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Captain America: The First Avenger gave the MCU a genuinely great war movie

Captain America: The First Avenger
(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

We're watching the Marvel movies in order for a series of regular features. Check out our previous pieces on Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor. Coming soon: The Avengers. 

If you've been following our series of MCU retrospectives, you'll know that the MCU is built on the tales of flawed heroes. Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Thor are all examples of characters who grew into their roles. In fact, even after realizing their past mistakes, they are constantly working against themselves to be better heroes. Now, it’s time to talk about the exception – Captain America, also known as Steve Rogers. 

Captain America: The First Avenger brings us to the height of World War II, where a young, frail man named Steve Rogers is desperate to join the US Army to fight the Nazis. His heart and spirit is in the right place but his body isn’t up to the task. After several failed attempts at enlisting in the Army, a chance encounter with a scientist named Abraham Erskine allows Steve to undergo a once-in-a-lifetime experiment to become a super soldier – Captain America, the world’s most noble hero.

The First Avenger

There is a lot that just works with the MCU’s first Captain America film. The first is that it’s timeless. Revisiting the classic film is fun, heartwarming and most of all, you just can’t help but become attached to the optimism and idealism of Steve Rogers. Looking back, you’ll realize what makes this film still so enjoyable is that Captain America: The First Avenger does what Thor couldn’t – set itself firmly in a genre beyond just a superhero film. 

Thor had trouble with its identity, flirting with the idea of being a fantasy movie and a science fiction one. In the end, it never really commits to either. Director Joe Johnston (director of The Rocketeer – a cult classic that's a true precursor to Cap) was tasked with not just making a superhero movie, but a war film. It makes sense. Captain America’s origin will always be tied to the second World War. The film plays to the character's strengths by taking place in a timeframe he was born in, and seeing how those circumstances shape him into becoming the character we all know and love. 

The science fiction elements – Captain America’s enhanced strength and abilities, as well as Hydra and their super science weapons – never really interfere with what the movie is at its core. We follow Cap from the moments he enlists in the super soldier program and goes on to sell war bonds, to his mission around the world fighting off Nazis and Hydra. It feels like a classic war film through and through. 

With the focus placed more on the war than trying to be a superhero movie or tying into another film, The First Avenger is a simple film in a really effective way. It feels like a movie set in an era where you know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are and why each one is unambiguously right and wrong.

Steve Rogers: the idea, the man, the hero

It’s almost impossible to see him any other way, but once upon a time Chris Evans wasn’t known as Captain America. He was instead known as the cocky and sarcastic Human Torch, the youngest superhero in Tim Story's campy Fantastic Four films. 

So, when Marvel announced that the actor would be playing the more serious everyman, Captain America, people were skeptical. I was skeptical but more than happy to be proven wrong.

In the way that Robert Downey Jr perfectly embodies the flawed, egotistical but brilliant Tony Stark, Chris Evans does the same for that character’s parallel, Steve Rogers – a man who is almost too perfect and selfless. Following Captain America's journey from the beginning, after all these years you’ll see Evans’ performance as the character is just as nuanced as Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Stark. In fact, if Iron Man was a B-level character before the first MCU film, then Captain America was an even harder sell – Evans elevates him into a fan favorite. 

Captain America: The First Avenger is just inspiring to watch in a way that the MCU's preceding films were not. Looking back at the big three – Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor – you see that Steve Rogers is the only one of the group who doesn’t start out flawed. 

From the beginning of the film, even when he’s more than powerless, Steve Rogers is brave, noble, and a man of high morals. He’s willing to put his life on the line, especially if he knows it will save others. More importantly, if he sees something he thinks is wrong, you bet he’s going to fight to the death to end it. Rogers is a hero to the last.

Deconstructing perfection

Captain America: The First Avenger is definitely one of the stronger MCU movies to revisit. In this first adventure, Steve Rogers is almost too perfect – but for the MCU, Captain America is more than just a character. He’s the ideal version of a hero that other characters in the MCU are aspiring to reach. He’s the goal that Iron Man, Thor, and the other characters are constantly trying to model themselves after. The better self that they are looking for. 

It’s easy to see why. Steve Rogers builds his legacy during World War II and lives up to it by being true to himself. As future films explore Captain America as a man out of time, that perfect hero persona is challenged. What ends up happening is that while Steve Rogers stays the same, the world around him drastically changes. That clarity of what is right and wrong that comes in the first Captain America film is blurred. Even Steve Rogers has trouble living up to the man he was during World War II. 

That’s what makes Captain America: The First Avengers an interesting movie in retrospect. Steve is perfect in this film, but only during this time. The movie sells that idea very well – not just to the heroes in future films – but to audiences as well. That legacy hangs heavy and Steve has to learn to let it go and be less perfect, less rigid, and selfish as time goes on.