You can never go wrong with a period action-adventure film with fantasy elements. It’s a sub-genre of action film that I genuinely adore, from somewhat underrated gems such as the Alec Baldwin vehicle The Shadow and Billy Zane in (the guilty pleasure) The Phantom to the legitimate brilliance of Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, not to mention a certain trilogy about an archaeologist created by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg.
It’s The Rocketeer that would be the pivotal point of contact when it came to bringing Captain America to the screen for 2011’s big-budget version of the character. When it came to tasking someone to bring a period action adventure complete with the first onscreen appearance of the Tesseract and the Red Skull, not to mention an earlier version of the super soldier serum first mentioned in The Incredible Hulk, then it was The Rocketeer director that Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige would call upon.
Of course, the moment we first get a glimpse of Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, an instantly iconic performance in a manner similar to Christopher Reeve as Superman and, a few years later, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, was not the first time that an attempt had been made to bring the Joe Simon and Steven Kirby-created character to the screen.
Reb Brown had played the character in two CBS television movies in the late-70s, and the character had also appeared in a plethora of animated television series before a live action version on the big screen was attempted in 1990.
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For years, the infamous studio Cannon had held the rights to several Marvel characters, such as Captain America as well as Spider-Man. Several attempts had been made trying to put together a live action version of each. After Cannon started to develop financial troubles in the late-80s and one of its most prominent owners, Menahem Golan, had left to set up a new business venture in the shape of 21st Century Film Corporation, one of the first projects he had gotten off the ground was the Albert Pyun-directed Captain America that premiered in 1990, starred Matt Salinger as Steve Rogers, Scott Paulin as Red Skull and pretty much went straight to video in most territories. Having first watched it as a six-year-old and loved it to bits. I will defend it to the ends of the Earth if need be because it’s a major reason I love the character so much and I really don’t care what anyone else says. Just to remind you, I was six.
After 21st Century Film Corporation dissolved, the rights to the character were up for grabs again and ended up at Artisan Entertainment, where a film was in development hell for several years. Eventually they landed back into the hands of Marvel who decided to try and produce a film as part of their first phase of movies in their developing Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Opting to set the film during World War II with a fantasy bent, the decision to bring in Joe Johnston proved a good one. Captain America: The First Avenger has a similar level of classiness, period detail and imagination in much the same way that The Rocketeer did. Unlike The Rocketeer, which unfortunately struggled at the box office and would have to wait to become a cult favourite with the passing of time, Captain America opened to a good box office and critical notices.
While its $370 million box office take in 2011 may look like small potatoes now, it’s easy to forget that this was just before the influx of high box office takings for films based on comic books, which would explode from the following year on when both Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises would both gross $1 billion. The box office take of Avengers Assemble in particular bled into nearly practically every Marvel Studios film from that point on.
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Best of all, Captain America: The First Avenger is a film that is positively bleeding with charm. Everything about the film is so darn likeable and charming, although it can throw in some occasionally dark moments. Unlike Iron Man 2 and more in line with its predecessor and the same summer’s Thor, The First Avenger manages to set in stone elements that will come into play in future films without sacrificing its own identity.
It’s glossy and fun, incredibly witty thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay, and directed with aplomb by Johnston who brings that similar level of visual elegance to the film that he did with The Rocketeer. It is also backed by a brilliant an Alan Silvestri score that is is one of the best to come from a Marvel Studios film to date.
At its heart is probably the best central pairing of any in the MCU. This series began with Iron Man and won plaudits thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s instantly popular performance as Tony Stark, but it’s Chris Evans as Steve Rogers who instantly became an important slice of the heart and soul of the franchise.
Evans had previously dabbled in the world of Marvel through Tim Story’s Fantastic Four films that had been produced at Fox. There he portrayed Johnny Storm in a typical cocky manner that befitted that character, but as Steve Rogers he brung so much lovability and charm, filled with complexities that the next two films from the Captain America branch would run with. He owns the role right from the moment we first see him; a combination of CGI and a body double were used to make the usually buff and well built Evans look smaller and thinner.
While Evans has gained many plaudits and an adoring fan base thanks to his role as Rogers, the other ace the film has up its sleeve is that of Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter. Very much a 21st Century equivalent to the winning chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, Carter is never there just to be saved by Rogers. Atwell feels like she’s walked out of some brilliant film from the period while also feeling very modern.
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Sometimes it always feels like comic book movies have to have a romance in an almost perfunctory, contractually obligated way, but Peggy and Steve work so well thanks to Atwell and Evans. Their chemistry is so winning and the characters of Steve and Peggy make for such a wonderful romance, that one almost wishes that we’d had two or three solo Captain America films before the series had to take Steve to the present day.
Thankfully both Evans and Atwell sell the romance and the partnership so well that one really would love to have spent more time with them when they were young and with their lives ahead of them before tragedy struck. Nevertheless, the poignancy is still there in the space of this one film, which says a lot about how well Evans and Atwell settle into their characters within the space of a single film.
Best of all, the character of Peggy is never defined by her romance with Steve. She’s very much a three-dimensional character before he even shows up. Despite the film being unable to avoid utilising some of the usual storytelling tropes, they’re never to the disservice of her character.
Under other circumstances this might have been the last we’d have seen of Atwell in the role for the series given the time jump that the entire Marvel franchise has to make at this point in order to get Steve Rogers to the present day. But since this is a shared universe complete with television spin-offs (to a point) as well as One-Shot shorts to put within the bonus features of the DVDs and Blu-Rays, the plus side is that we’ve ended up spending a substantial amount of time with Peggy Carter, thanks to the two-season run of Agent Carter – itself stemming from a One-Shot that appeared on the Iron Man 3 home entertainment release. It explored her trying to make her way into the world of espionage in a period setting while dealing with the sexism of the era.
In fact, so much of the supporting cast could have been in more films; as of the time of writing, this would be the only time on the big screen we’d be treated to Tommy Lee Jones as Chester Phillips, as well as the Howling Commandos (although the latter would show up on television through flashbacks on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). It seems the end of the film gives an open return for the villain Red Skull (brilliantly portrayed here by Hugo Weaving chewing up the scenery), yet he wouldn’t appear again until Avengers: Infinity War and with a different actor playing him.
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As each year goes by, time ends up being more than good to Captain America: The First Avenger. It has remained one of Marvel’s most charming and lovable films. The adventure ends with Steve in the present day, greeted by a cameo appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and an incredibly poignant final line of dialogue.
It sets up the following year’s Avengers Assemble beautifully, as well as primes Steve Rogers for two further sequels that would be very different beasts to the film that launched him.