Captain America: The First Avenger has always been one of my least favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe origin stories, with perhaps only The Incredible Hulk being below it in quality. However, having rewatched it in anticipation of the upcoming sequel, it isn’t quite as bad as I remembered. It just feels a bit stale.
The origin of Captain America was always going to be difficult to pull off with a modern audience. After all, the original purpose of the character was to act as anti-Nazi World War II propaganda, and the character only stuck around after the war’s conclusion because of his immense popularity. So how does a modern film capture the spirit of an antiquated hero? Why, it revels in the storytelling tropes of the past, of course!
See, Captain America works because it doesn’t take itself all that seriously. We have Captain America, all around good guy, who gets turned into a super-soldier capable of taking on a ton of enemy soldiers at once. We have Hydra, a legion of super-Nazis set to, of course, take over the world. Hugo Weaving plays the Red Skull, leader of Hydra, and his menacing undertones are perfect for the part. And there we go! That’s about as much set-up as we need, and the film runs with it. It all has a very 1940’s serial feel to it, but still provides enough characterization of our protagonist to keep modern audiences interested. We’re just along for a fun ride that doesn’t require us to think too much.
So why isn’t this one of the better pre-Avengers films? I think the best way to describe it is that we’ve all seen this movie before. We have the scene where the good guy proves himself as a hero. We have the obligatory love interest. We have the final showdown where only the Cap can save us all. By reveling in the well-established tropes of the film’s setting, it ends up feeling like just about every other generic action movie of the past seventy years. It doesn’t even distinguish itself much from other superhero films of the past few decades, borrowing some recent films’ tropes, like the death of the hero’s mentor or the loss of a friend that drives the hero’s need for vengeance, both a la Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. The movie feels very by-the-numbers, and awareness of that detracts from the experience a bit.
There’s also a clear sense of obligation in this movie. We NEED a Captain America origin story before The Avengers comes out. We NEED to plant plot seeds for The Avengers and the inevitable Captain America sequel. We NEED to contrive a reason for the Cap to end up cryogenically frozen for seventy years so he can appear in The Avengers. This movie feels like a box to check off on the to-do list before the more fleshed-out flicks do it all better. I admire the ambition of establishing a Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while I’m not sure a successful Captain America movie could have been made without that push, I do think that the obvious continuity seeds do limit the movie’s ability to tell a unique story.
Overall, though, I liked Captain America. It’s a ton of fun, if a bit predictable and contrived. Here’s hoping that the upcoming sequel can build off the groundwork that was laid here and be something truly awesome.
Excited for The Winter Soldier? Would you like to see more retro reviews in the future? Let me know in the comments below.