by Brian Hadsell
It’s easy to forget, with Guardians of the Galaxy currently burning up the box office for going on its fifth week, that the other Marvel success story of the year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is being released on BluRay and DVD on the 9th. A sequel to both the first Captain America film and The Avengers, it boldly struck forth into new, uncharted territory for the MCU with the same devil-may-care attitude that fueled the game-changing reveals in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Looking back at Phase 1, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Marvel’s biggest pre-Avengers game-changer – bigger than Nick Fury’s recruitment for The Avengers Initiative, bigger than alien gods from other dimensions starting a street brawl in New Mexico and even bigger than the Hulk’s biceps – was Captain America: The First Avenger: a quaint, old-timey war movie with Depression-era spunk and something to prove.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a thin, sickly asthmatic, is continually rejected from enlisting in the army due to his laundry list of physical infirmities. Adamant that “there are men laying down their lives [and he has] no right to do any less than them,” he is eventually selected for Dr. Abraham Erksine’s (Stanley Tucci) super soldier program and transformed into Captain America: a patriotic champion against the Axis Powers. Although initially sidelined as a War Bonds salesman, he proves to be the Allies’ greatest weapon against Hydra – the Nazi deep-science division – and its megalomaniacal leader, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
The reason why Captain America works so well is because it was written as a period war drama first and a superhero action film as a distant second. Rather than Thor’s mysticism or Iron Man’s next-gen engineering, Captain America is rooted in the historical realism of World War II. Yes, the Tesseract (the magical blue cube from The Avengers) allows The Red Skull (whose superhuman abilities are derived from Erksine’s super soldier serum) to create futuristic death rays in order to overwhelm both the Axis and Allied forces, but that’s just Marvel brand ornamentation. It supplements, rather than defines, a film that more closely resembles Saving Private Ryan than it does Man of Steel.
In the film’s most memorable sequence, the newly promoted Captain America sells War Bonds, makes propaganda films, headlines comic books and punches out Adolf Hitler from coast to coast. Immediately after this, he tours the front lines as a Star Spangled Bob Hope entertaining the troops. The entire first hour of the film is about wartime America, combat training and the slick, Washington propaganda machine rather than the fetishized violence of an action movie.
While Captain America’s other debut film appearances were so concerned with getting him out of World War II and into the present that they did it in 30 and 5 minutes respectively (1990’s Captain America and 2006’s Ultimate Avengers), The First Avenger has the audacity to make itself an origin story set seventy years before the other Phase 1 films. We are introduced to Steve Rogers – the raggedy kid from Brooklyn – watch him flounder awkwardly through basic training, unprecedentedly transform into the world’s first superhero, balk at being turned into “a dancing monkey” for the War Department whose worth is measured in bond sales, rescue and then lose his closest friend and become the soldier that he was always meant to be.
By the time he plunges into the ocean in order to save New York from a runaway bomber that he can’t safely land, we know who Steve Rogers is: “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” We understand the gravity of his sacrifice not as an abstract concept, but as a tangible tragedy at the cusp of victory. And, with the depressive last words of “I had a date,” we understand that his revival isn’t the miraculous homecoming for an over-seas veteran, but a fundamental loss of an entire lifetime.
Captain America’s bold direction and earnest script are complimented by a pitch-perfect and largely veteran cast. Stanley Tucci’s Abraham Erksine is the blueprint for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner: a quiet, reserved man, brimming with nervous energy that brilliantly contrasts against the slick veneer of Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark. Peggy Carter is a strong, confident woman beset on all sides by underscored sexism, whose anxieties at being respected as a female agent (especially while nursing feelings for a coworker) are adeptly conveyed by Hayley Atwell. Whether appearing in flesh tones or in “redface,” Hugo Weaving palpably exudes the menace that is The Red Skill. Colonel Phillips is presented as 2/3 General MacArthur and 1/3 Thaddeus Stevens, delivered with the gravelly, disgruntled growl that only Tommy Lee Jones could pull off. Understandably, however, Chris Evans proves to be the star of the show; whether as the mousy kid from Brooklyn or the monolithic super soldier, he fully embodies the determinate heart of Steve Rogers.
Despite being the MCU’s first unreservedly great film, Captain America is not without its flaws. The train scene where Rogers and his Howling Commandos capture Armin Zola feels more like a mid-level boss fight than a tactical mission to capture an enemy operative. Rogers’ motorcycle – with its array of trip wires, machine guns and oil slicks – feels more like the Mach V than a military-issue vehicle. The third act blitz to Hydra’s final base in the Alps seems rushed against the film’s otherwise steady pacing and relies more on luck than on strategy. The ultimate reveal of Rogers in the 21st Century should have been a post-credit scene, which until now Marvel had been dishing out in spades; instead, we get dizzyingly-edited teaser trailer for The Avengers which is disappointing amid the otherwise exceptional field of world-broadening and plot-developing scenes.
Captain America is a years-spanning World War II epic that combines comic book superheroics with grounded realism in a way that is only surpassed by Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and its own sequel. It’s a fun, exhilarating film that never loses sight of what it is about or who its characters are. While it may not be the overall best film leading up to The Avengers, it was the most evenly-executed: sacrificing the visceral highs of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in order to avoid the lax pitfalls of Iron Man 2 and Thor. Overall, I would give the film a strong 8.5.