In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.

Chapter 5: Captain America: The First Avenger

Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Release Date: July 22, 2011
U.S. box office: $176.6 million
Worldwide box office: $370.5 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 80 percent
Metacritic score: 66
Letterboxd average grade: 6.6
CinemaScore: A-

What Holds Up

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There are so many movies with so much CGI these days, that it is increasingly rare to encounter an effect that feels truly special. But the way VFX wizards transformed the slab of man-meat known as Chris Evans into the 98-pound-weakling known as Steve Rogers was (and still is) one of the great feats of recent movie magic. A couple of the shots of shrimpy Steve are dodgy, but the vast majority are seamless. Compare how great Evans looks above to how awful “buff” Tim Roth looks in The Incredible Hulk just three years earlier. It’s stunning. And it helps you buy in to the fantastical world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where a walking toothpick could get injected with blue goo and instantly morph into a walking side of beef.

Evans’ performance before and after Steve’s transformation is another one of the little miracles of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like a lot of the core characters in the MCU, Captain America is a guy with a spotty track record in comics. He’s been the subject of some great stories, but by the time The First Avenger was in development at Marvel, there was this prevailing wisdom in the industry that Cap, like Superman, was simply too wholesome or innocent or flat-out “good” to work for a modern audience that tended to prefer anti-heroes like Wolverine or Venom.

The first Captain America movie skirted the issue by being a period piece; Steve isn’t a man out of time until the very last scene. But the movie’s conception of Steve Rogers is just as uncomplicated as the one in the pages of Marvel Comics; director Joe Johnston and his writers made no attempt to dirty him up with a deep backstory or gritty motivations. As he’s repeatedly told by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the scientist who invents the Super Soldier Serum, he is “a good man.” Plain and simple.

Evans had previously played hotheaded Johnny Storm in two Fantastic Four movies, and he was mostly known for playing fast-talking wisecrackers. In other words, he seemed completely wrong for the part. And yet somehow he was able to make Steve’s core of decency totally compelling. Evans’ transformation into this old fashioned leading man is almost as impressive as Steve Rogers’ reconstruction as the Sentinel of Liberty.

What Doesn’t Hold Up

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As with ThorThe First Avenger is both strengthened and weakened by its connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are all kinds of cool threads that are introduced in the first Captain America that will become important later. (More on those in a bit.) But because the World War II-set Captain America was followed immediately by the modern day AvengersThe First Avenger had to end with Cap getting frozen in ice in the past and then thawed out in the present.

That meant the film had to cover the entirety of Steve Rogers’ origin and adventures in World War II in two hours. To crib a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000Captain America: The First Avenger is 40 pounds of movie in 30-pound movie-capacity pants. It tells three different stories — Steve becoming Cap, Captain America’s adventures with the Howling Commandos, and Cap’s final mission of World War II against the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) — at a breathless pace. The middle section is given particularly short shrift; after Cap rescues the Commandos from a Hydra prison camp, most of their adventures are condensed into one long action montage. They really could have made a movie just about that part of Cap’s life — and maybe someday they will. But the way The First Avenger rushes through this stuff to find an ending that will allow The Avengers to occur turns the film into the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album. Captain America is an amazing character. His MCU debut shouldn’t feel like the prologue to the “real” movie that you’re going to watch next.

Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events

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There’s nothing more satisfying in a film or TV show than a really good running gag. Marvel can amp up that pleasure by keeping gags going across multiple movies. One of The First Avenger’s earliest scenes shows a dweeby Steve Rogers standing up to an obnoxious dude who won’t shut up in the movie theater, instantly making him the greatest hero in cinema history. When Steve refuses to back down, he gets roughed up in the alley behind the theater; at one point he grabs a trash can lid and uses it as a shield, foreshadowing his signature weapon after he becomes Cap. And when the bully asks if he’s had enough, a weary but defiant Steve replies. “I can do this all day.”

Later, when Cap has been captured by Hydra and Red Skull throws him a similar beating, he says the exact same thing: “I can do this all day.” And he said it again to Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War. 

On one level, it’s just a fun bit of character continuity. But it’s also an important character note for Steve Rogers, showing that through all his physical and emotional changes, and despite his journey from the 1940s to the 2010s, he hasn’t changed at all. He’s still the guy standing up to bullies. Even when he should quit, he won’t.

Best Marvel Easter Egg

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The Red Skull’s right-hand man in The First Avenger is Dr. Arnim Zola, a scientist who uses the Tesseract to create Hydra’s arsenal of energy weapons. In Marvel Comics, Zola has one of the kookier looks in superhero fiction; he’s a face on a screen housed in the gullet of a big robot body that has a camera for a head. Zola, played by Toby Jones, has yet to achieve his ultimate form as a face on a robot’s stomach, but at least the first Captain America included a nice shoutout to this wonderful design by commencing one of the scenes in his laboratory with a shot that pans across a giant magnifying glass filled with Jones’ distorted head. (Jones has a similar appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well.) All the stuff with the Tesseract (actually one of the all-important Infinity Stones) is well and good, but it’s all about Toby Jones’ screen face.

Final Verdict

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Superhero stories are filled with incredible visuals and thrilling adventures, but they are powered by messages. Captain America is one of the strongest morality tales in the entire Marvel canon. It is less of a power fantasy than a how-to guide to life. Because what makes Steve Rogers a hero isn’t a magic serum or an unbreakable shield; it’s his unbreakable will and his inherent decency. His humanity is what makes him superhuman. Dr. Erskine says as much in the very moving scene where he explains to Steve why he has been chosen to become Captain America:

The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great, bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength. And knows compassion ... Stay who you are. Not a perfect man, but a good man.

The Erskine scenes, touchingly played by Tucci and Evans, always get me, because they are so sincere in reinforcing the central values of Marvel Comics: That good can defeat evil, that there are things in this world worth fighting for, and that it’s better to help others than to help yourself. It’s corny stuff, I guess, but Steve Rogers (and, by extension, the film around him) buys in to it so completely, and fights so hard for it, that it’s hard not to be moved.

Marvel has recently adopted more of a self-mocking tone; films like Thor: Ragnarok and the Guardians of the Galaxy series hedge every earnest expression of emotion in lots of winking jokes and comic references. Captain America: The First Avenger feels so much more pure. It believes in its message.

It also has one of the greatest supporting casts in the MCU. Hugo Weaving, channeling Werner Herzog, is a terrific Red Skull (with one of the best makeup jobs in this entire cinematic universe); Tommy Lee Jones, as Cap’s no-nonsense colonel, may give the most underrated performance in Marvel history. And of course Hayley Atwell is so good as Agent Peggy Carter, the assertive female spy in a male-dominated world, that she became the hero of her own ABC series.

Director Joe Johnston, who got his start in visual effects before directing movies like The Rocketeer and the original Jumanji, fills Captain America with touches cleverly inspired by other films. The beginning, with explorers discovering something hidden in the Arctic, is straight out of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the ending, with Steve and Peggy sharing a tragic final radio transmission, comes from the brilliant Powell and Pressburger production A Matter of Life and Death. 

That movie is about a man who inexplicably avoids certain death in a fiery plane crash; Captain America’s final scenes reveal that Steve Rogers had a similarly miraculous escape from a doomed aircraft. The First Avenger could have left Steve’s fate up in the air until The Avengers; instead it shows he’s somehow survived in suspended animation all this time, and awoken in our era as if the previous 70 years never happened. That might have seemed like a cop out if not for that whopper of a last line, delivered with heartbreaking feeling by Evans: “I had a date.” It’s not a perfect ending, just a good one.

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