Breaking Down the Goodness of Captain America: The First Avenger

Welcome to my MCU Rewatch, where I write an analysis of the MCU movies in the order of theatrical release. In this installment, I talk about why Captain America: The First Avenger is an all-around entertaining movie despite some drawbacks. 

Release Date: 22 July 2011
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: Joe Johnston

We must first ask ourselves: What makes Captain America good? According to me, it’s because Captain America: The First Avenger is a good-ole war story with a heavy dieselpunk aesthetic and a superhero twist. It’s got adventure, romance, the feel of a pulp novel, and a fantastic cast.

According to Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), however, it’s all about respecting power. When he first meets Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Dr. Erskine asks a couple pointed questions. Do you want to kill Nazis? Why do you want to go overseas when you can be more useful on the homefront? Steve says that he doesn’t want to kill anybody, he just doesn’t like bullies. He wants to enlist because his American brothers are laying down their lives while he stays home and he’s no different than anyone else.

A smarter person might have given up on enlisting and start collecting scrap metal or investing in war bonds or contributing to the war efforts in some other way. But no. Steve wants to lay down his life because he’s no better than the able-bodied men who do.
Found in the notes of a lab assistant, regarding the transformation sequence: perfect pecs for days.

We the audience know this because he says so outright. But we also know it in the way he calls out an annoying audience member in the talkies and in the way he keeps attempting to enlist despite his health issues because maybe this time he’ll get approved.

That’s the real beginning of the story. It starts with some kid from Brooklyn who hates bullies. It ends, however, by wrapping up three narrative threads in a nice little knot.

The Rivalry of Captain America and Red Skull

Steve has several character foils in the movie. The most obvious is Johann Schmidt, the head of HYDRA, Hitler’s deep science division. HYDRA breaks off from the Nazi regime and starts a campaign of its own. That’s who Captain America is fighting. It’s not enough that Johann Schmidt just so happens to run the most evil organization in the world after the Third Reich. Johann Schmidt also took Dr. Erskine’s superhuman serum. The result is Schmidt’s increased strength and skull-like face that gave him the nickname Red Skull.

Where Steve is the epitome of good, Schmidt is the epitome of evil. Unlike Steve, however, Schmidt’s evilness is tied into his connections with Nazis and his propensity for attempting to harness the power of the gods via the tesseract (later known as the Space Stone, one of six infinity stones). We can forgive Schmidt’s lack of kicking puppies because Dr. Erskine defined goodness to Steve in the medical examiner’s room: respecting the power you have over others.

But Schmidt is not the only foil to Steve. There’s also Gordon Hodge (Lex Shrapnel), a soldier in the Project Rebirth program that’s preferred by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) for his physical strength and ability to take orders. Erskine calls Hodge a bully, and we see his bullying ways when he picks on Steve during training. Hodge plays a small role but is soon dismissed as soon as he’s replaced by Schmidt. He gets no redemptive arc, no reconciliation with Rogers; for that, he’s a total throwaway character despite the narrative’s attempts to connect him to Steve.

Yet his presence is necessary. Without a foil, there’s no way for the story to show the audience what makes Steve good. He’s the victim of bullying and preferred company for Agent Peggy Carter. Most importantly, he’d throw himself on a grenade to protect everyone while the rest of his team scatters to the wind.
Steve’s real superhero is going through the hell known as the front lines of World War II and still coming out relatively unscathed.

In-between Steve and his foils is Dr. Erskine himself. Erskine was forced to administer an early version of the serum to Johann Schmidt, which explains the reason for Schmidt’s appearance. Fearful that his research would fall into the wrong hands again and again, Erskine takes it and runs away to America, where he’s recruited by the American Army for much the same type of experiment. Only Erskine wants to do things right: he picks the underdogs because they know what it’s like to be bullied. He picks Steve specifically because of his tenacity and compassion. “Not a soldier but a good man,” in Erskine’s own words.

For being the agent that turned Steve Rogers’ life around, Dr. Erskine plays very little role in Steve’s story afterward. Dr. Erskine dies, Steve mourns him for a scene or two, and then he’s a dancing monkey socking Adolf in the jaw on a regular basis. Steve knows he’s meant for something bigger than performance, but Erskine is not the inspiration behind Steve giving himself a chance. (That honor goes to Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan).

Erskine is the link connecting Steve with Schmidt. But what makes them rivals is Steve’s mission to destroy every single HYDRA factory in Europe. That wartime rivalry is more compelling than the emotional ties to the same human. According to this movie, at least. In another pair of hands, that connection might have been explored more. But since this is a superhero movie, and if it’s going to veer towards anything it will veer towards comic book-ness, we got the war story.

The Man Out of Time

But we have to bring Captain America to the present so he can fall in love with meet Tony Stark and reconnect with his dead best friend and otherwise save New York from a horde of aliens. So that’s why Captain America was naturally cyrogenically frozen in the Arctic and rediscovered 70 years later.
If you’re looking for perfection, look no further than Agent Peggy Carter.

That’s why the movie has a frame narrative. If you’re just looking for an adventurous war story, you can skip the very first and last scenes. You’re missing out if you do. Bringing Steve to the modern era is a fascinating story itself. Again, that sense of human drama is forgone in favor of the action movie.

In the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe, how Captain America adapts to the modern world is mostly skipped over. He’s seen working out at an empty gym in Avengers, and he gets a funny line to remind us just in case we forgot he’s the man out of time, but we otherwise do not see him struggling to adapt to the modern world. How much was his mind blown at the discovery of the Internet? Did he cringe at the thought of Apple Pay or think it was like the pulps he used to read as a kid? How does he explain to the nice waitress in the pink uniform that he doesn’t know what texting is?

If there was a Marvel One-Shot of Steve Rogers going about his day and learning to move on, I would watch the shit out of that. In the meantime, we have Captain America joining the Avengers to look forward to.

Which is what we’ll be discussing next time when I take a look at Avengers Assemble.
Agent Carter thirsting with the rest of us.

Random Thoughts about Captain America: The First Avenger:

  • Peggy Carter is not the MCU’s first attempt at putting a woman in the middle of the action. But she does fall into the trope I call “One Of The Men But Actually Does Nothing Much At All.” She doesn’t really break free of that trope in this movie, nor does she break free of it on the big screen. Relatedly, I highly recommend the TV show Agent Carter.
  • Stark flair is hereditary as evidenced by Howard Stark’s introduction at the fancy World of Tomorrow Expo.
  • Best line of the film: “If you have something to say, now is the perfect time to keep it to yourself.”
  • First runner up best line of the film: “Somebody get that kid a sandwich.”
  • If Steve’s metabolism is four times faster than the average human, does that mean he has to eat a shit-ton of food to maintain his body weight? During rationing?

2 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Goodness of Captain America: The First Avenger”

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