#10 in my Ranking of The MCU Phases 1-3.
This is the most Joe Johnston movie that Joe Johnston has ever made. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it seems to make sense. I mean, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer have a distinct feel about them and Captain America: The First Avenger takes those aesthetic and narrative generalities and just ups them.
Steve Rogers is just a skinny kid with a big head in Brooklyn who really wants to join the army and punch Hitler in the face after the outbreak of World War II, but he’s just too small and too unhealthy for the army. They refuse to take him despite his repeated attempts with fake names just to join up. On his sixth try, he’s noticed by a scientist, Dr. Erskine, who sees his good heartedness and signs him up for an experiment within the army. Steve turns out to be the most selfless of brave of the recruits, so he gets chosen to be pumped full of drugs to become a super soldier, with the added benefit of his head being the right size for his body now.
After a spy wrecks the scene, kills Erskine, and almost gets away, Rogers gets relegated to PR duties for the army, selling war bonds while punching Hitler in the jaw on stage. It’s not really what he had expected, so when he goes on a USO tour for the troops, he realizes the disparity between the public image of himself that he had begun to belief and the reality of war. Everything’s dirtier and dingier than the bright reds whites and blues of the stage he had occupied for the last weeks and months. And, to make it all even worse, the real soldiers see him as little more than a joke.
Being a super soldier and ready to do his real duty, Rogers strikes out on his own to rescue a group of captured Americans thirty miles behind enemy lines. He breaks in, breaks them out, and then comes face to face with the Red Skull, the leader of Hitler’s R&D division Hydra (they talk about hydra and heads and the cutting and the thrice over replacing, but they don’t really do anything with it in this film). Red Skull is the victim of an earlier version of the same serum that gave Rogers his super strength, but instead of turning Red Skull into a great man, it only made the bad man worse and drove him to a level of madness. Other than that, he’s generic with a generic goal of world domination and destruction.
Having proven himself worthy of trust, Rogers becomes a real captain and starts to lead a series of missions with a 21st century approved gang of diversity to destroy a series of factories run by Hydra. It’s a grand two-minute montage that feels like a recap of another movie. I really feel like the second half of the film should have been streamlined by removing the extra bases, keeping it to one, and giving us a real men on a mission story. Instead, none of the gang creates an impression because they don’t have enough screen time except Bucky, Rogers’ friend from New York, who ends up falling to his death and will surely never ever ever come back in this series again. Ever.
Then we have our big action finale with breaking into a bunker, energy weapons, flamethrowers, cars chasing airplanes, little airplanes running into a big airplane, and a fistfight with some special effects to end it all. It’s all functional and executed with some modest level of distinction.
If the movie were just its plot, I would like it a good bit less than I do. The plot feels truncated and typical, but what makes this movie work is Rogers and his nascent romance with Agent Carter. It is Agent Carter who functions first as Rogers’ handler. She’s pretty and British and the perfect kind of movie woman for Rogers: single. When they first meet, it’s before Rogers gets his infusion of delicious blue drugs and Rogers is tiny. It’s obvious that she sees him as little more than one part of her job. His transition into beefcake awakens the more primal part of Carter’s psyche (I love the moment when she tries to touch his peck and then pulls away). He becomes the perfect combination of aw-shucks charm, good man, and hunk, and the romance feels earned. A big part of that is due to how little ground within the romance actually gets covered. They’re nowhere near a marriage proposal or jumping into bed by the final moments in the movie. They’re only at the point where Rogers wants to ask her for a dance. It’s so sweet and innocent and the attraction between them feels so genuine that as Rogers is making his self-sacrifice to save the world at the end and they’re talking about a date that both know they’ll never have, it’s heartbreaking.
Oh, and then it becomes a commercial for The Avengers because corporate synergy.
Overall, I think Captain America is the most evenly good of the Marvel movies up to this point. Iron Man‘s central character arc is jagged and disjointed. Thor is great is spurts but functional for the rest. Captain America, though, is nicely entertaining from beginning to end. It’s not a great film, but it is a pretty good one.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4
Originally published here.