RECAP: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Joe Johnston

No one had ever avenged before Steve Rogers stepped into a Vita Ray chamber and became Captain America. Perhaps I should say that no had ever Avenged, capital A, before.

Long after the world learned who Iron Man was, Marvel introduced us to Captain America, and man red, white, and blue enough to make Norman Rockwell swoon, a guy as wholesome as General Mills adult cereals, not a do-gooder, but a do-bester.

What better opponents to do-besters than the Nazis? When you want a heroic character, make them stand against National Socialism and the hero comes up aces every time.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A scrawny, scrappy kid from Brooklyn transforms into Captain America, the only man strong enough to defeat Hydra, a sinister Nazi science organization, and its leader, Red Skull.

Hero (9/10)

Steve Rogers is a scrawny kid from Pennsylvania. From Texas. From Ohio. Where’s he from? Brooklyn. The truth is he’s from Brooklyn, and he’s lied about himself several times to get drafted.

Chris Evans (or at least his head) starts Captain America as a man so small that he can barely reach the chins of average men. He’s a man, a 90-pound asthmatic, so small that “if you stick a needle in him it’ll go right through.” Even his ties are short.

But Rogers has heart. That’s about all he has, because he really is a tiny guy. He never gives up though, a man who understands the meaning of strength.

For this reason, Rogers is allowed to volunteer for the Army, specifically a program by ex-German scientist named Erskine. The doctor wants to turn Rogers into a super-soldier, and isn’t that what the Army is all about?

Evans portrays the do-gooder Rogers and the do-better Captain America with equal levels of humility. “I don’t like bullies,” Rogers says, when asked if he wants to kill Nazis. “I don’t care where they’re from.”

On his way to the life-changing experience, Rogers recounts all the places in Brooklyn where somebody beat him up. He carries those moments with him long after he’s confronted the world’s most powerful German scientist.

Whether Rogers is a scrawny man-child or a hulking man-god, Evans makes sure that plucky guy from Brooklyn is the heart driving the character. You won’t find any winking or smirking from this, the first, Avenger.

Rogers’s rebirth as a superhuman injects him with the confidence to single-handedly invade German territory and rescue hundreds of captured soldiers. It does not give him the confidence to talk to girls. He practically “gloving glayvins,” Professor Frink-style, when talking to any of them. He’s not scared of bombs, just bombshells.

Captain America must have learned to fight during some moments not shown, because he’s fantastic at it. He can throw his shield around like it’s a boomerang, despite circles possessing none of the qualities needed to boomerang. He’s practically at one with the shield.

In the end, Cap proves himself the ultimate hero. He gave his life to save thousands, perhaps millions of Americans living in range of the tesseract bombs Red Skull planned to drop on its cities.

Villain (7/10)

Hugo Weaving has made career from villainy. Perhaps Johann Schmidt/Red Skull was his toughest assignment. He had to wear a red mask for much of the shooting.

Schmidt was Hitler’s head of Nazi science. He forced Stanley Tucci‘s Dr. Erskine to inject him with a serum that enhances the physical attributes of the subject. It also enhances their emotions. “Good becomes great, bad becomes worse,” Erskine explains to Rogers about Schmidt.

Somehow the serum literally turned Schmidt into a red head. We are not told how. But we are to assume that it made Schmidt very evil. It certainly made him ambitious, because, as Dr. Zola explains later about Red Skull’s attack plans, “His target is everywhere.”

Witness an early scene when Schmidt addresses some still-loyal Nazis. He speaks to them about weapons and plans and all that. As Hitler’s men berate Schmidt, you can catch Schmidt counting them off as he flicks switches for his tesseract gun.

You know what’s coming next, though they don’t. Schmidt tests his new weapon by blasting them into oblivion. “Consider that your severance package,” he could have said but didn’t. At that moment, Hydra outgrew even Hitler’s ambitions.

Schimidt, like Hitler, believes in occult powers. He knows that feeble men have always misunderstood great power, power like the Tesseract, the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.

Schmidt is, of course, correct in his belief that the gods left a great power in the Earth, a power he’s tracked for years to Norway, where he takes hold of it, and to the Alps, where he uses Dr. Zola to harness its power for human needs.

All of this sounds a lot like a certain Harrison Ford/Steven Spielberg movie from the ’80s, but Schmidt and the film never quite make it there. Wisely, for the movie’s success.

Weaving’s skill is both his scary accent and his strange enunciation. He seems to shout parts you’d expect to be quiet and flatly speaks the important parts. It’s a performance that keeps you off balance. And his face is red. That helps.

Action/Effects (6/10)

Captain America lacks the enormous set-piece explosions you might expect from nine-figure action epics. That’s a strange fact, and you don’t really notice it until the movie’s over.

Perhaps the most interesting action scene is a foot race through Brooklyn’s streets. After Rogers successfully emerges from Howard Stark’s Vita Ray chamber, one of the spectators flips open his lighter and strikes it. The observation room explodes, killing no one, but a lot of people got covered in glass.

The culprit uses the distraction to seize the remaining vial of super-person serum and flee the secret facility, but not before capping Dr. Erskine. British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes a couple shots at him, misses, and pursues him outside.

The fiend escapes in his getaway car, and suddenly a lot of guys on either side start spraying the Brooklyn street with machine gun fire. Agent Carter is not one of these, because she has only a pistol. That doesn’t prevent her from standing boldly in the street and, as the camera zooms toward her gun barrel, aim at the receding car 100 yards away, and shoot its driver dead.

Now it’s Rogers’s turn to show what he can do. Showing no ill effects from his en-muscling, Steve runs, barefoot, through his hometown, chasing the getaway car. Evans, who looks as if he’s got two beer kegs for pecs now, nearly outruns the car.

He ducks through some alleys, leaps over an eight-foot fence, and crashes into a bridal shop window. Try not to construe “crashes through a bridal shop window” as a metaphor.

Eventually Rogers catches the car, which is now a taxi, and clutches the top. He dodges bullets from the top and side, until the driver crashes. He ditches the cab and fires off a few shots at Rogers, twice into a car door, which rogers clutches in a manner that foreshadows his shield.

The goon throws a boy into the water and dives into the harbor. He uses that lighter again to call his minisub to surface. Rogers runs this sub down, dives in the water, and swims to catch it, grab the guy, and bring him to surface.

On the docks, the goon bites a cyanide tooth and mumbles some slogan involving heads and cutting and regrowing.

Though the scene is light on action (it’s mostly some running), it works perfectly, for it showcases Rogers with his new skill set. All he does is run in this scene. He doesn’t even have a weapon. He’s able to dodge bullets, catch a car, save a boy, and outswim a submarine. He achieves this barefoot.

Captain America‘s effects leave some room for desire, Red Skull’s face excepted. Many of the settings are obviously green screened. Too bad considering the budget involved. Could sets not be made?

The tesseract bullets created nice effects, however. The blue energy pulses disintegrated its targets with a scream and a puff of blue smoke, basically vaping the men from existence.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Captain America really shines on the strength of Captain America’s back ups. His best friend is the lightly dour Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a guy who probably knows his name resembles that of a Looney Tunes character.

Barnes joins the Army because, well, we don’t know why, only that he does and he is both happy and sad that his best friend won’t. He’s captured by Hydra and surprised to find his scrawny best friend rescuing him. Barnes leaps at the chance to join Captain America on the war’s most dangerous missions.

Hayley Atwell uses her English-ness to bear a wavy red coif and mentor Rogers from tiny boy to impressive soldier. Agent Carter stares down an oncoming car, just about to shoot it, when Rogers tackles her. She rebukes him for ruining her shot.

Carter is a woman of singular purpose. In one scene she stops the bar chatter when she walks into a pub wearing a knockout red dress. She knows what she’s doing, but she isn’t wearing it for the men, just one man.

Carter stares at Rogers, though she deigns to answer Bucky’s questions. Barnes hits on her, but she makes it clear that the right dance partner isn’t the friend, it’s Captain America. (Does Cap get it? Hard to say.)

Later, when she catches Rogers kissing another saucy dame (because the “women of America owe you their thanks”), she takes it less than well. You know it will turn out badly because the music is ominous. A few moments later she fires several rounds at Captain America’s vibranium shield as he clutches it. Hell hath no fury and all that.

But it’s unfair to reduce Carter to a love interest. The movie considers doing that, but eases from it. More likely, Carter is a “special” agent who is surrounded by smelly grunt soldiers. She’s aching for a soldier as special as she is, and Rogers is the best one.

Carter is the woman who believes in Rogers, believing he was meant for more than drumming up support for war bonds. others think she has a crush, but it’s faith that drives her.

The casting director called in a big gun for the role of Colonel Phillips. Tommy Lee Jones, acting dangerously close to bored, plays the commander in the field of the 107th, the group in charge of stopping Hydra.

Jones brings an annoyed grandfather’s tenacity to the role. Phillips is a man who has no time for anything, including planning rescue missions and writing condolence letters for the men who died under his command.

It’s with little excitement that Phillips informs his troops that they will “personally escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of Hell.” He sounds as if he’s reading it from the back of Captain America’s shield.

If he doesn’t believe in the way, he doesn’t believe in Captain America. He disdains Dr. Erskine’s experiment, and wants to put him in a lab. So when Cap appears in Italy, Phillips couldn’t be more dismissive. It was not a motivational tactic.

That’s why it was extra sad when Rogers crashed the jet into the ice. It made even Colonel Phillips sad. Jones seems hardly to be trying in this movie, but who cares? Even when Jordan played for the Wizards, you went to see because he was Michael Freaking Jordan.

Henchmen (3/8)

Red Skull asks only one person to aid him, the turtle-faced Dr. Zola. Toby Jones plays the second-best scientist in the German regime, a man that Schmidt seems to like for some reason.

Zola designed the weapons that Red Skull will use to overthrow Hitler and conquer the world. Schmidt, who previously ran Hitler’s science division, seems to have lost interest in the science and craves the power, so he left the testing to Zola.

Zola is content to work under Schmidt, until he sees what he will do with such power. It appears Zola has never heard of Hydra, despite its pins and logo plastered on innumerable surfaces.

When Schmidt interacts with the only Nazis seen in the film, he shoots them with his tesseract laser. Zola is clearly upset by this. Does Schmidt’s audacity or the death of the Nazi’s upset him more? We can’t tell.

Zola begs off further responsibility, until he is captured and interrogated. He gives up the location of Hydra’s mountain lair, and is seen no more.

Hydra is an interesting organization. The movie gives its foot soldiers black uniforms that cover everything. They are very space age and homogenized. Guys are running around shouting “Hail Hydra” with the standard salute of sticking out two clenched fists. It all looks more silly than scary, which is exactly what you want in a comic book film. Or at least exactly what Marvel wants.

Stunts (2/6)

Fights are brief in Captain America. In one scene, Steve and Bucky raid a train carrying Hydra materials. First the guys zip line onto the train. I believe zip lining to be one of our finest methods of transportation, so I was sold on this scene from moment one.

The guys get separated by locking doors. Rogers has to fight a mechanical warrior with double guns. Barnes faces off against two regular goons with regular guns. Boring.

Eventually Cap reunites with his buddy, Barnes even getting a chance to use the shield, before all goons are dispatched. Like the action scenes in Captain America, fights are brief but effective.

Climax (3/6)

We are treated to views of an enormous Hydra army, faceless and loaded with tesseract laser bullets, in formation inside a cavernous hangar. They are ready, or they think they are, for Cap.

Captain America appears to singlehandedly invade the facility. He rides, alone, through a misty forest on his tricked out motorcycle as several Hydra bike riders chase him.

Cap dispatches one, and we hear a Wilhelm scream, likely a shoutout to the Forest Moon chase from Return of the Jedi that this chase resembles. Rogers also has ropes and fire, making his the best Bond bike we’ve seen in a Marvel flick.

Cap detonates the bike in the base’s door and punches his way toward it, but he’s captured and brought before Red Skull. That was exactly what Cap wanted, because here come four of Cap’s best guys zip lining through the window and into Red Skull’s office, without an appointment.

Carter and Phillips arrive with some backup and chase everyone through the pristine corridors and into the hangar/runway. Red Skull starts up the jetplane, which resembles a B-2 bomber, and starts to take off.

Phillips and Carter take Schmidt’s car and drive Rogers toward the plane, which is forever in getting off the ground. Carter smooches Rogers, he boards the plane, and the regular, non-super, human stops the car and wait for the Captain to save America.

Red Skull is piloting his plane toward the US east coast. Inside are eight bombs, each hand labeled with obscure place names like “New York” and “Chicago.”

Hydra’s chief has not forgotten soldiers. Several of them creep about the catwalks surrounding the bombs as Cap does the same. They fight. Cap throws a knife about 20 yards into a guy’s back. Two other guys he tosses from the jet.

The New York bomb, which is really a small plane with rear propeller, drops from the Red Skull jet. Its pilot tries to get rid of the other Hydra soldier and Captain America, who are grappling outside the bomb.

Cap lets the one guy fall through the propeller in a pink mist, about the goriest thing you’ll see in a Marvel movie. Next, our hero throws open the cockpit and tosses out the pilot. He flies the bomb around the jet and right into the back of it.

From the moment Captain America first boarded the jet in its wheel well until he encounters Red Skull in the cockpit, not one word is spoken. And there’s no need. The images say enough.

Red Skull and Captain America punch each other, each getting to use the shield, and Ol’ Red fires a few blue blasts at Cap, but their fight is not much more than that. When the jet dives, the men suffer from low gravity, and they fight as if in space. That was a neat trick.

Cap damages the tesseract, which agitates Red Skull. He removes the cube, and it opens a portal that views outer space. Red Skull gets transported there. Where, exactly? No one says. It’s enough to know that he’s gone.

Now, for the sad part. Cap realizes that landing the jet near population centers puts many lives at risk. With great solemnity, he pilots the craft into the ice above the Arctic Circle. Carter sheds tears and promises a dancing date.

“I’ll have to take a raincheck,” Cap says.

Jokes (1/4)

Tommy Lee Jones gets most of the good lines. His demeanor is a laugh in and of itself. He interrogates Dr. Zola by eating in front of him. “Here’s my brilliant theory. You want to live,” Phillips tells Zola is his reason for not killing himself when captured.

Captain America is not a funny guy. He’s about as far from it as you can get. So when he claims to imprisoned American and British troops that “I’ve knocked out Hitler over 200 times,” you laugh. Because he might be crazy or he might be joking.

The movie, and its characters, follow the lead of the star–they play it straight. Except for Howard Stark, who probably got the best line in the movie. “Speaking modestly, I’m the best mechanical engineer in this country.”

Setting (3/4)

World War Two. For many, those three words evoke images of barely colored newsreels, dames saucy and beautiful, and tons of olive clothing. Captain America does not disappoint.

The movie leans heavily on the imagined landscapes of war-era New York. The Brooklyn Bridge is prominent in backgrounds of New York scenes. Every building is made of brick. It’s just how you would remember it.

Rogers takes a beating in an alley outside a movie theater. Even though he’s thrown again and again into trash cans, he never spills any trash. The can lid he uses as defense is shiny, though dented, metal. You wouldn’t remember the trash if you didn’t want to, and the movie won’t begrudge you that memory.

Many of the sets are clearly green screens. None more so than the exposition Rogers and Barnes visit. This not-quite World’s Fair features perfectly round, monochromatic fireworks as the characters arrive. The huge bronze globe resembling the one in Flushing Meadows is center of the frame, though in the background.

Western Europe looks idealized, too. Colonel Phillips and his men always appear stationed in a gorgeous, Ardennes-like forest. The movie says they’re in Italy, but the geography seems iffy and amalgamated.

Schmidt’s primary facility is literally carved in a mountain. This could only be in the Alps, as snowy as it is, but it hardly matters. Hydra weapons factories are spread across Nazi Europe, in nondescript cities and villages, and Captain America’s team lays waste to them equally and adeptly.

Marvel is not about to make a realistic depiction of the real world. Captain America is as close as they come, but the producers sanitized the settings enough to zap them of their realism. The idealized places are beautiful, and do just enough to evoke “those times,” while subtracting from its grimness. We must never forget that this is a comic movie.

Commentary (0/2)

Nazis bad, Americans good. That’s all you need to know watching this movie. Captain America is a feel good story about a patriot who ended up fighting foes 70 years past his time.

The movie is not about the struggles against National Socialism or fascism. Racism and communism are not issues either. Marvel just wanted a fun story that would set up future sequels, and that’s what Joe Johnston delivered.

Red Skull and Captain America do raise the idea of Nietzsche’s Übermensch that Hitler loved so darn much. Each man receives a serum that makes him better than he was. That’s about as Nietzschean as you can get, but the movie never indulges the audience about it.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Captain America forms a special ops team to destroy Hydra’s remaining bases. He only has a few guys, most of whom are never named. There’s an American of Japanese descent. Also on the team is a black man fluent in German and French. And there’s some white dudes.

Make no mistake, Marvel knew what it was doing in casting Kenneth Choi and Derek Luke. Blacks, if allowed to serve at all, served in segregated units. Japanese men? Forget it. Many suffered inside official internment camps.

Good work Marvel.


  • The game played on the radio at the end was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The hometown Dodgers beat the Phillies 8-4 on May 25, 1941. Centerfielder Pete Reiser hit a grand slam in the 6th inning that broke a 4-4 tie. Rogers was upset by this recording, because he went to the game. A huge mistake on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s part because they could have found any baseball almanac and put on a game from 1942 or ’43.
  • Rogers is upset that he missed his date with Carter. Nick Fury, wisely, doesn’t tell him that the Dodgers moved to LA.
  • Neal McDonough plays a guy named “Dum Dum,” who wears a mustache straight out of the 1876 Democratic Convention. He also wears suspenders and shoots a shotgun. In short, his character time-traveled from the 19th century and no one bothered to mention it.
  • With regenerative powers, Cap can’t get drunk. Was it worth it, then?
  • It’s funny how the Army’ secret facility for changing men into supermen is fronted by an antique store. Is Rogers an antique?
  • (1) Hydra makes it even easier to hate Nazis/Germans fighting World War II. You didn’t think that was possible, did you?
  • (1) Awesome credit sequence. All titles should be like Marvel’s.

Summary (42/68): 62%

It’s easy to forget, watching Captain America: The First Avenger, that this movie is set during World War II. Hitler is rarely mentioned, nary a swastika is spotted on screen, and not once does anyone mention either Japan or the Soviet Union. It’s almost as if the movie existed in another universe.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmakers were challenged to create a World War II movie that didn’t feel like a World War II movie, but a Marvel movie. They succeeded perfectly.

The colors, the locations, the advanced weaponry: the little details added up to make a movie only Marvel could have made, one that I think will rise to the top of the MCU when it’s all over.