In Part 5 of our 17-part series, we go back in time with ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ in order to challenge our notions of modern-day heroism.
Steve Rogers is just a kid from Brooklyn. He’s not an alien super-being idolized by primitive man, or a brilliant scientist who mucked about where he shouldn’t have, or an egomaniacal billionaire who bought his way into heroism. Seventy-six years ago, Rogers saw friends and strangers joining ranks to fight the good fight, and he simply wanted to contribute.
While others dismissed him as a 90-pound asthmatic itching to fulfill a death wish, Rogers knew that he had something to offer the war front: his body, his life. He could not bear the thought of sitting back while others laid down their lives on his behalf. If little Timmy could collect scrap metal for Uncle Sam, then Rogers could pull a trigger just as easily. Not because he wanted to kill Nazis, but as a boy who marked his neighborhood by the alleyways he got his butt handed to him in, and as a man disgusted by those bullies goose-stepping across Europe.
Steve Rogers, the First Avenger, was chosen to represent our country because he was an entirely selfless being, a soldier who would put us before him. Captain America represents everything we would want to be in the face of evil, a man without demons (those would come later), whose purity of heart is his greatest strength. If you’re skeptical and prone to eye rolls, Team Iron Man awaits. If you’re idealistic, hopeful, and maybe a little naïve, you’re Team Cap all the way.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a film that only Marvel Studios would bother to accomplish. It’s an emotional set-up that we won’t see paid off until eight films further down the MCU sequence. As Thor gave pathos to Loki so he could be free to twirl his mustache in The Avengers, Captain America solidifies Steve Rogers’ virtuous patriotism so that The Winter Soldier and Civil War can eventually drag his ideals across our own prickly cynicism.
On its own, The First Avenger is a perfectly fine, humdrum war film with supernatural aspirations. As part of an epic 17-series re-watch, it’s an indispensable piece to the inner turmoil that’s truly driving the Avengers Initiative. As discussed in Part One of this series, while we may get distracted in our frustrations over Marvel’s alleged villain problem, we’re ultimately here to experience the internal crises of our heroes.
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 for Timely Comics (eventually rechristened Marvel Comics), Captain America was conceived by two Jewish kids eager to incite the fighting spirit of America. Hitting the stands eight months before we would enter the war, Captain America was a star-spangled crusader who saw the world in black and white, good versus evil, and that unquestionable righteousness made Hitler his mission.
As Professor Erskine explains to the newly transformed Steve Rogers in that first issue, “We shall call you Captain America, son! Because like you — America shall gain the strength and the will to safeguard our shores!” Here was a hero we could admire and emulate, a knight in shining patriotic armor that acted as a mascot to embolden the young to join the cause.
While not a founding member of The Avengers, in the comic books, Captain America has lead the team for decades and is often regarded as an essential ingredient to Marvel’s own Justice League. He’s the strategist, the leader, and the hero with total confidence behind his convictions. If Hawkeye or Black Widow had any doubts about their next move, then all they needed to do was follow in Cap’s footsteps.
As a reader, if you, yourself, questioned the morality of any given situation, you could theorize a W.W.C.A.D. thought balloon and a “The More You Know” PSA would practically play before your eyes. Captain America is the very definition of The Good Guy, and yes, he’s often labeled squeaky clean and condemned as passé by those too cool for school.
Could the Marvel Cinematic Universe have worked without him? It’s easy to imagine the success of Iron Man and its sequel pushing Tony Stark to the forefront of the battle lines. In 2011, there was a serious question as to whether or not this nationalistic boy scout would hold any relevance on the global market let alone the home front. Would an audience who ate up the snark of Tony Stark follow Captain America behind enemy lines? As Rogers himself would ask in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, “Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old-fashioned?”
Being intrinsically tied to “The Good War,” Captain America is the easiest hero to root for. Nazis are the closest villains we have to actual demons. Slap a swastika on your arm and we have all agreed as an audience that a tightly wound fist to the face is the only proper response. It’s a formula that has reigned supreme since the very early days of propaganda cinema, and as our wars have become increasingly grayer, the satisfaction of a clear-cut bad guy to beat on is absolutely scrumptious. It worked for John Wayne, Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, and Tom Hanks, and it literally defines Marvel’s first Avenger.
Marvel Studios could have skipped over Cap’s World War II origins within a cold open. We’ve had entire lifetimes of war films to give us context, and cosmic cubes and Red Skulls could have easily found their way into the present day for film number one. Since Stan Lee brought the Sentinel of Liberty to the modern era in the fourth issue of “The Avengers,” Captain America’s most significant feature has been his man-out-of-time status, and very few comics have even bothered to revisit his battlefront birth.
How does a hero raised with mono-vision morality behave in a country that has witnessed the assassination of one president, the impeachment of another, and manipulated an American tragedy to finance un-winnable conflicts in which our nightly news has successfully numbed the horror and outrage of the American people? Watching Rogers lose his innocence in The Winter Soldier does have a schadenfreude level of entertainment to it and could have served as a launching point for the character on the verge of the Avengers Initiative.
So, why grab Joe Johnston to montage our way through the war? Well, Captain America can be a laughable character. He doesn’t jive with modern ideas of badass justice, and you simply wouldn’t buy Cap in 2011 without living with Cap in 1942. It’s essential to be there for that alleyway ass whooping, taking the fight to that theater talker even when he stands no chance of walking away victorious.
Giving up, or not showing up, is not an option for Rogers. We need to understand that he comes from a family of servicemen and women; he’s born from a father who died in the mustard gassed trenches of the first world war and a mother who contracted tuberculosis as a nurse aiding the dying. We need to see Professor Erskine examine his courage, Agent Carter fall for his seemingly un-backable bravery, and Bucky bask in the awe of this champion he once protected on the schoolyard. And we need to see all that affection robbed from him.
Captain America is on The Avengers to challenge our notion of heroism. After a series of sequels in which Iron Man bumbles to better the planet, Tony Stark experiences gallantry as a complicated beast he’s desperate to tame. For Steve Rogers, right is right, and it’s simple. The results may be problematic, but his yesteryear ideology gives him very few choices to navigate. To appreciate his honorable point of view, we needed a full two hours of “no duh” Hydra-smashing.
As an audience, we may no longer believe in the black and white of right and wrong, but once upon a time, we did. Captain America asks us if we still see compassion as a strength. Is selflessness an attribute, or the b.s. of comic books? As we dig deeper into the MCU, Captain America’s apple pie bravado will be put to the test, but so will our own concepts of justice. Team Iron Man vs. Team Cap. It’s this conflict, not Thanos’s magic glove, fueling our enthusiasm for the universe.
What Captain America: The First Avenger Contributes to the MCU:
- James “Bucky” Buchanan Barnes – “I’m with you till the end of the line, pal.” Bucky spent a lifetime looking out for scrawny Steve Rogers. While he admired his friend’s unparalleled audacity, he had little faith that Steve could substantiate his values with any kind of actual might. Courage means nothing to Bucky if there is no muscle to back it up. He’s both Steve’s greatest champion and detractor; he’s the realist that Steve has been squaring off against his entire life. When he’s uncomfortably out-shadowed by Captain America, Bucky could have easily fallen into a well of jealousy, but he sees Steve’s transformation as a dream made manifest. He knows that no one is more deserving of that mantle than his buddy. His choice to follow Cap till the end of the line inevitably defines Cap’s choice to put Red Skull’s flying wing into the ocean. That concept of sacrifice becomes the ultimate definition of a hero for Captain America, and that ideal will poison the well of his friendship with Tony Stark in both Avengers films as well as Civil War.
- Agent Carter – The British Secret Agent assigned to the American Super Soldier Program, Peggy Carter was immediately attracted to the runt with delusions of grandeur. While The First Avenger regulates her to glorified love interest, Carter would get her chance to kick ass in her eponymous short-lived ABC series. The elderly version of the character would reappear in The Winter Soldier as a brutal means of exemplifying all that Rogers has lost in his time jump. She’s guest-starred in Ant-Man and will hopefully return to S.H.I.E.L.D. in the upcoming Captain Marvel feature that takes place in the 1990s.
- HYDRA– What’s worse than a Nazi? Nothing. But since we can’t go painting swastikas on action figures, Marvel concocted The Red Skull’s deep science division as another army of faceless goons for Captain America to punish.
- Vibranium – the rarest metal on Earth, Vibranium is “stronger than steel and a third its weight.” Howard Stark took what little they had to construct Cap’s vibration resistant shield and it would lead to the comical bringing down of Thor’s hammer as seen in the next film. This is the second reference to Black Panther in the MCU (the first being the Wakanda map shown in Iron Man 2).
What Captain America: The First Avenger Withholds from the MCU:
- The Red Skull – Another firm believer in Arthur C. Clarke’s third rule of technology, The Red Skull mocks Hitler’s acquisition of desert trinkets while he discovers the jewel of Odin’s treasure room in Tonsberg, Norway. Hugo Weaving deliciously channels Werner Herzog in his portrayal of the crimson cranium cook bent on world domination, and it’s disappointing that the actor apparently had no stomach for these comic book exploits. While The Tesseract (a.k.a. The Cosmic Cube, a.k.a. The Space Gem) zapped him off to god knows where, it is conceivable that he could return someday, and it’s not like Marvel is opposed to recasting. Heck, for the majority of The Winter Soldier, I was half-expecting Robert Redford to rip off his face to unveil that ruby red smile.
- Colonel Chester Phillips – Another actor brought on to bring a little gravitas to the MCU, Tommy Lee Jones’s tyrannical colonel delivered the best lines of the trailer, “General Patton has said that wars are fought with weapons, but they are won by men. We are going to win this war because we have the best men, and they will personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of hell.” ‘Nuff said.
- The Howling Commandos – Cap’s ragtag group of soldiers that pledged allegiance after he rescued them from a HYDRA prison camp in Italy. While Dum Dum Dugan may have popped up in Agent Carter, and Kenneth Choi continued his character’s family line as the principle in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the Commandos themselves kind of got a short shrift in the rushed climax of The First Avenger.
“The Marvels Project” by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting – Few would argue that Brubaker and Epting delivered the finest Captain America arc ever with their “Winter Soldier” run, but if you’re looking to go further into the origins of the Super Soldier program, then this eight-issue mini-series gets to the core of the courage driving the Marvel universe. Set in 1939 New York, we follow burgeoning superhero The Avenging Angel as he tracks down the Nazi spies attempting to infiltrate Professor Erskine’s grand experiment. Steve Rogers and Bucky make an appearance, but “The Marvels Project” primarily focuses on those superheroes we usually consider best-forgotten to the dark depths of Timely Comics. The original Human Torch and his sidekick Toro, The Phantom Bullet, John Steele, The Ferret, patchless Nick Fury, and Namor: The Sub-Mariner are all given the golden treatment by two of contemporary comics’ finest maestros.
Read more from our series about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: