Captain America: The First Avenger, amusingly only called First Avenger in South Korea, is in some ways the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It almost could have been the first film, telling the titular heroes story while setting up the later Iron Man and Thor installments, and of course leading into next years Avengers.
It opens with a strange ship found in the arctic, inside of which is the frozen Captain America. Hence, any non-comic fans immediately know that this hero’s story ends in tragedy.
Flashback t0 1941, where Johann Schmidt A.K.A. the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is introduced. Schmidt is the head of Hydra, the Nazi deep science division. Hydra raids a town in Norway in search of a Tesseract, a cube (in the comics called the cosmic cube) of immense power, apparently tied to Viking mythology. This item allows for fantastic weapons and vehicles later seen in the film. This scene is reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even has a backhanded reference to it as Schmidt mocks Hitler for looking for “trinkets in the desert.” His final fate is also reminiscent of Indy films.
Cut to New York, where through some interesting special effects, actor Chris Evans plays 90 pound weakling Steve Rogers. Due to his size and a score of health problems he is rejected by 5 different recruiting stations. Steve has strong moral convictions and desperately wants to join the war effort. He sees the Nazis as nothing more than bullies that need to be stopped. He’s also upset that his friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes not only has joined the Army, but is in the 107, which Roger’s father was in when he died during World War One.
His moral courage gets the attention of escaped German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine, who gets him into a secret super soldier project. There he meets later love interest agent Peggy Carter, who is British for some reason, and Colonel Phillips played by Tommy Lee Jones. Phillips is naturally skeptical of Rogers and doesn’t respect him, but Erskine realizes that Rogers is the correct choice because he is “a good man.”
Rogers is selected and, with the help of Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s/Iron Man’s father, goes through an experiment that transforms him into a muscular semi-superhuman specimen. He’s not invulnerable and not as strong and fast as ,say Superman, but he’s more athletic than any human, able to throw people good distances, is fast, can jump fairly high etc.
Rogers is intended to be the first of many super soldiers, but a Nazi spy blows up the lab and kills Erskine, leading to Rogers first action scene. It’s not really explained why the formula can’t be replicated, but in the comics Erksine memorized much of it, hence didn’t leave notes. The film drops the ball on that though.
Much to his humiliation Rogers is turned into a propaganda tool to sell war bonds across the country, accompanied by songs and USO showgirls. Here he gets the name Captain America, with a goofy looking outfit reminiscent of the actual serial film made of Captain America in 1944, and the triangular shaped shield he had in that era. Ironically he also films a few movies. We also actually see first issue of the Captain America comic book, which also appeared in Iron Man 2. Interestingly the comic was first published in 1941, 7 months before Pearl Harbor. In this world it was apparently published afterwards.
After a show in Italy before an uninterested audience of battle weary G. I.s, Rogers learns is friend Barnes is behind enemy lines. He goes out on his own to rescue him and other soldiers, and has a great first encounter with the Red Skull.
From here he leads Barnes and other soldiers in a special unit specifically made to fight Hydra. One of the interesting features of this movie is we don’t see all of his adventures. It’s understood that he went on many missions but we don’t see them all. This leaves room for more sequels and other tie in items set in this period, like the video game Captain America: Super Soldier for instance.
The crux of this film is Rogers morality and determination. This plays into his recruitment, his conviction to go through the painful experiment, and his desire to lead men in battle. Even his final fate in the war is not so much an accident as in the comics, but another example of his moral courage.
Naturally there’s plenty of action, probably more than the Iron Man’s, Hulk and Thor actually. It does capture it’s period very well. Some of the CGI background effects looked obvious, but I think it led to a certain feel that they were purposely trying for.
One point of contention among fans is the lack of Nazi symbols. The swastika appears real big in a scene in a movie theater, but aside from that it’s hidden. A few Nazi officers have tiny Swastika pins, and they have the armband, but the swastika on their arm band is never in view. It makes sense story wise that Schmidt uses Hydra to strike out on his own, even one upping the Nazi salute with a “Hail Hydra” accompanied by two fists in the air (as opposed to the Nazis salute of one open hand raised). Hydra has it’s own symbol and the uniform for their troops is reminiscent of Star Wars storm troopers, who in turn were designed after Nazi soldiers. Still, to go so far out of the way to hide Nazi symbols is a testament to the strange sensibilities of our day. The Indiana Jones series, which this film sought to emulate, took no qualms about showing the swastika in all it’s evil glory.
Howard Stark is fun to watch, clearly the predecessor of his son, and also Roger’s weapons man A.K.A. the Q to Evans’ Bond. I would have liked to have seen more of the soldiers, but there simply wasn’t enough time. Rogers relationship with Carter is even more light than the romance in Thor, and based around the fact that she’s the first girl that bothered to talk with Rogers, who has no idea how to talk to women.
Captain America covers a lot of ground in it’s two hours, maybe more so than it’s predecessors, but it’s a fun ride. 8/10.
Minor Marvel Movie-verse Spoilers.
The tesseract is hidden in a carving of the world tree from Viking mythology, and is said to be the jewel of Odin’s treasure room. In the comics, I always thought it was awkward that Thor, a Viking God, had such prominence in the Marvel Universe, especially given the amount of mythological heroes available. In the Cinematic Universe it actually makes more sense. Captain America connects us to the Nazis, who in real life were into Viking mythology. A whole sub genre of science fiction is based around Nazi super science/Nazi occultism (Like Indy). So in a superhero world it would make sense to have Viking mythology be real/the superheroes/villains of their time. So I really liked that.
Rogers and Barnes have a double date to the Worlds Fair, which is similar in design to the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2, and has similar music too. At one exhibit Professor Horton’s synthetic man is in full display. This was the original Human Torch from the comics. (Not the later Fantastic 4 Human Torch, ironically played by Evans)
Cap’s circular shield is made of the fictional metal Vibranium, but it’s not said where it came from.
We don’t hear the name but the men Rogers leads are the Howling Commandos, led by Nick Fury in the comics. One addition they have is James Falsworth, who in the comics becomes British hero Union Jack.
Howard Stark tries and fails to find Rogers in the arctic. He does find the cube, which presumably will be the basis for Arc Reactor technology.
Barnes dies and that scene comes really fast.
At the very end Captain America is told that he was asleep for nearly 70 years. I wish they just said “a long time” or something like that. As the movies continue, they will always be presumed to be set in the present, that will get dated fast.
There’s not really an extra scene after the credits but instead an actual trailer for next years Avengers, which is filming right now.