all standouts in this area but as an unfortunate side effect, Bucky Barnes and the Howling Commandos are stuck getting the short shrift.
How bad is it?
Well, for starters, the name "Howling Commandos" isn't even mentioned in the film at all. Aside from very minimal characterization for Dum Dum Dugan, we barely ever get to know any of the other members of the group. By not getting to spend enough time with them, the montage sequence depicting the team fighting against various factions of HYDRA along with Cap just doesn't have the same resonance and impact as it otherwise would and, as a result, the forgettable heroes simply fall out of the story, unnoticed.
But even worse than this, however, is the filmmakers' inexplicable treatment of Bucky. In an origin story otherwise chock-full of emotion (see: Dr. Erskine's moving death despite his little screen-time, Steve's ultimate sacrifice at the end, him waking up in modern-day New York City and realizing he's missed out on his date and a lifetime with Peggy, etc.), it's downright odd that the movie would drop the ball with such an emotional misstep.
Sure, the dynamic between Bucky and Steve is fairly obvious: they're long-time best friends with a big brother/little brother relationship. But while a significant amount of screen-time is dedicated to the two of them early on in the story and then again in the middle sections of the film, too much of their relationship is based on assumed history together.
They do share some nice scenes together, but unfortunately none of them are really all that memorable. Thus, when Bucky falls to his apparent death, it's robbed of the proper emotion and tragedy that it should have. It just lacks that emotional punch that explains how devastating his loss is to Cap.
In fact, this mistake is probably egregious enough to merit some significant heavy lifting in the sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I've kept myself mostly spoiler-free of the upcoming blockbuster, so this is simply my own speculation. But I wouldn't be surprised to see that there's a flashback scene or two somewhere in order to remind us, help us fully appreciate and realize just how deep, touching, and personal their friendship was supposed to be.
3) Cap's "Death."
This is probably the worst oversight in the entire movie. So much hinges on this tragic event, and so one would think that utmost care and attention would be given to make this work as well as it possibly could...and to the detriment of many things, it leaves much to be desired.
Of course, I'm referring to the climax of the film. After defeating Red Skull and watching him be teleported away to some unknown location/dimension, Cap finds himself at the controls of the massive, bomb-carrying death machine known as the bomber plane Valkyrie.
He realizes it's still on target for the heart of NYC, and so he has no choice but to put it down in the middle of the Arctic. Before he does so, he has one last gut-wrenching talk over the radio with his love, Peggy Carter, where they wistfully set a date for them to finally dance together and continue their relationship when the war is all over. As he takes one last look at a photo of Peggy, he pilots the aircraft into a plunging descent and makes one last quip about not wanting to step on her toes as they dance...the transmission suddenly cuts off and Peggy is tragically left listening to static.
Great stuff, right?
Well...not really. At least, not as great as it really should've been. I find it almost unforgivable that the filmmakers couldn't craft a good reason for Captain Rogers to purposefully crash the plane. The excuse given in the movie is that "it's moving too fast and heading for New York" and if he "waits any longer, a lot of people are gonna die," so he has no choice but to forcefully put it down.
But does that make any sense? Since when did the plane turn into a ticking time bomb? It's not like the plane is on a permanent, unavoidable flight plan that's fixed on New York and can't be flown anywhere else...because later on Steve simply pushes the control stick down and crashes the plane into the ice. It's not as if it's running out of fuel (explaining the apparent time constraints that are suddenly thrust upon out hero) and so a crash landing would be inevitable. Steve literally has countless options open to him: find a safe landing spot as Peggy suggests, or safely dispose of the bombs on board by dropping them in the water, or talk to any number of experts on the ground, like Howard Stark, for advice on what to do. It's not like he's running out of time as drastically as the movie wants us to think.
Going by the facts given to us in the movie, Steve really didn't have to do what he did. It was completely needless and avoidable, and that severely cheapens the ending in my opinion.
Now, to be fair, this is nitpicking. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand the intent behind the scene: it's crucial for Steve to be faced with an impossible decision and to actually choose to put the greater number of lives above his own. It's the most selfless, honorable, heroic thing he's ever done. And technically, all of this is accomplished in the film as it is presented.
But would it have hurt the filmmakers to brush up on their writing for this incredibly important scene? Why not make it clear that the plane is on autopilot and on track to destroy NYC, the technology is far too advanced for Steve to do anything about it, and so he has to heroically cut the power manually and crash the Valkyrie into the ice? Wouldn't that (or really, any situation along those lines) accomplish everything the writers intended for this scene, and more?
While this scene doesn't do enough to ruin the movie (for me, anyway), it does severely hamper any enjoyment out of the ending. One can almost see the weak writing start to leak through into the contrived, ridiculously forced plot. Rather than being a scene where events take place naturally and fluidly, it turns into a set of circumstances obviously set up by the writers in order for Captain Rogers to be frozen in ice until his convenient resuscitation for The Avengers.
This is probably the one and only scene in the film where it kind of goes off the rails, so I don't believe the movie as a whole should be punished for this one error. However, a little more attention to detail and much stronger writing could have easily saved the ending and gone a long way towards making Captain America's "death" that much more heroic and meaningful.
As you may have already guessed (as if the title of the entire editorial didn't already give it away for everyone), all of this was a rather long-winded way of stating that Captain America: The First Avenger just simply worked. From the respectful treatment and updating of the titular hero, to the optimistic and uplifting message and themes of the movie, to the rousing, trumpeting, unabashedly patriotic soundtrack, this film had a little bit of everything and so it proves to be one of the best solo films in the entire MCU.
It certainly has more than its fair share of flaws, but luckily they don't come close to tipping the scales and making this movie an ineffective mess. On the contrary, it succeeds in areas that make it tough for the bad to outweigh the unequivocal strengths.
This is a movie that simply 'gets' its main character. Steve Rogers has strict morals he chooses to adhere to and he brings a sense of hope and optimism to the proceedings. Cap is also as traditionally American as it gets...but despite what anyone's particular nationality happens to be, being hard working, selfless, responsible, noble, etc, are all qualities that are universally applauded and understood. It's hard not to look up to him as the ideal we all should strive to reach.
The First Avenger is one origin story that sets itself apart from the rest in its genre. By focusing so much on the important things, despite any errors and mistakes made along the way, it succeeds in getting the audience fully invested in the protagonist - so invested, in fact, that most fans genuinely care about his personal journey through The Avengers and now into The Winter Soldier. If that's not the mark of a good movie, then I don't know what is. It's safe to say that Captain America truly worked and, if reviews and firsthand accounts are to be believed, we're in for an even better ride with the sequel.
As always, thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! But most importantly, please do not spoil any details of Captain America: The Winter Soldier as it has yet to come out in the U.S. and many other places as well. Spoilery comments will be deleted on sight!
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