Marvel Begins (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011)
Captain America was a hotly debated character for the Marvel Films. Could a character so tied to American Nationalism be a hero the world loved? Joe Johnston (who directed Disney’s fun comic book movie the Rocketeer 20 years earlier) was brought in and found a way to make that answer be yes. Among the choices made were to set the film in World War 2, rather than begin in Present day. Chris Evans was hired on to play Steve Rogers. This was not his first foray into a Marvel Property, He was Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) in the 2005 and 2007 Fantastic Four Films. He was also one of the Evil Exes in Edgar Wright’s adaption of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels.
The film quickly establishes Steve Rogers as heroic, in spite of his physical weakness. He will take a beating. Standing up for him is his buddy ‘Bucky’ Barnes. This is one of the film’s biggest deviations. In the comics, Bucky was a teen sidekick to Captain America. The filmmakers (rightly) realized that may not play so well. And there is a twist to having Bucky go from Steve’s savior to needing saving by Steve. Steve’s multiple rejections by the military catch the attention of a part of our military that is looking for someone to be a part of an experiment. While many try, scrawny Steve Rogers keeps managing to stand out, not by his physical prowess, but by ingenuity. This catches the eye of British officer Peggy Carter.
One of the things the movie does so well is that they avoid tropes. Peggy and Steve are smitten before his transformation. She is impressed by who he is, not what he is. It would have been easy to make her yet another obstacle for her to notice only after he is physically altered. And yet, due to a terror incident that destroys the remaining Super Soldier serum, Steve is still unable to see combat. Instead, he is reduced to a promoter of War Bonds and propaganda.
Evans really sells Roger’s frustration and even feelings of humiliation. But while on a USO tour, he ends up making a big save, convincing the military they need him. This leads to crossing paths with the Red Skull, who is determined to rule the world through Hydra. Hydra begins as an arm of the Nazis, but has it’s own goals.
The film ultimately hangs on Evans to sell the character of Captain America, and boy does he sell it. He comes off as kind, dedicated to justice and most of all, simply heroic. He is supported but a great cast of actors. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as Colonel Phillips. Hugo Weaving got one of the better villain roles, since he gets to simply be Nazi Evil Incarnate. The movie makes the choice to introduce the Howling Commandos (Sans Nick Fury) as the team that works with Cap. They are an entertaining bunch.
But the standout is Haley Atwell. She is more than Cap’s love interest. She is a tough and clever military officer. But at the same time? She and Evans have a real solid chemistry, and when the film reaches it’s inevitable conclusion, their exchange (certain Steve is heading to his death) is heartbreaking.
Johnston gives us a terrific film that stands on it’s own, even if part of it’s purpose is to set up the first Avengers film.