Written by David Holland
Great Scott, Marty! Fire up the flux capacitor, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, and activate the Time Stone – no, wait, that’s still a few movies away. Sorry, the point is, we’re going back in time! That’s right, Marvel takes a page out of the Star Wars playbook and throws the meticulous chronology established in the first movies out the window to take us back to a time when the bad guys were bad and the good guys were also not great.
It’s all coming together. The first Avengers film is so close that the audience can nearly taste it and the studio is already counting the box office sales. Marvel Studios have gone from an unproven risk to a reliable money maker, soon to be consumed by Disney, one of the six companies that will be left in the capitalism Hunger Games of the twenty-first century.
The filmmakers only wanted Chris Evans for this role, begging him to take it on three separate occasions. He only relented after Robert Downey Jr asked him personally to reconsider, reinforcing my thesis that casting RDJ is the single most important decision made in the MCU, since he indirectly cast Evans.
How Does it Hold up?
Nazis hunting occult artifacts is a storyline that is ever-so-lightly based in history, but is apparently an infinitely deep well for Hollywood. This film gives us a shortcut to understanding that we’re dealing with “Very Bad Guys”, since Colonel Elrond and his HYDRA goons decide that the Nazis just aren’t evil enough for their taste. This is our first introduction to HYDRA in the MCU and in this incarnation they are basically Nazis that have been bitten by radioactive Nazis. HYDRA’s evolution over the course of the MCU will be much more interesting as they transform into power brokers, chaos agents, and ultimately infiltrators of SHIELD itself, but for now they are totalitarians and bow-tie wearing mad scientists with mountain-cliff lairs.
This being the last film before The Avengers, we get some great tie-ins to the previous MCU installments – The Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) is the precursor to SHIELD and foil to HYDRA; the Stark Expo, which we saw in Iron Man 2, is featured in a past incarnation; the Tesseract is tied to Odin (we will later learn that it is an Infinity Stone, a power even greater than Odin himself) and we see the Tree of the World art that featured prominently in Thor.
As for our first introduction to Steve Rogers, who will go on to become Captain America, I will say that as a guy who was cut from the middle school track team, my heart goes out to Rogers being rejected by the enlistment office. The SSR and HYDRA give us some great WWII-era cloak and dagger material, complete with secret codes, hidden storefront entrances, and cyanide tooth capsules. And, just to make sure we know that HYDRA isn’t messing around, they have their own salute.
There’s lots of classic Captain America – on his propaganda tour he wears a version of his first uniform, which evolves as the film goes on. We get Howling Commandos, without it feeling forced, and some vintage feeling WWII battle scenes with a super soldier thrown in. Howard Stark plays a great supporting role, setting up for the future tension between Steve and Howard’s son, Iron Man. This movie is really well-paced, keeping the plot moving along while also developing likable characters along the way. And, of course, we could only get Rogers to the present with his fateful, icy plane ride in the past, giving us the longest wait for a Happily Ever After in the MCU to date – approximately an 18 movie stretch.
There’s the old line about people who “have greatness thrust upon them”, but that’s not exactly Captain America’s story. He doesn’t seek out greatness, but he does seek out an opportunity to sacrifice his freedom and potentially his life in order to serve in the Second World War. When serving requires him to undergo a dangerous experimental procedure, he volunteers without hesitation, having been chosen not for his military prowess or ability to follow orders but for his fundamental goodness. In a way, even Rogers’s silly propaganda tour in Act 2 is a sacrifice. It’s not what he wanted to do, but he is willing to play the role that is required of him. And it gives us a great subversion of the classic Captain America cover:
As I’m learning from this rewatch, a Marvel film’s theme doesn’t just come from the superhero, but from a supporting character as well. In this movie, the first man to believe in Rogers, the one who chose him for the Super Soldier Program, Dr. Erskine, is a German expat. In their heart to heart, Erskine tells Rogers that he was approached by the Nazis to continue his research under their direction, but he refused. Then he delivers a line that punches above the weight of a superhero movie: “The first country the Nazis invaded was their own”. It’s a line that should give every person who has an “It couldn’t happen here” mentality pause and it’s delivered by the unflappable Stanley Tucci in what is objectively the second best movie he has ever been in.
Sacrifice also comes at the hands of Rogers’s best friend Bucky Barnes, although in a less permanent fashion. Seriously, at a certain point we’re going to have to have a real conversation about “death” in the MCU because it becomes absurd, but at this point it’s enough to say that Erskine’s and Bucky’s sacrifices pave the way for the one made by Captain America at the end – he sacrifices his future with Peggy Carter and his opportunity to see the war through to the end in order to save the world. Of course, he finds himself called back into action in the present when the Tesseract once again threatens Earth, but this time in the hands of a much more handsome villain than Megatron.