Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 29th July 2011
MCU Phase: One
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones
May contain spoilers.
My god, these films have some good casts. We’ve already had the likes of Jeff Bridges, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Mickey Rourke and Tim Blake Nelson in the first few films. Now Jumanji director Joe Johnston assembles the most stacked supporting cast yet for the tale of skinny kid Steve Rogers becoming super solider Captain America.
Who better to play a grizzled army chief than Tommy Lee Jones? Hugo Weaving as head bad guy Johann Schmidt is great casting too; with no offence meant, the man’s face just really suits playing a scowling Nazi. Hayley Atwell, meanwhile, as Agent Peggy Carter, who fights alongside and falls in love with Captain America, made such a good impression that she got her own TV series. Then of course there’s Mr. Nobility himself Chris Evans, fitting wonderfully into the lead role.
Go a little deeper and you have wonderful character actors Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci, alongside brief appearances from The Stranger’s Richard Armitage, Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, and Doctor Who’s Jenna-Louise Coleman. There’s also Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, father of Tony and our main link to the previous MCU films, along with the ‘tesseract’ Schmidt uses to cause chaos, which we saw in Thor’s post-credits sting. Embedding Stark so heavily in the story is a good move. He is not just a nod and a wink to the audience, but a proper link between Iron Man and Captain America, one that may well be important for The Avengers.
That’s the first time I’ve used the ‘A’ word. Pretty good going when discussing a film that leads us right into it. Disregarding Iron Man 2, what the MCU has given us so far is three pretty simple films, all ‘origin stories’ for the big heroes they wish to unite in The Avengers. Captain America: The First Avenger is in exactly the same mould as Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk. By this point, the MCU strategy is obvious and it feels a little like we are just killing time before the big event, especially when this film’s title explicitly references the team-up to come.
Going into this first outing for Captain America carries with it the fear that it will just be a tedious, if necessary, final jigsaw piece. To its credit, despite fulfilling all the criteria it needs to for the franchise, The First Avenger is the best MCU film since Iron Man. It’s a lovable romp with slid action and its heart in the right place, falling the right side of nausea-inducing jingoism.
The film’s strengths are best highlighted by comparing it to the weaker solo efforts of Thor and The Incredible Hulk. Firstly, this film gets its tone right. Thor skipped around from humour to thunderous action a bit too quickly, and Hulk was boringly po-faced. This is a heavier, more serious film than Iron Man, without the mid-action quips that so annoyed me, but builds humour into the script well – a very good sign given that this film’s writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely will write all future Cap films as well as Infinity War and Endgame. Johnston also does a good job of selling a frankly absurd clash of styles. With a man in bright blue and red armour parading around a Second World War battlefield, Johnson leans increasingly far into the cartoonishness of it all – a good way to seem less self-important.
The First Avenger has a decent villain, too. Admittedly Loki was Thor’s strongpoint, but Hydra head Schmidt (AKA Red Skull) is a definite improvement on Hulk’s attempt. That Hydra is a splinter group from the Nazis both helps avoid cliché and adds an extra layer to the power-mad Schmidt’s character. He is a personal dictator rather than a political one, a distinction that is interesting to make. The film misses a trick by not digging into this a bit more, in fact.
Opposite Schmidt, our hero this time goes on a much more convincing and cheer-worthy journey than his Norse-god and giant-green-man counterparts. There is a lot packed into the film, giving Steve Rogers plenty to go through to shape him as a person. Compare this to the bland and clichéd Thor arc, or the general lack of personality given to Bruce Banner, and this film is a success. As you can probably tell, the more films I watch, the more I dislike The Incredible Hulk.
Lastly, and most importantly, the romantic plot of The First Avenger is possibly the most authentic and engaging in the MCU so far. It beats Pepper Potts and Tony Stark for substance and importance to the film, but Downey Jr. and Paltrow win on chemistry. Where I was critical of Thor and Hulk for lacking individual personality, here we get a good chunk of time with Peggy and Steve, allowing their relationship to feel more real and unique.
Which brings us to the ending, a very good effort to work around the eternal superhero problem of adding weight and suspense to a finale where you know, 99%, that the lead will survive and be victorious. As Cap steers a plane downwards, saving lives but likely killing himself, it is at first hard to be moved by his tearful goodbye to Peggy. That is until we realise that for her, Steve Rogers really did die, and he never will get his dance with her. It leaves the film on a wonderful bittersweet and romantic note that gives it weight in its own right, not just as a set-up for The Avengers.
After the initial big revea of the film’s ‘final’ scene, which puts Steve Rogers in the present day ready for some proper Avenging, we get a very short post-credits sting that is a little disappointing. It’s just another Nick Fury ‘let’s save the world’ thing. The DVD version (not Disney+ however) jumps straight from this into what is essentially a trailer for The Avengers. It is exciting to see a glimpse of the heroes together, but I was quite enjoying all the teasing. Sometimes less is more, Marvel.
Where it Ranks
A strong entry into the MCU, The First Avenger is one of the highlights of Phase One. It rivals Iron Man at times, but it’s not without some unnecessary scenes. Johnston sometimes confuses overblown for spectacular in the action, too. This leaves the film with less zip and fun than Iron Man, but it’s a good attempt.
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk