Captain America: The First Avenger is arguably the most criminally underrated film in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not a joke, I mean every bit of that sentence.
I admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for good period pieces, especially ones having to do with World War II, but that’s not the only reason that I think this movie is one of the MCU’s most solid efforts. There’s a ton to like and enjoy about the film, starting with Chris Evans in his redemption role for Marvel Studios. It hadn’t even been five years since Evans had disastrously played Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for FOX, but here he was ready to reinvent himself as the “Star Spangled Man with a Plan” in the fifth film of the MCU’s grand experimental team-up effort. He made the most of it, without a doubt. The guy is forever Captain America now.
How did he do it so effectively? For starters, he was given a solid origin story. The story of Steven Rogers, 92-pound asthmatic guy from Brooklyn with a heart of gold and an unrelenting willingness to join the United States Army and fight Nazis simply because he doesn’t like bullies. From the beginning, we are shown just how much of a good guy Rogers really is and it’s in an era of war for the United States and the rest of the world. He is selfless, he is resilient, and he never gives up. That is made crystal clear to us in the first half hour of the movie, to the point where we have no questions why Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Abraham Erskine would pick him for the super soldier project, despite Tommy Lee Jones’ Colonel Phillips protesting the decision. The idea is that Rogers’ being a “good man” is what is going to be his greatest asset, mostly so that when he is endowed with his super soldier abilities, it doesn’t go to his head.
Erskine had already seen the other side of that with Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt AKA Red Skull, the sadistic and power mad leader of HYDRA, the science division of the Nazi regime. Schmidt, who had an early version of Erskine’s serum himself had grown mad with power and was obsessed with finding the Tesseract so that he could use its power to build weapons to rule the world under HYDRA’s structure. As he builds his army with Tesseract powered weapons, Rogers undergoes the Vitarays super soldier serum treatment, courtesy of Howard Stark’s cutting-edge technology. This time Stark, at an age closest to the one we’ve seen his son Tony at in the present day, is played by Dominic Cooper and while it’s clear that he’s more of a company man with respect to the military, we see where Tony gets his technological acumen and ego from without question.
That’s honestly one of the most rewarding things about this movie: the threads from the rest of the franchise to that point that we see connected in the past that started it all. We see the SSR program that General Ross tried to resurrect in The Incredible Hulk and we see why it was shelved in the first place, due to the death of Dr. Erskine and the loss of his formula that made Steve Rogers the first and only true super soldier. We see the Tesseract’s connections to Asgard and the Norse mythology that was confirmed true in Thor. We see a 1940’s version of the Stark Expo, a clear predecessor to the one we saw in Iron Man 2. As much as this movie is a prequel to everything else chronologically, it does a great job of connecting dots for everyone who had seen the MCU movies up to that point.
The story of Rogers being the only super soldier, getting stuck on a publicity tour to get people to buy war bonds as a sideshow with the name Captain America, only to take charge himself and lead a mission to save his friend Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan, and his entire unit captured by HYDRA, has this quality of being a wholly organic story while also being sensationalized and theater-staged but working very well within that aesthetic. A big reason that might work as well as it does in this movie is because of the time period and the subject matter of World War II itself. In any case, the rise of Captain America during the war is a great and heroic story to watch and we see the transformation of Steve Rogers into the hero that he always wanted to be and knew he could be if he was given the chance.
We can’t forget Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in this movie. While she may not have had as much to do as she should have, her character is still instrumental in showing Rogers’ human side and proving that despite his super soldier abilities, he’s still very much awkward when it comes to living his own life.
Bread crumbs for the future are dropped in this movie and we didn’t even know it the first time we saw it. Most of the implications from Captain America: The First Avenger are realized in its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier but the effects can be felt even further than that thanks to repercussions from the events of that movie. We’ll get to that soon enough, but for now we praise this movie as a strong comic book origin story with a solid ensemble cast, a great bit of period piece adaptation for World War II and a very underrated score from Alan Silvestri, a film score veteran perfectly placed with director Joe Johnston, who previously directed another classic World War II era hero film, The Rocketeer in 1991.
The ONLY VFX issue I really have with this movie is when Rogers is still skinny in the beginning of the movie. That superimposing of Chris Evans’ head onto a smaller body didn’t work for me when the movie came out and it still doesn’t. I can certainly get past it and it doesn’t ruin anything about the movie for me, but if I have to be honest, I don’t like it much. The budget for Captain America: The First Avenger was $140 million, and it didn’t even break $400 million worldwide at the box office, but another $10 million to get that head to body ratio right in the beginning of the movie would have been worth it for me. That’s my only VFX gripe of the whole thing, right there.
Phase 1 of the MCU was clearly one where the stories were more serious, and humor came out of those stories at opportune moments, instead of it being the other way around where fun is the goal of the movie and seriousness comes out of that fun at certain times. For those of us that want a more serious comic book movie franchise, you wonder where that went away to with Marvel Studios. I’m kidding, we know exactly where it went but that’s another five films from this point. For now, we see Rogers make the sacrificial play to bury HYDRA in the water and stop Red Skull’s plan for world domination, leading Captain America to get frozen in the icy ocean for nearly 70 years and then awoken by SHIELD and Nick Fury in present day, just in time for comic book movie team-up history.