There’s a romantic idealism at the center of Captain America. A figure who’s both a relic of the past and a timeless source of inspiration across generations. And while longtime readers have loved Captain America for decades, one film bridged past and present to set the hero on the big screen adventure of a lifetime.
In 2011, Marvel Studios brought Steve Rogers to life in Captain America: The First Avenger, a World War II-set story that sees the transformation of weak and sickly Rogers into a powerful beacon of heroism in a time of conflict and fear. Locked in battle with the vicious Red Skull and fighting the forces of Hydra across Europe, The First Avenger is the fifth installment in the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of its purest examples of old fashioned heroism.
The First Avenger is the second lowest grossing entry in the entire MCU franchise and one whose small charms and limited action feel miniscule compared to the high budget bombast of later films. But Cap’s debut stands as one of the great examples of a superhero movie that understands the essence of its central character and works to both stay true to his origins and transcend them for a modern audience.
There’s something inherently romantic to director Joe Johnston’s film about the mythic rise of someone who can save the world but who still retains his humanity and emotional vulnerability. What Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely create with Chris Evans in the title role is a heroic ideal grounded in a nostalgic view of the past, but one that doesn’t feel out of step with what can inspire and comfort us today.
From its classic sense of adventure to its formation of the fundamental nature of its hero, Captain America: The First Avenger stands as one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best films and sets the stage for a hero’s nearly decade-long journey.
Creating an Ideal Hero for Today
Superheroes are symbols. There’s an iconography at the center of each successful character’s essence that stands for something greater, but that is malleable enough to be reinterpreted again and again as the years pass. All heroes are fundamentally about common people taking what abilities and opportunities they’re given and using them to make a difference. Captain America was created quite literally as a symbol by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940, being used as an ideal of American strength in the time leading up to World War II to both take advantage of the brewing wartime climate and to be used as propaganda for US troops.
“Everybody was patriotic and it was ridiculous not to do Captain America,” said Simon. “Our job was to sell comic books, and we did.”
Captain America is directly connected to the battle against Nazi Germany, but there’s something inherently larger than life about the character in both comics and film. Steve Rogers is a scrawny young man turned into the peak of human possibility, encapsulating everything that his creators and the United States at the time wished they could be.
“Captain America was myself,” said Jack Kirby. “Captain America was my own anger coming to the surface and saying, ‘What if I could fight 25 guys? How would I do it?’ He was a patriot. He was a fighter. We were Americans and, in our minds, we were winners. Captain America was a winner.”
There’s a righteous anger within the character of Steve Rogers as played by Chris Evans within The First Avenger, as well. Not an anger born from resentment or injustice, but out of knowing what the right thing to do is, but not being able to do it. Johnston’s film takes us on the journey of weak, small, but morally-upright Steve Rogers gaining the ability to do what’s right and following that through with every fiber of his being. And that’s what makes Steve a good man, no matter what his body can or can’t do.
There’s a glowing, romantic swoon to The First Avenger that’s missing from most MCU movies and is the result of trying to create a film that lives within a more heightened version of the 1940s and World War II. The presence of Howard Stark and his Stark Expo show this world to have fundamentally diverged from ours much earlier than what a movie like Iron Man would have you believe. The inclusion of the Tesseract and its cosmic power right from the film’s start means that, unlike an Indiana Jones film where the mythical MacGuffin’s power is only revealed at the very end, the supernatural and sci fi are as much an intrinsic part as the old school guts and glory.
Cinematographer Shelley Johnson bathes the film in sepia tones to make it seem at times like we’re watching an aged photograph come to life. Rick Heinrichs and Daniel Simon’s production design melds the art deco of Cap’s forces with the retro futurism of Red Skull’s army. And the triumphant, horn-heavy score by Alan Silvestri feels like it comes straight out of the ‘40s.
Cap’s story has all the trappings of a classic action adventure film, moving from set piece to set piece while giving ample time to his personal relationships. Specifically, a doomed friendship with Bucky and a blossoming romance with Peggy Carter give Rogers the humanity he needs beneath the ideal physique and inspirational moral clarity.
Is The First Avenger a perfect movie? No. The present day intro and the rushed World War II montage make its act structure lumpy and keep the film from achieving the Swiss watch construction that it should have when attempting to echo the Indiana Jones films. These narrative decisions are in service of couching The First Avenger within the larger MCU, but when compared to some of the storytelling sacrifices made in other MCU films for the sake of universe building, they’re nothing.
Without these cinematic universe debts, The First Avenger would be a self-contained story of one man shouldering great power and bravely accepting its consequences. That mythic image of a great man from a simpler time is able to live on in future Captain America and Avengers films, testing him in ways that aren’t addressed in this story. But that all starts here. Without The First Avenger distilling the essence of the Captain America comic book fans have known and loved for decades, the thrills and tragedies of movies like The Winter Soldier or Endgame wouldn’t be possible.
Moving Beyond Propaganda
When asked about his aversion to depicting violence in film, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut once said, “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” The very depiction of war having heroes and being dramatized means that, no matter how the film may comment on its content, war is inevitably positively depicted in some form.
The First Avenger is a film entrenched in war, World War II to be specific – one of the few war subjects that Hollywood has deemed to be safe or at least morally upright when choosing to depict. And Captain America’s permanent association with World War II makes him one of the easier propaganda-born comic characters to keep relevant. Imagine Cap being a rah-rah pro-America symbol born from Vietnam or the Iraq War, and you can see how sticky the situation would immediately get.
No matter what has been done with Cap in the decades since his creation by Simon and Kirby, this pro-America aspect will always be an intrinsic part of the character’s DNA. So to both address and subvert this, Captain America is used as literal propaganda within The First Avenger – touring to boost bond purchases and troop morale. The idea of a man decked out in a star-spangled costume simply can’t be divorced from a pro-US, pro-war point of view. So The First Avenger must make an effort to both include and then reject this purpose.
To disconnect Captain America with overt propaganda, producer Kevin Feige and writers Markus and McFeely make the choice to disconnect Hydra with Nazis while at the same time elevating Cap’s conflict beyond conventional warfare. The Red Skull and his organization begin under Hitler’s regime but almost immediately become a splinter group, with the Skull basically being a Nazi outcast and a threat to their power. Yes, the film still has that wonderful montage of Cap punching out Hitler, but every scene of battle features The First Avenger fighting the outsized and exaggerated forces of Hydra. Those Hydra forces pilot mega-sized tanks and shoot energy blasts instead of bullets.
You can feel Marvel Studios making a calculated change here, even in the pre-Disney days. If the entirety of The First Avenger told the tale of Cap taking down Hitler in the blood-stained and bullet-riddled towns of Western Europe, then the story would become firmly entrenched in a more historical, US-centric point of view. Take out the US vs Nazi Germany element, add in a multinational Howling Commandos team, and you get the World War II pulp heroism somewhat removed from country-specific propaganda.
We still get this kickass line though: “And they will personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of Hell.”
So Cap’s own war becomes disconnected from the real war and even Cap himself defects from his USO role to take his own course of action. It’s here where we can feel Marvel working to dissociate Captain America from being a paragon of his own country’s set of values and instead become an arbiter of a greater, more globally-relatable heroism. That struggle to dissociate, no small feat when you’re named after a nation, is also a long-running aspect of Cap in the comics. Steve Rogers has been shaped as his own man with his own struggles ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back in the Avengers, as well as through several instances of Cap becoming disillusioned with his country.
In The First Avenger, we don’t have that context yet, but we watch the film knowing this is Cap’s fate. As such, Markus, McFeely, and Johnston quickly turn Cap’s fight against the Red Skull into a timeless conflict of selfless good versus fascist evil.
Shaping a Timeless Heroism
When you feel weak, it’s only natural to gravitate toward power, either the power of a leader, like Nazi Germany and Hitler, or the search for self empowerment. But even those with strength desire greater strength. And it’s often strength for strength’s sake, not for the sake of others.
The core of Steve Rogers’ character is the search for strength in service of others. This is there from the very beginning, motivating Steve to try and enlist multiple times, to fight the bully in the alley, and to eventually be the reason Dr. Abraham Erskine chooses him for the Super Soldier experiment. There is not a selfish bone in Steve’s body and we can see a hero yearning to break free from the start.
That’s why his transformation into Captain America is more than just the thrill of seeing a massively jacked Chris Evans, although there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the excitement of seeing someone given great power and immediately rushing to do what’s right.
The death of Erskine and his reminder of what truly makes Steve special, his heart, reminds us that the core of Captain America has always, and will always, be there.
And it’s Chris Evans who is able to fully embody that heart, turning Cap into someone equally formidable and vulnerable. It’s a critical element for not only this film, but every Captain America story from here on out in the MCU.
As pointed out by Johnston, “Steve Rogers is a guy who, at the heart of it, has a very simple mission. He just wants to serve his country and do the right thing. And Chris comes off as basically a really good human being. He can wear his heart on his sleeve when he needs to.”
We see that heart when he’s questioned by Erskine about his motivations. When he’s coming to terms with his new powers. And most of all when he’s falling in love with Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell as a tough but charming romantic foil for Evans’ hero.
These relationships give Cap a strong internal life, but a hero is only as good as the actions he takes.
Cap’s shield is the perfect encapsulation of what this character means. He’s created to protect an ideal, to shield those weaker than himself from forces who would harm and exploit them. This being war, Cap also uses a gun in this film, but the symbolism of Captain America’s protective nature, and his exceptional ability to turn defense into offense, retains Steve’s drive to do what’s right without turning him into a killing machine.
There’s something romantic and noble about Captain America in the same way there is about the best interpretations of Superman. Here’s a person bestowed with greatness whose own morality and actions actually live up to those gifts. Rogers knows what’s right and is propelled forward to do amazing things because of his convictions. In later films, we’ll see those convictions put to the test, but the dramatic tension of these stories come from Steve knowing what should be done and acting on it, no matter the cost.
The beauty and thrill of Captain America is that the world will always need heroes and that need is met by one man from the most unlikely of origins. Steve Rogers himself understands that need, but never thinks more of himself because of his ability to meet it. There is a distinct lack of self within the character of Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He may encapsulate the notion of American individual exceptionalism, but Steve Rogers fights for the world in a way that transcends borders and feels more in line with collectivism – the belief that the needs of the world outweigh the needs of the self.
And that is precisely the reason behind his sacrifice at the end of The First Avenger.
In the comics, Cap is frozen in the Atlantic Ocean when a plane explodes, hurling him into the sea. But The First Avenger makes Rogers’ suspended animation the result of his own active choice. Cap isn’t the unlucky victim, but instead the man who’ll sacrifice himself if it means saving others. And that’s what makes his seeming death and revival decades later both tragic and noble.
Captain America is the ideal, fighting for a good cause and finding brief happiness during one of the world’s darkest moments. So Cap’s seeming death, which coincides with the end of World War II, feels like the death of a bygone idealism. The world remembers Captain America, but has to move on without him.
And Steve, found and unfrozen decades later, will have to learn what it means to be Captain America in that new world.
The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and more are rooted in Steve Rogers’ struggle to use his strength in service of a world that needs it more than ever, and the question of whether his unfailing morals will bend or break in a time where good and evil are harder to tell apart.
When the world seems darker than ever, and making a difference feels like an impossible challenge, we need ideals to cling to for inspiration. We may never reach them, but they pull us toward the light.
Those ideals are what The First Avenger is all about. We only need to understand what that means today.
It’s a legacy that Captain America, and ourselves, will carry on.