As of the point of this review, there are 17 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. I'm pretty sure that they are all PG-13. Trying to write seventeen pithy things about the ratings system gets tough after a while. I will say that A) I appreciate consistency and B) there is a part where Red Skull rips what appears to be his face off. My son loves Captain America. I was thinking of letting him watch this one with me. Then I remembered that the bad guy rips his face off revealing a blood red skull. Yeah, no. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Joe Johnston
Is this officially considered an alt-history war movie? Like, does it technically go in the same category as Inglorious Basterds? These are things that I think about when I watch a movie that I've seen a few times and am revisiting in an attempt to rewatch all of the Marvel movies. I mean, it is always going to be categorized as a superhero movie. I get that and it should be. But I'd love to see that rogue video store owner ("What's a video store?") who is just a genre purist and insists that this an alt-history war movie. But I get that. The entire thing, with the exception of the bookends contextualizing the movie within the MCU, is set during World War II. It's got that slight sepia color tinting in America and the faded color palate when in Europe. There's no doubt that the movie is supposed to be looking like a war movie, which is a gutsy move. The only thing, and I wasn't planning on getting into criticism about the look yet (but here we are), is that the movie is just a little bit too clean and too safe to really be a great war movie. But it is a war film and I guess some people can say that this is the only war movie that they've seen. (Oh, the sadness in my heart is overwhelming at the thought!)
For a long time, Captain America: The First Avenger was my least favorite movie in the MCU. That's not saying that it is even remotely bad. It just didn't hit that sweet spot for me when it comes to the MCU. I love The Winter Soldier so much and many other movies in the franchise that I was always surprised that people claimed this one as their favorite. Part of it is that it does feel like a very safe movie, with the exception of the setting. I have to give Feige and Johnston so many props for risking a Phase I movie to be set in World War II. I'm sure that there was chatter in preproduction to pull what the '90s Captain America did and just have a few moments in the '40s. This is an excellent choice, especially during the origin heavy Phase I of the MCU. I'm really glad that we're past origin movies, but I'm also really glad that Marvel took time to do the origins right. The only real downside of this is the fact that the Red Skull doesn't become the primary antagonist for Captain America. That cryptic ending to Red Skull implies that they probably wanted him back for future movies, but Hugo Weaving kind of seems like he hates everything. He especially seems to hate the genres he's involved in and seems to view them simply as paychecks. That's a bummer, but I also don't know why they just don't recast him down the line. He's a mostly prosthetic character and it is odd that the big bad guy for Captain America is Iron Man. I guess Dr. Zola gets a little more cred, but even he is more of a cameo character than an outright bad guy. But the rest of World War II kind of works. It was kind of weird that everyone lost their minds that Wonder Woman was set in World War I. I kept thinking that it wasn't that revolutionary because Captain America did it first. The only points that I can really give Wonder Woman is that there's nothing inherent to the character of Wonder Woman that needs her in World War I. Steve Rogers needs to be punching Hitler (And boy, do I love how they handle that in the movie). There's something quintessentially American about World War II. There's a reason that so many American war movies tend to be set during that war. It's one of the few times that we were seen as the great liberators. We were the globe's heroes and to have a character like Captain America come out of this era makes the most amount of sense. Steve Rogers is fundamentally optimistic and to have this character blossom out of this war makes sense. Admittedly, the character was also created during World War II, but I think that might be a sense of kismet to see where the character ended up over the course of history.
When I read that the guy who played Johnny Storm in the original Fantastic Four franchise was going to be Captain America, I couldn't see it. Johnny Storm is such a cocky character. Also, one of the few things I didn't mind about that Fantastic Four movie was the casting of Chris Evans as the Human Torch. I have to give The First Avenger props for changing my mind about him. It is so odd to think of Chris Evans as any other superhero except for Captain America at this point. Evans gets the character really well. The movie is fundamentally about earnestness and responsibility, two traits that probably define Captain America more than any origin story or any superpowers could actually do. From moment one, Evans presents Steve Rogers as a guy who doesn't consider himself a hero, but understands the difference between right and wrong at all times. Steve kind of lives in a world that has black and white morality, which is what makes him ultimately comic bookey. But that is also what makes the character heartwarming to watch. Rogers doesn't have to make dark decisions. He's a leader, even when the chips are down. Having him be this little guy (I love little guy Steve in these movies. I like Cap too, but there's something adorable about little Steve Rogers that is very relatable) standing up to bullies in allies makes him so human. He wants to serve. He is the epitome of the noble soldier. He abhors violence, but doesn't stand for tyrants. It's so odd because right now I'm waxing poetic about a character born out of propaganda, but it is the propaganda that hits me exactly where it is supposed to: right in the patriotism. Evans's portrayal of Steve is so human, yet balanced that we get that Steve is probably second guessing every single one of his choices, but he is still wildly inspiring. Since Christopher Reeve, I don't think an actor has really gotten the duality of a character in every scene he is in. He is both awkward Steve Rogers and inspirational Captain America in every scene he's in. That's pretty awesome.
The plot is fun, but straightforwards. The movie is really much better than I remember, but it is somewhat hindered by origin story problems. I mentioned that I didn't want Red Skull in this movie because it really hampers how much we can understand Red Skull as a character. I know, the World War II movie is the one that has to have the Red Skull. He's bred out of fascism and is the epitome of hate. But a lot of that isn't communicated as effectively. This is why I hate when the archvillain is the first villain. This one, I feel like Feige had his hands tied because the Red Skull is so fundamental to Captain America's origins. But he is a thrown away character. Similarly, the plot that Cap is trying to defuse is pretty thin. It's all about superweapons and bombing America. That's really about it. But as with most origin stories, what is meant to be the A-plot really fills in for the B-plot. The plot, honestly, doesn't matter. It is all about the characterization. This is mostly successful. I mentioned that Steve is really fleshed out, but I also have to commend this movie for making Peggy Carter an interesting character. There's a reason that there was an Agent Carter TV series. Most of that comes from Hayley Atwell fleshing out a pretty complicated and fascinating character. The rest of it comes from the fact that she kicks all kinds of butt (I'm ashamed of this review because of that sentence). I also have to say that I keep forgetting that Tommy Lee Jones is part of the MCU. I wonder what his experience with the movie was because I get the vibe that he was fulfilling a role. He's good in this, but he is typical Tommy Lee Jones. He doesn't have a ton of jargon, but there are moments where I don't think he necessarily gets the whole plot. Then there's Stanley Tucci, who is wonderful as Abraham Erskine. I know, it's a small and thankless role, but I really like him in that part. Sebastian Stan, weirdly enough, is underserved in this. That will be compensated for in the next one, but I never really got the Cap / Bucky dynamic in this one.
The movie is a movie about establishing character and tone. I didn't get that on the first few watchings. The little things bothered me. I didn't love Cap's suit in this one. Who cares? The movie gets the big things right and leaves the little things for future films. Feige knew what needed to be in this one and what didn't. The other movies can be about plot. He knew that Captain America had to be a central figure in the MCU and this movie does everything it can to establish that. I now have to rerank my whole list because this movie is better than I give it credit for.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.