Whilst 2011 would not be the first (or indeed, the last…) year that Marvel fans would get two separate MCU releases in Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, it did represent the first time that the two movies they received were very markedly different in terms of their narrative and the way in which they were presented. Fans were quite quickly picked up and yanked away from the jolly and uplifting tone that the dimension-jumping scenery that Thor had introduced, and were instead bought back down to Earth to a much darker and more foreboding terrestrial setting.
On initial viewing, it was easy to write The First Avenger off as the latest in a conveyor belt of tediously necessary origin stories. Our plucky protagonist started off the movie as an idealistic, but painfully weak player, only to end it as a bold and brave new beefcake. However, if you scratch just that little bit harder under the surface, this is perhaps the most emotional and well-written movie in the series, and the real reason why the Cap Trilogy remains the unassailable best of the bunch so far.
It’s true, that out of all the early MCU movies it is easily this one that’s aged the worst. Whilst it succeeds in convincing about its WWII setting, the CGI admittedly already looked tired and worn at the time of release, and the action set-pieces lack the scale of the movie’s more visually appetizing brothers and sisters. But, like Steve Rogers itself, it’s got heart. And that’s what lifts it head and shoulder above the previous four franchise entries.
Because this is a movie about human beings. About their wonders and weaknesses. About their strengths and their sorrows. Wipe away all the super-serums, and the skulls and the spectacle, and what you’ve got is a truly romantic tragedy. Hayley Attwell’s storming portrayal of Peggy Carter means that remains the unbeatable Leading Lady of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This girl’s got fire and frailty in equal measure. One minute she’s emptying a whole magazine in the direction of the big dumb brute she’s got a crush on, and the next she’s hopelessly weeping about the dance she’ll never get to share with him. Her warm and tear-jerking turn would deservedly earn her not only her own TV show, but also a string of inspired cameos dotted throughout various other MCU projects.
And it’s not just Attwell’s performance that tugs at the heart-strings, with both Stanley Tucci and Sebastian Stan both giving it 100% in their supporting parts. Stan demonstrates exactly why he was perfect for the role of Steve’s doomed sidekick, and it’s no wonder he’s steadily built up the role to make him one of the biggest characters currently in the Avengers line-up. Dominic Cooper also impresses as one of several actors to play Howard Stark. Again, his cheeky and chipper portrayal would earn him call-backs for the part, completing a line-up of fully uplifting and upsetting performances in the movie.
And for once, it’s not the bad guys where the film falters. Put Hugo Weaving’s slightly scenery-chewing appearance as the Red Skull to one side (and as hammy as it was, you know you want to see him come leaping back out of that Cosmic Cube at some point in the future), and you have two further sinister villains on show in the shape of British actors Richard Armitage and Toby Jones. Jones’s subsequent cameos at the end of Agent Carter’s Season One and in The Winter Soldier demonstrating his popularity with the fans.
No, this time round it’s the heroes that are letting the side down. Though enjoyable, Tommy Lee Jones’s Colonel Phillips lacks any real purpose or depth, other than to stand by and look disapproving. The Howling Commandos are also pitched in an uncomfortably overly-comedic manner. Neal McDonough does succeed in nailing the role of Dum Dum Dugan, but the rest of his team remain a rogues gallery of forgettably token-international stereotypes.
Ultimately, despite a steamroller of a first half, the second part of the movie then settles down into a predictable and perfunctory plod to the finishing line. Chris Evans manages to vary his shield-throwing sufficiently to keep the audience’s attention, but this is a film about what will be, not what is. All of the key issues and events that will shape The Avengers occur in the Captain America movies, none of which would have been possible without the foundations that The First Avenger laid. The MCU would be an entirely different, lighter place without the grit and grime that this film bought to the table.