By: Akram Shaban
A review series inspired by the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie wouldn’t be complete without the origin story that kick-started the trilogy. It is not enough to simply review the five-year-old movie. It is also important to evaluate its relevance in the context of the other interconnected Marvel releases. We now have the advantage of foresight thanks to the wealth of information provided by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With that information in mind, we present our review and analysis of Captain America: The First Avenger.
The first thing to take note of when considering The First Avenger is that it is, in fact, an origin story. Therefore, we must address the negative stigma that accompanies this kind of narrative. Given my criteria for a good origin story (which I’m inventing as I write this sentence), we can determine whether or not the movie successfully overcomes the stigma.
First of all, the actual origin part of the plot should be relatively brief, acting as part of the first act. Most of the first act should be the character’s experiences and struggles leading up to the huge transformation. Afterward, we sit back and watch as the hero figures out and tames the newly acquired abilities. Then, the hero uses the abilities to fulfill previously unattainable goals and ambitions. All this happens while the villain is gradually getting dangerously close to realizing some crazy diabolical plan. Finally, the hero goes on an adventure, concluding with a heroic act completing the character development. As we speed through this review, we’ll see that The First Avenger easily checks off each of these points.
Chris Evans stars as the weak and skinny Steve Rogers, whose story sets during the Second World War. Steve has a big heart and is not afraid to stand up to bullies, even if it means getting frequently beaten up. Despite numerous attempts to enlist in the army, he’s constantly rejected on grounds of failure to meet physical requirements. This causes him to feel ashamed of not doing his part in defending his country. His best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), on the other hand, is perfectly qualified to fight in the war. While watching the movie, I expected that Steve would yearn for the physical prowess and charisma of Bucky. It is Bucky, after all, who often saves Steve from the back ally beat downs. But that doesn’t seem to matter too much for Steve. All he wants is a chance, regardless of his physical limitations. And it is that sort of sincere mentality which eventually attracts Dr. Abraham Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci, to Steve.
The visual effects it took to seamlessly transpose Evans’s head onto the body double is a praiseworthy achievement on its own. It was essential to portray Steve in his frail state properly, as it is a crucial part of his character development. As Dr. Erskine explains to Steve, those accustomed to having power often forget to appreciate its absence. But those who are weak understand the value of power and are therefore better suited to maintain it, especially if they’re sincere. This perception of power strikes a chord with Steve’s stance that all bullies should be confronted. This is a useful observation to keep in mind when contemplating Captain America’s motivation during Civil War. As we’ll see, this mindset is further echoed in The Winter Soldier, painting a solid picture of what Captain America’s politics will be in the future.
The supporting characters also play a huge role in influencing Steve’s outlook. Hayley Atwell puts on a captivating performance as agent Peggy Carter. Agent Carter is one of the few characters who see potential in Steve before his transformation. The movie makes sure, however, not to rush the development of their relationship. The plot, in fact, separates the two as Steve is forced to exploit his fame for war bonds advertisements and propaganda. But it is agent Carter who returns to try and persuade Steve that he is more than just a poster boy. Her message speaks to his frantic eagerness to do something. All it takes is learning that his best friend and hundreds of other soldiers may be imprisoned, for him to spring into action. He defies orders to go and save the prisoners. And while she hesitates at first, agent Carter’s faith in Steve compels her to break protocol and help him. This is just one aspect of the relationship that’s built between Steve and agent carter. While Steve’s love interest may not be brought up in Civil War, expect that emotional attachments (especially to Bucky) directly influence his decisions.
Back to our criteria, we are yet to cover the transformation itself. The movie deliberately places the lab experiment immediately after some exposition about how the villain came to be. Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving, injects himself with a serum developed by Dr. Erskine before he defects to the US. Earlier in the film, Red Skull is shown experimenting with an alien artifact called the Tesseract. In trying to harness its power, his assistant scientist, Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), stabilizes the machines at “70%,” since going further could be fatal. But Red Skull pushes him aside and turns the dial up to 100%, proclaiming that he “didn’t come all this way for safety.” This scene is also deliberate, as it is there to show the difference between Red Skull and Steve.
When it came for Steve to do the experiment, the setting is much more controlled. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) himself designed and manned the machine. As the machine is turned on, a situation similar to that of Red Skull occurs. Steve seems to be experiencing excruciating pain, forcing the scientists to go ahead and stop the procedure. But Steve calls out from within the chamber, instructing them to keep going. He doesn’t die, and in fact comes out taller and bigger than ever before. The transformation is completed with the taming part of the first act. It is actually kind of brief, consisting of a really cool foot chase, demonstrating Captain America’s speed, agility, and strength.
With the experiment deemed a success, a clear distinction is made between Steve and Red Skull. Both pushed passed the safety limits to complete their experiments. Both had a serious commitment to the thing they strongly believed in. The difference is that Red Skull was motivated by desperation and power hunger while Steve was driven by bravery. However, even the differences have something in common: strong faith.
Satisfying the remaining conditions is the final act of the movie. Captain America assembles a team and leads it on a few missions. The final encounter between Captain America and Red Skull occurs on Red Skull’s escape airplane. They don’t necessarily fight. Red Skull is defeated by being accidentally sucked through a portal opened by an exposed Tesseract. The heroic moment occurs when Captain America is forced to crash land the plane to avoid the populated city of New York. More weight is added to the scene as his final words are uttered to Agent Carter. I believe that is the best way the movie could have ended, especially in order to set up the sequel.
The best part about The First Avenger is that it’s a superhero movie first, and an origin story second. It simply tells a story of a man who gained powers and fought off an evil bad guy. It does more than just give a taste of what’s yet to come. It provides a rich backstory that future iterations can fall back on. It justifies Captain America’s actions in the future. Most of all, it allows for seamless continuity and consistency in the substance across all of the MCU.
As an origin story, and a standalone movie, Captain America: The First Avenger receives a grade of B from The Film Lawyers (7.5/10).