Day 5 of 11 Days of Marvel is here! In this project, Bill and Erin go through every single extant film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, write their reactions to them, and then have conversations about them! The project started here, with Iron Man, or you can click here to see all the articles in the project so far. Today is about:
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Bill’s Response: “A Good Man Goes to War.”
Let me be perfectly honest with you: I love everything about this movie. I don’t like to say, with some sweeping overgeneralization, what superhero movies “ought” to be. I think there’s room for grimdark Daredevils and overwrought Dark Knights alongside goofier Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Mans. Superhero movies can, and should, vary in how they approach the material, and there’s plenty of room for both moral ambiguity and swashbuckling silliness in the genre. (Sometimes, even in the same movie). So I don’t want to say that more movies “ought” to be like Captain America: The First Avenger. But I am glad that, sometimes, people make movies like this.
Steve Rogers is a good man, full stop. He’s not an alcoholic jerk like Tony Stark. He doesn’t hide any personal demons, like Bruce Banner, and he doesn’t have to overcome years of haughty arrogance, like Thor. Rogers makes mistakes, and he sometimes isn’t sure what to do, but he never stops being a good man, and that’s really what makes him a superhero, not the Super-Soldier serum. (Though, don’t get me wrong, that helps.) His goodness inspires everyone around him to be better, from Bucky Barnes here to Natasha Romanoff in The Winter Soldier to the Maximoff twins in Ultron.
People say it’s hard to write a person who is so unabashedly “good” without making them into a Precious Moments catalog. But the various MCU writers have seemed to do a pretty good job so far in four different movies, each of which has a wildly different tone and context. Whatever poor schlub is writing future Superman movies1 should be forced to watch all of Steve Rogers’ dialogue in the MCU, not because Superman is exactly the same character as Captain America, but because both heroes are supposed to be incorruptibly good in a way most of their compatriots aren’t. Rather than fearing it, the MCU embraces Steve’s inherent goodness and runs with it: it’s why he can budge Thor’s hammer in Ultron, and why all of S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to fight Hydra in Winter Soldier. Captain America is good, and makes you want to be good, too.
But it’s not just Cap that makes this movie work. Peggy Carter is unstoppably badass, and sets the bar so much higher for all Superhero Girlfriends in the future. Sure, her narrative function in this movie is still mostly to cheer up Steve and kiss him at the end, but you always get the impression she’s got her own stories to tell, and that she is a fully realized person herself. There’s a reason they gave her a TV show. Hugo Weaving probably doesn’t get enough to do as the Red Skull, but he plays his part with the appropriate amount of hammy aplomb. He’s a Super Nazi. He’s not a sympathetic villain. He’s More Evil Than Hitler, and Captain America is going to Punch Him in the Face. And it’s wonderful.
Later movies with Captain America show him dealing with more complicated moral questions, and that’s appropriate: it would be boring if every movie was just him punching Nazis in the face. But The First Avenger serves to prove that he’s a legend, an icon from the Second World War, so that when he’s jarringly shifted into the present, you understand why everyone he meets is awed by his presence. Captain America is an odd concept for 21st-century America, where we’ll all constantly divided over everything, and nobody trusts the government, and all of our wars are, at the very least, complicated.2 It would have been easy to make this movie ironically, easy to imply that he’s not as good as he thinks he is. It would have been easy to write him as a pompous blowhard, but that would have been a mistake. Because he’s not a flag-waving, lockstep, unthinking brute. He’s a good man.
Favorite Moment: The last line of the movie is heartwrenching. “I had a date.” It’s the perfect ending for that movie: he’s completely decontextualized, now, and doesn’t get to live in the world he fought for. It sets up all of the internal conflict he’s going to experience in the upcoming movies.
Least Favorite Moment: I mean, I like the whole movie. But the final confrontation with the Red Skull is a bit disappointing, particularly now that I’ve seen Winter Soldier and all of its amazing fight choreography.
Most Surprisingly Violent Moment: Considering that the rest of the movie is relatively bloodless, the bit when Captain American throws a guy through a propeller and he is immediately shredded into a fine red mist is surprisingly brutal. I remember everyone in the theater literally gasping when that happened, not because it’s all that violent in the grand scheme of movie violence, but because it’s a giant leap more violent than the rest of the movie.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. Iron Man
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Iron Man 2
Erin’s Response: Captain America 1
Or should I say, Captain America WON! This latest installment of the MCU did not disappoint the first time I saw it, and watching all of the movies in context, it is clear that Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the better ones. First and foremost, Chris Evans is an excellent choice for this role – he radiates warmth and apple pie. His Captain America is a distillation of the greatest generation, and all the sentimentality we attach to that notion.
Secondly, Steve Rogers is a better Superman than Superman: he is kind, selfless, and concerned for civilian causalities. Some have argued that he is boring because he has no out-and-out character flaws. I would respond that this is what makes him actually a superhero, not just someone who is super strong/smart/flexible. Captain’s selflessness makes others keep him at a distance, lest they find themselves wanting in the character traits he wears so naturally. Furthermore, selflessness is the undoing of Captain’s plans and happiness again and again (he probably would have been happier if he had never joined the Army, he would have been happier if he hadn’t spent so much time debasing himself in public for the war bonds effort, he definitely would have been happier if he had looked for a freaking parachute instead of going down with the ship into the ice, etc).
Please indulge my undergraduate philosophy major tendencies for a moment.
This movie made me consider how selflessness, like Aristotle’s shame, might not be a true virtue. Unlike courage, proper pride, and modesty, selflessness is an extreme. Unlike courage, which is a mean between the extremes of rashness or cowardice on either end, selflessness is itself an extreme. A virtue of self-care would have selflessness on one end and narcissism on the other, and a virtue of care-for-others would see selflessness on one end and selfishness on the other. What is interesting about selflessness, then is that if you are suffering from one extreme (either from narcissism or from selfishness), selflessness would be a proper palliative. It is not, however, a virtue in and of itself. Thus, it makes sense that, with selflessness as his maxim, Captain America always sets himself up for something less than happiness.
Best Moment: “Go get him! I can swim!” This is priceless. You know that Rogers will stop to save the boy that the German agent throws in the river, but the boy has as much can-do spirit as the Captain. Which is, in essence, the point of Captain America. His strength is supposed to inspire strength in others. This is just one of the many moments that make this movie more emotionally satisfying than some of the others.
Worst Moment: On that whole, enormous airplane, there’s not a single parachute? Dumb. I can think of about a million ways to fix that problem to make it feel more insurmountable and less like Captain America just couldn’t be bothered to look.
Most Awesome Female Lead Thus Far: Peggy Carter. This may change once we spend some more time with the Black Widow, but at this stage in the MCU project, there is no doubt that Agent Carter rocks. She is smart, beautiful without being objectified, and doesn’t take any of your crap, thank you very much. Perhaps it is partly the time period—skintight leather suits were not considered everyday wear in the 40s—but it is also the amount of agency Carter has. Throughout the movie, she is training recruits, setting up missions (and answering for their consequences), and shows a calm composure as she handles her gun. She does come off as a bit cold, but that is because she is always trying to have people take her seriously; this is a bit of playacting any woman who has spent extensive time trying to gain the respect of men knows all too well.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. Iron Man
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Iron Man 2
And Now, A Conversation
Erin: So, clearly we are both in love with Steve Rogers. Does that say something about us more than it says about the movies?
Bill: Probably. But I think it’s probably healthier to be in love with Steve Rogers than most of the rest of them.
Erin: Is he an unfair paragon? All that is wrong with the way we conceptualize war and our relationships with other countries? (I think we need a devil’s advocate in here.)
Bill: Well, I think you wouldn’t want to make a whole series of movies about Cap in the ’40s, right? Because then you would have to deal with all the complicated things that happened in the war. But like I said in my response, he’s not actually about the ’40s-as-they-happened, he’s about the ’40s-as-we-remember them. He needs to be played straight in this movie so that the tension between him and S.H.I.E.L.D. can be examined in later movies.
Erin: That’s pretty much what I think, too. He is an embodiment of what we perceive as all the best traits from that time. How often are we told to be more selfless? To put down our own agendas for the common good? It is a refrain lobbied at the “selfish” millennials again and again. I just wonder at constantly glorifying the ’40s in this way. No one tries to do this with the ’70s. How different would this have been if it had been set in another time? That is part of what makes Captain work in the rest of the Avengers movies — his maxim is a bit out of step with current geopolitics.
Bill: Yeah, it would have been possible to make a Captain America movie where he takes the super-soldier serum in 2012 for the War on Terror, and that wouldn’t work at all. As for the ’40s, our involvement in that war, defeating the Evil Nazis, is super important for our understanding of America as America. We were the goodguys there, however complicated things may have gotten afterwards. This is why you see so much veneration for Churchill and Eisenhower and all those leaders from WW2. WW2 proved we were the goodguys. Everything was more complicated than that, of course. And to be fair, I’ve talked a lot about how this movie plays Captain America straight, but it’s not that it’s unaware that things were more complicated. It’s certainly aware of the sexism Carter experiences, and the ’40s racial politics, with the Japanese-American soldier who gets called out when Rogers is rescuing the 107th, it’s just that wherever Captain America goes, these things get better. But that’s the role the ’40s serves in modern American self-consciousness. Probably English self-consciousness too, though that’s more of a guess.
Erin: Probably! Should we talk about Agent Carter now? Both her person, the movie, and the subsequent TV show?
Bill: I would love to talk about Peggy Carter. Peggy Carter is the Best.
Erin: Hey there.
Bill: Listen. I love you. But Peggy Carter.
Erin: I can handle a gun about 1/10 as well!
Bill: I mentioned this above, but what I like most about Carter’s portrayal here is that she really does feel like she’s got a whole story of her own that ought to be told in a way Potts, Foster and Ross don’t. Her narrative role is more or less the same as those, but she feels like much more of a real and complicated person.
Erin: She also serves a very different role for Captain. She has to make him become more sure of himself, whereas Potts is always trying to wrangle Tony, Ross is the love motivation, and Foster is some combination of those two. Captain is the only one who really needs to be told his potential. That is why the Senator is able to march him around like a trained monkey for so long — Tony, Thor, and even the Hulk wouldn’t have stood for that nonsense.
Bill: Yeah, you can’t imagine Iron Man selling war bonds.
Erin: Nope. Not even once.
Bill: You also can’t imagine Pepper Potts or whoever getting her own TV show. For all that Agent Carter the TV show wasn’t amazing, I’m glad it exists, and I’ll be watching Season 2.
That’s for Captain America: The First Avenger! Tomorrow will bring us to the end of Phase 1 with The Avengers, and we’ll take some time to specifically reflect on Phase 1 as a whole. We hope you’ve been enjoying reading these even half as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them, and feel free to comment below!
- Have you picked up on the fact that I really, really, really disliked Man of Steel? [↩]
- To be clear, it was probably like that in the ‘40s, too. But modern Captain America is about our perception of the ‘40s, the legend of America in the Second World War, more than what actually happened. [↩]