This article contains spoilers for Captain America: The First Avenger and the wider MCU – including one spoiler for Captain Marvel.
Before the Snap, the ideological disillusionment and the beard, good ol’ Cap was just a kid from Brooklyn, punching Nazis and falling for beautiful dames.
But while it’s fondly remembered by fans, Captain America: The First Avenger is actually the second lowest-grossing MCU movie above only The Incredible Hulk. The film feels like it’s from a much quainter pre-Avengers time and, despite its subtitle, may have suffered in the absence of the now-widespread assertion that you have to see all of the films or you won’t "get it" when the big team-up rolls around.
And another big challenge faced by any initial Captain America movie was convincing the audience that its protagonist wasn't a square, nationalist, do-gooder. Superman already had that handled and, at the end of the noughties, The Dark Knight had turned fans’ heads towards darker, less corny interpretations of these larger-than-life characters. But how could a man calling himself Captain America be in any way interesting to a global audience who were becoming increasingly savvy about the cliched superhero narrative?
One of the masterstrokes of the film was to be in on the joke, pitching Steve (played by Chris Evans) as a propaganda tool with hidden depths. After being turned into a super-strong and hunky human weapon, the government doesn’t know what to do with him and he’s trotted out as a symbol for America’s Hitler-punching strength during the war – much in the same way he was used in the original 1940s comics run.
The film couldn’t be more different to Iron Man (or Thor, released just a couple of months before) and, in a lot of ways, the franchise was already setting up the dichotomy between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark that would come to a head in Captain America: Civil War – Steve travelling in the opposite direction towards a grey area they would both eventually occupy.
But while the second and third Captain America films are characterised by their tricky moral quandaries, The First Avenger is a vital mission statement for the trilogy that establishes what and who Steve Rogers stands for. The right thing, and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), respectively. Without this groundwork, it wouldn’t make sense for him to be the figurehead of The Avengers (over its honorary founder, Tony, no less) that he has become.
To understand the underlying tragedy of the character, which deepens and contextualises his goodness and makes it more relatable, we too have to fall in love with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), feel the loss of Bucky and experience the black-and-white certainty of World War 2 through his eyes. After two hours, we’re as jarred by the vision of 21st century Times Square as he is.
What makes The First Avenger one of the least interesting instalments of the MCU, then, is also its strength. It remains one of the stronger entries in Phase One and no one can deny that it’s an entertaining romp through 1940s wartime, but it may suffer unfairly from comparison to its later peers.
For much of its running time, Captain America: The First Avenger is about the goodies against the baddies but, just as it unseats Steve in its final moments, the audience is prepped for the more complex and sprawling stories to come.
Standout scene: The Commando rescue is a brilliantly fun ride, marking Captain America’s transition from performing monkey to the Super Soldier he was meant to be. Cap's platoon, The Howling Commandos, aren’t particularly memorable, sure, but the film finds its purpose just as its protagonist does, and you’ve gotta love a slow-motion jump engulfed in flames.
Best quip: The ongoing fondue joke, which sees Steve repeatedly misinterpret the nature of Peggy and Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) relationship, still elicits a chuckle if only because it proves how inept Steve is at the whole dating game. When faced with a romantic rival, all he can muster is: “Do you two…fondue?”
First appearances: Alongside Steve, Bucky and Peggy have become integral parts of the MCU ever since this film. While Peggy is the only one of the trio not dislodged in time, we see her again in Ant-Man working with Hank Pym and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a 93-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer's before she’s finally laid to rest in Captain America: Civil War. Bucky, meanwhile, is now basically an Avenger alongside his BFF, despite seemingly falling to his death in The First Avenger. The character returns as the Winter Soldier in, erm, The Winter Soldier and appears in Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.
Though we see images and video footage of an older Howard Stark in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, this is also the first time that Tony’s father has been a character in his own right. And the film also marks the first appearance of classic Captain America baddie the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – who we initially assume has been disintegrated by the Tesseract during the movie's final battle, but later find out the Space Stone has simply transported him somewhere else...
So long, farewell: Because of its setting in the past, everyone we meet in the film besides Steve, Bucky and Peggy is left in the (figurative) dust when Cap wakes up in present-day New York. While Bucky pops up in a similar fashion later in the franchise, Peggy is left to grow old gracefully without Steve by her side (though she thankfully gets her own adventures in TV’s short-lived Agent Carter).
It’s all connected: This might be the fifth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, chronologically, it's the first MCU adventure. Naturally, there are lots of links to future events...
• Project Rebirth, the study that saw the creation of just one successful super soldier in Steve, was almost brought back in the ‘90s by Howard Stark before he was killed by the Winter Soldier and the remaining serum stolen to create a group of Siberian super soldiers (see Captain America: Civil War). An attempt to recreate the serum is alluded to in The Incredible Hulk, while SHIELD’s ‘Project Patriot’ was also seen in TV’s Agents of SHIELD, with director Jeffrey Mace receiving the serum.
• The iconic shield created by Howard Stark can be glimpsed in Tony’s office during Iron Man and Iron Man 2. The Mandarin also has a tattoo of it in Iron Man 3 (customised with an anarchy symbol at the centre).
• This is the first mention of vibranium, which has become a huge part of the MCU in the movies and TV shows since. We now know that the metal was brought back from Africa – or more specifically, Wakanda – by Howard Stark.
• Speaking of Stark, he also managed to retrieve the Tesseract from the bottom of the Arctic waters and later gave it to SHIELD for "safe" keeping. We can assume at some point it is loaned to (or stolen by?) Mar-Vell for her work on her warp engine technology, although SHIELD is later reunited with it thanks to Goose the cat (see Captain Marvel). Loki will later steal it in Avengers Assemble, and it is finally destroyed by Thanos in Infinity War, revealing the Space Stone.
• This is also where we first hear about HYDRA, the foremost terrorist organisation of the franchise. Here, it is aligned with Nazi Germany and led by Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull, but, as we learn in The Winter Soldier, the defeat of HYDRA here was not permanent and HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) was recruited by SHIELD.
• Red Skull also makes an appearance in Avengers: Infinity War (played by Ross Marquand after Weaving declined to return), now acting as the guardian of Vormir and the Soul Stone, as punishment for abusing the power of the Tesseract.
Credit check: The first Captain America is one of the only MCU films to end on a genuine cliffhanger, with Steve reacting to being defrosted into a whole new century with a simple: “I had a date." So the post-credits scene with Steve and Nick Fury discussing the Avengers Initiative – the beginning of a teaser trailer for the next MCU film – is important for both reassuring the audience and setting up Avengers Assemble before it’s release a year later. The scene is basically repeated in the follow-up.
What are your thoughts on Captain America: The First Avenger? Have we missed your favourite moment or reference? Let us know in the comments below...