Hello interwebs! Welcome to the first article in a series I’m calling “Warm Takes”. I’m a man with strong opinions on movies/ entertainment. Though most of my opinions aren’t what I’d consider “hot takes”, they are often unconventional, hence the moniker of “warm”. Today I explain why Captain America: The First Avenger is not only my favourite Captain America film but my favourite MCU film as well. And don’t try to argue with me in the comments. I can do this all day.
Spoilers for Captain America: The First Avenger ahead
To anyone who doesn’t remember how people perceived Marvel before the MCU, this will sound like sacrilege, but I was not a Captain America fan growing up. I thought he was a lame red, white and blue spandex-wearing, overtly-patriotic, propaganda propagating hero with little substance. My only decent exposure to Cap during my childhood was in the old Ultimate Alliance games, and even then I never played as him. But then The First Avenger came out and my opinion of Cap took a 180 degree turn.
I’d greatly enjoyed the first couple MCU films before TFA came out. They were really good! In some ways, I feel like the MCU has sorta dipped in quality since then (a discussion for a different time). However, The First Avenger was something different– something unlike anything the MCU has done before or since. And I feel like that’s because Cap’s comic book origins and public perception at the time of the film set him up to be something fresh for the genre. Hold on to that thought for a second, because I want to describe those previously mentioned perceptions and comic book origins for context.
This is might be worth an article on its own, but most of the MCU characters we know and love today were B-listers at best in the 2000s. From what I remember, there were maybe only 4 Marvel properties average people actually cared about: Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and the Hulk. Everyone else was mostly only known to comic book fans. So when the MCU decided to start a film series with all these second-rate heroes like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man it was a super bold move! It paid off though.
Most of Marvel’s famous characters were created in the 60s as part of a massive creative boom spearheaded by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko et al, but Cap was created during the Golden Age of Comics in the 1940s (by Kirby and Joe Simon). WW2 was at its height, the USA was gearing up for war and the country needed tonnes of propaganda to get citizens mobilized for the war effort (buying bonds, getting young people enlisted in the army, turning public opinion against the Axis powers, etc). Though it seems insidious by today’s standards, comic books were a huge part of this propaganda. They targeted the young minds of America and seeded stories of morality– stories of good and evil, right and wrong. The literal FIRST issue of Captain America features Cap (in his signature American colours) punching Adolf Hitler right in the jaw! If that didn’t send a clear message to kids on where America ought to stand for the war, I don’t know what would have.
This history lesson ties in. I promise. So now we’ve established where Cap came from and how he was seen by the public before TFA released (anyone who didn’t read comics, anyway). Here I pose a simple question: How the hell did Marvel turn a corny B-list propaganda tool from 80 years ago into a household symbol of incorruptible morality and an inspiring role model? Answer: they played into public perception, gave us exactly what we expected, then made us take it seriously.
Most of The First Avenger’s first act blatantly plays with the character’s origins as propaganda. Steve Rogers is introduced watching a war film (propaganda) and attempting to enlist in the army (probably, in part, because of the films). At the start of the movie, Steve is swept up in the idea that all Americans need to do whatever they can to help their country during WW2. The fact that he is skinny, weak and suffering from health problems is not a deterrent to him. Of course he feels like he’s trying to fight for the side of good, which he ultimately is, but propaganda definitely shapes some of his views on the war. In any case, seeing Steve as an everyman, being inspired to fight the same way so many others were, subtly humanizes him and brings him off a pedestal so the audience can see him for what he is: a good man who wants to stand up to bullies.
Later in the film, when Steve becomes Captain America, he becomes the propaganda. Steve stars in war films of his own, performs in USO shows, wears a bright and colourful American-themed costume and punches Hitler in the jaw every night for entertainment. Basically, Marvel gives us the Captain America film we were all expecting (in the most delightful way possible). By this point in the story, nobody, audience included, really takes Captain America seriously. However, we’ve now become invested in Steve as a character and we want to see him taken seriously (which is something I’ll bet most people never expected to feel).
From here we are treated to the seemingly dorky Captain America disobeying his superiors and launching a one-man rescue operation to save a bunch of soldiers, including his best friend Bucky. This cements Steve Rogers as more than a patriotic symbol. He is now a legitimate hero. Because the audience connects with Steve early on and sees how Steve struggles to get this validation, we find ourselves rooting for Captain America. With this buildup, the red, white and blue-clad hero with a big star on his chest becomes inspiring rather than cringey.
The way the film plays with propaganda is one reason audiences connect with Cap, but I also love that Steve is shown to be a hero before he becomes super. This sets him apart from basically every other Avenger in a key way. Right from Steve’s introduction, he stands up to bullies and demonstrates his resilience. The man he fights is a lot bigger than he is, but Steve refuses to back down. Bucky ultimately saves him that time, sure, but Steve’s spirit is on full display in that scene and it’s inspiring (“I can do this all day”). Steve also desperately wants to serve his country and help combat evil in the world. While most people think Steve is a joke, Dr. Erskine notes Steve’s bravery/ compassion and recruits him. The moment that seals Erskine’s opinion on Steve– and probably most of the audience’s too– is when Steve jumps on the dummy grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers (one of my all-time MCU moments by the way). As Erskine tells Steve after describing the origin of Red Skull:
The serum was not ready– but, more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside. So good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion… Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing: that you will stay who you are: not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
The simplicity of Captain America is what makes him my favourite Avenger. He is just a good man with the power and motivation to help others. He doesn’t have the self-destructive tendencies of Tony Stark, the emotional doubts of worthiness like Thor, the insecurities of his powers like Bruce Banner, or really any of the handicaps which hurt the other Avengers. Cap does get a little cocky partway through TFA after a string of successes, but he’s brought down to Earth soon enough and doesn’t really waver from there.
Late in the film when Red Skull asks him, “What makes you so special?”, Steve replies, “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” Cap’s humility and roots as an average American boy (rather than a special one) give him a solid foundation to represent and protect the interests of the common person. Cap’s appeal can be derived from Erskine’s speech (above): Steve Rogers inspires others because he’s known what it’s like to be weak (as many of us regular people are) and still made something of himself through sheer determination and possession of a kind heart. His true superpower is finding those strengths in others and bringing them to the surface. The other Captain America movies hit these points well and build on them too, but TFA is the film which set the template for the character in live action.
Spinning off that last point, I’d like to note a few things– namely: The First Avenger set up a LOT of plot-points for future MCU films that it barely gets credit for. First off, this film set the foundation for Steve’s relationship with Bucky Barnes. As Marvel fans know, the brotherhood between these men would be the basis for the next 2 Captain America films (which everyone seems to love a lot more than this one). Just saying, we wouldn’t care about them together if this movie hadn’t done so well at establishing their friendship.
Another major relationship this film set up is the romance between Steve and Peggy Carter. I’m gonna say it: they’re Marvel’s best relationship. From just one film, I’ve been more invested in them than any other pairing before or since. I love that Peggy fell for Steve while he was still only Steve Rogers, before he became Captain America. She saw beyond his weak exterior and appreciated his inner strength before the majority of people could. He, in turn, took her seriously where many others brushed her off. They were also a great team! I was invested enough in them that the ending to TFA consistently broke my heart for 9 years and the payoff in Avengers: Endgame made me cry harder than anything else in the movie…
Speaking of Peggy Carter, TFA also set her up as a hero in her own right. Hayley Atwell only played the character for one full film, yet she’s the only “love-interest” Marvel deemed interesting enough to get her own spin-off TV series. Pepper Potts, Jane Foster and Betty Ross never achieved that (and the former were in multiple movies). Now, I’m aware Jane Foster was Thor for a while in the comics, but I’m talking about the movie versions specifically.
Peggy Carter (left) and Bucky Barnes (right)
TFA also provided audiences with their first exposure to the Infinity gems. They weren’t exactly explained, but we got to see their power first-hand. TFA made apparent what horrors even one gem could create alone when in the wrong hands. Imagine what would happen if multiple of those things were combined…
Speaking of “the wrong hands”, TFA introduced Hydra as well. This organization would have a key role in future Captain America/ Marvel stories in Phase 2. Once again, nobody would care about Hydra’s modern-day counterpart if they weren’t established as a valid threat in the first place! I’m probably still missing things but, long story short, TFA set up a great deal of story potential for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (arguably more than any other single film).
Going back to Hydra for a moment, can we appreciate for a moment that they aren’t just a nameless, faceless, disposable army (like the Avengers usually face)? These are human beings– evil human beings, largely, but still. Their relatively grounded nature is tied to our world’s history, effectively making us aware of the threat and the consequences of failure to defeat them. They’re some of Marvel’s best villains because we as a culture understand who they are and what they want and why. Is their goal relatively simple? Sure. World domination is a classic bad-guy trope. But beyond being serviceable villains, they are also a great foil for Captain America. Steve Rogers embodies the American values of freedom, justice and individuality. Hydra (and the Nazis) are the exact opposite of that. They are natural enemies.
One small note I’d like to make: this film is colour-graded with a beautiful golden tint. I find that fitting for a Golden Age hero. The gold subtly makes us nostalgic for a bygone era where the lines between good and evil were a lot simpler. Something about that colouring gives the movie this classic romanticized adventure feel. Maybe that’s just me. Feel free to disagree.
As a final point for why TFA is my favourite MCU film: the movie is rousing! Everything from the music to the character of Cap himself makes me want to be a hero (and throw a shield at something). There are few films in this genre that still make me feel that way as an adult (Superman: The Movie is another). The other Marvel films are fun, but they lack a certain earnestness and fail to stimulate genuine inspiring feelings like this one does. And, ultimately, those are the kinds of feelings I turn to superhero media for in the first place. I want to be inspired and emulate the morality of the colourful characters on screen.
I’m not saying this is the best Marvel film. There are ones which are technically better (including The Winter Soldier), but the self-contained hero’s journey, compelling characters and setting, rousing energy and abundance of good-old fashioned heroism, plus the fact it laid the groundwork for arguably the best MCU stories from that point on, makes TFA my favourite film of the Marvel Cinematic universe. I had no expectations from this film when it came out but, 9 years later, I look back on it fondly for properly introducing me to one of my favourite characters in entertainment.
Be sure to give this article a like on Facebook and share if you enjoyed. Also leave a comment if you’re inclined. What is your favourite Marvel movie/ character and why? Do you have any ideas for future articles? Let me know!
Till next time.