The Throwback Charms of “Captain America: The First Avenger”

Captain America the First Avenger Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.

When Captain America: The First Avenger was originally released in July of 2011, its world and ours were in vastly different places. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was an ambitious, impressive and largely successful experiment – one whose big looming question was whether or not it would be able to tell a coherent story with its disparate band of lead characters. 

The Avengers was almost certainly going to be a box office hit, but whether or not it would work as a movie was then an open question. And as for the world itself, well… yeah. Watched today, The First Avenger is as much a time capsule of where the MCU and the comics it was born from were at the time as it is a movie. As a movie, it remains a whole lot of fun – even when it’s drawing tears.

As a comics fan, it’s a treat to revisit The First Avenger and see the ways it reflects where Captain America comics were in 2011. During the course of a lengthy run with the character, writer Ed Brubaker resurrected Captain America’s long-deceased sidekick James “Bucky” Barnes and had him take over the star-spangled mantle for an extended period of time. 

Captain America: The First Avenger
Chris Evans in “Captain America: The First Avenger”

While Steve Rogers would re-assume the Captain America name a few months after The First Avenger’s release, there are a number of direct nods to Bucky’s tenure. The biggest of these comes during Bucky (Sebastian Stan)’s final scene in the movie, where he wields the mighty shield in conjunction with a pistol (since he lacked Steve’s superhuman strength, Bucky made up the difference with weapons and his bionic arm) shortly before falling to his apparent death.

On a more general note, The First Avenger pays tribute to a part of Cap’s comics history that isn’t really touched on anywhere else in the MCU. Steve Rogers is, in comics, a talented artist – enough so that at one point he actually drew his own comic for a while. 

In one of The First Avenger’s best moments, Steve takes out his frustration at being used to make propaganda rather than being allowed to serve by doodling himself as a dancing monkey. It’s a great piece of character work, highlighting Steve’s thoughtfulness and building a life for him outside of the Captain America identity – and it also provides a prime opportunity for a critical conversation with his friend-and-eventual-beloved – British spy Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Given how heavily his later character arc would turn on being a man out of time and his (on some level self-destructive) commitment to superheroing, it’s neat to see The First Avenger show this side of him.

The First Avenger is as much a time capsule of where the MCU and the comics it was born from were at the time as it is a movie.

“Neat” is a good word for The First Avenger as a whole, really. It’s a lovingly crafted action movie with a good sense of narrative rhythm and a tremendous heart. Director Joe Johnston draws on the same pulpy visual sensibilities that made The Rocketeer so much fun, contrasting the rough-and-tumble, inventive-on-the-go style of the allied forces with the eerily stiff, borderline mechanical hordes of HYDRA and their various doomsday weapons. He navigates the tale’s highs and lows with care, weaving threads of character throughout. When a major character moment hits, Johnston and the creative team he’s working with ensure that it lands. 

Take, for instance, the reveal of the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) true face. The Skull is a vain megalomaniac who believes himself to be one of the very few people worthy of godhood. He simultaneously despises and revels in his infamous visage, covering it with a creepy Hugo Weaving mask (seriously, it’s an amazingly unsettling makeup job) while in the presence of the Nazi elite but sitting for a portrait in private.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Hugo Weaving as Red Skull in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Once he turns on Hitler for not thinking big enough and gets his mask damaged by Captain America during their first meeting, the Skull shows himself in more ways than one. Johnston brings together Weaving’s performance, the make-up artists’ masterful craft and the story’s positioning of Rogers and the Skull as foils to one another to create a genuinely striking piece of cinema. 

And as for the Skull’s stalwart archnemesis? Chris Evans spent most of a decade playing Steve Rogers, and with The First Avenger he started strong. He’s sweet, thoughtful, and famously refuses to back down when there’s a right thing that needs doing. 

Physically, his first chase after being injected with the Super Soldier serum is a thing of beauty. He’s getting used to his strength, even to running without his asthma kicking in, as he goes. And he’s a bundle of emotions throughout – grieving the murder of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci, always excellent), elated as he discovers what he can now do, and determined to stop a murderous HYDRA agent (Richard Armitage). Along with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Evans’ Rogers is the most iconic performance of the MCU thus far. His work in The First Avenger is a worthy example of why.

Captain America: The First Avenger Trailer:

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