11 Days of Marvel: Captain America: The First Avenger 1


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:

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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.

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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.

Bill’s Rankings:

1. Captain America: The First Avenger

2Iron Man

3. Thor

4The Incredible Hulk

5Iron Man 2

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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.

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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.

Erin’s Ranking

1Captain America: The First Avenger

2Iron Man

3Thor

4The Incredible Hulk

5. Iron Man 2

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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?

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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.

Erin: Exactly!

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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!

Notes:
  1. Have you picked up on the fact that I real­ly, real­ly, real­ly dis­liked Man of Steel? []
  2. 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. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • Tom Coberly

    I could do this all day.”