“The Marvel Universe has gone nuts; we’re going to have a fricking Captain America movie if we’re not careful.” This was Zack Snyder speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2008. Every once in a while, that quote finds itself recirculated online, evidence of Snyder’s philistine ideas about superhero movies and what a misguided idea it was for DC to recruit him to attempt to replicate the Marvel Universe’s success. (Another Snyder line from that same breath: “And Iron Man—$300 million domestic box office on a second-tier superhero!”)
It’s unfair to Snyder to use that quote out of context. If you read the whole interview, Snyder is, if anything, excited about Marvel’s success, if only because it proves that “pop culture is just, like, so ready for Watchmen,” the movie that he was promoting in that interview. (Note: Pop culture was not.) Snyder was simply showing his own surprise about how quickly and completely superhero movies had taken over, something that would only snowball in the years after that. Also, that Captain America movie was already in development when Snyder said what he said, and Snyder probably already knew that. (The whole Snyder interview is, however, a deeply entertaining and insane historical document. Dismissing the idea that Batman Begins is a dark movie, Snyder notes that Batman “doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that’s how that would go.” Eight years later, Snyder would make a Batman movie that did not feature Batman getting raped in prison.)
Here’s the thing: Even if Snyder had been dismissing the idea of a Captain America movie, he would’ve been totally right. Before there was a Captain America movie, there was no evidence that a Captain America movie would ever work, on any level. The entire idea of Captain America—a square-jawed avatar of everything great about the US of A, a guy who intentionally makes himself look like a big flag—seemed almost hopelessly hokey and anachronistic in 2008, when Snyder said what he said. There was nothing dark or gritty or sexy or intense about Captain America. He was a symbol of a time that never existed—an advocate for the greatness of a country that, at least on a geopolitical scale, has long been a globally dominant hegemon rather than a scrappy and idealistic underdog. Even Captain America, the comic book hero, wasn’t so sure about Captain America, the symbol of American pride. In a ’70s comic book storyline, Steve Rogers, disgusted after learning of governmental evil, had briefly forsaken his own identity, instead becoming a costumed adventurer named Nomad. If Captain America himself wasn’t so sure about Captain America, how could Hollywood be?
The 1990 Captain America movie had been such an outright catastrophic failure that it just barely got released. In the years after that, internal debates about America’s role in the world had only heated up. A Captain America movie could’ve gone wrong in so many different ways. It could’ve gotten caught up in post-9/11 Toby Keith jingoism. It could’ve played out as a goofy parody, a broad satire of Dudley Do-Right postwar heroism. It could’ve been another crappy, interchangeable Fantastic Four-level superhero movie, just with more shots of billowing flags. Instead, Captain America: The First Avenger turned out to be the movie that, at least from where I’m sitting, ultimately made the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment work. It took some unbelievably skillful needle-threading to make it happen, but the people at Marvel managed to turn Cap, the personification of corniness, into something like a beloved cinematic icon, the soul upon which all of the MCU rests.
There was groundwork. A new Captain America movie had been in the planning stages since 1997; lawsuits and financial issues had stalled it. When the project finally got going, Marvel had done a few interesting things with the character. Ed Brubaker had built a complex and masterful noirish espionage saga around Cap in his Winter Soldier storyline, while Mark Millar’s blockbuster Civil War event had delighted in its depiction of Steve Rogers as an inspiring and charismatic leader and as someone who would defy his own government if he thought it were straying from the country’s true ideals. (In both Millar’s book and in the Civil War movie that eventually came out of it, Cap is wrongheaded and shortsighted, but that’s an argument for another day.) Captain America: The First Avenger only alludes to those comic book visions of the character, which later movies would explore more thoroughly. But if you were actually reading comics at the time, it was clear that Captain America, in the right hands, could be a layered and fascinating character.
Ultimately, the movie works because Marvel hired the right people. Director Joe Johnston was a longtime journeyman with an inconsistent record and at least a few genuinely bad movies on his résumé. (Shout-out to 2010’s The Wolfman.) But he was also a veteran special-effects guy who’d worked on Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, which means he was comfortable with the levels of visual trickery needed to make a story like that work. And with his own 1991 movie The Rocketeer, he’d nailed exactly the kind of old-timey adventure-serial energy that a Captain America movie would need. (He even had powered-up Nazi villains.) It’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified for the job.
It’s also hard to imagine a better Captain America than Chris Evans. Evans had already been around the superhero-movie block before taking the role. He’d done what he could as a devil-may-care playboy version of the Human Torch in two near-unbearable Fantastic Four movies. He’d been a superpowered test-subject mutant at war with shadowy governmental agencies in 2009’s misbegotten Push. He’d lampooned his own absurd handsomeness in the superhero-adjacent Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. He’d never really had much chance to be anything other than a life-size Ken doll. But he had a depth to him, and with Captain America, he finally got the chance to show it.
Evans had to be convinced to take the Captain America role, and he’s always hinted at a little discomfort with it. But he’s perfect. He’s warm and friendly and inspiring—all the things that Captain America is supposed to be. He spends so much of The First Avenger as a scrawny weakling—a special effect much more convincing than it probably should’ve been—that he has to find non-physical ways to project his own idealistic determination. And he does it. The sight of digitally shrunk Chris Evans refusing to back down after a beating from a movie-theater heckler—fists clenched, jaw bloodied, “I could do this all day”—remains one of the most indelible images that the MCU has given us. When he finally does balloon out to superhuman proportions, we’re already on his side. Throughout the movie, he struggles against his own propaganda utility, fervently and innocently trying to get out into the field and help his comrades.
Like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Evans radiates genuine Boy Scout virtue, and he comes off as an anachronism even in the ’40s. The movie doesn’t joke about him or make him an object of fun. Instead, the movie is just as gee-whiz idealistic about Captain America as Captain America is about America. Even a hint of acid, sarcastic self-consciousness could’ve sunk the movie. In Evans, it has none.
Johnston and the producers built an impressive cast around Evans. As Agent Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell brings a clipped Katharine Hepburn precision that’s enormously appealing. (The short-lived Agent Carter ABC spinoff, which kept that First Avenger tone intact, remains Marvel’s greatest TV project.) The grumpy authority figure is just Tommy Lee Jones playing Tommy Lee Jones. As Cap’s buddy Bucky, Sebastian Stan is a pleasant slab of beef, which is all he needs to be. Stanley Tucci has fun as the good-guy version of a mad-scientist character.
The only real weak point in the movie’s cast is Hugo Weaving, whose Red Skull has less fleshed-out humanity than Agent Smith, the computer program that Weaving played in the Matrix movies. Even Red Skull’s motivations are muddy. He tells Cap, his fellow super-serum test subject, that he’s “too afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind,” like a K-Mart-brand Magneto. Also: “I have seen the future, Captain! There are no flags!” I don’t know, that sounds pretty good, though it would presumably sound better if a muscle-faced fascist sorcerer wasn’t the one invoking it. (The Red Skull doesn’t even get a satisfying end. When he showed up in a quick surprise cameo in Avengers: Infinity War, I’d completely forgotten that he’d been sucked into a wormhole or whatever. It happens so quickly that you barely process it.)
The movie’s version of ’40s America is a blast. Many of the characters are just as gung-ho as Cap himself. When a HYDRA agent tries to slow Cap down by throwing a little kid into the Hudson, the kid squawks, “Go get ’im! I can swim!” Natalie Dormer, a year away from becoming Margaery Tyrell on Game Of Thrones, gives Cap a big situation-complicating smooch because she likes that he saved a bunch of guys (and also, presumably, because he looks like Chris Evans). In a quick montage after Cap’s apparent death, we see all of America uniting behind him as a martyr and a legend. It’s a comforting vision of a better, simpler version of America.
It’s probably too comforting. The movie only barely alludes to racial inequality in America. When Cap puts together his crack team of commandos, they’re a rainbow coalition, and nobody acts like that’s weird. I wasn’t around in the ’40s, but given what I know, that seems unlikely. I think the movie might’ve been more effective if Cap had seen and wrestled with America’s failures. The same is true of the ravages of warfare. None of the soldiers ever seem freaked out or traumatized. Instead, they just charge into battle, oblivious to their friends disintegrating all around them. (If the Red Skull’s magical weapons didn’t allow for bloodless, PG-13 death, some of those skirmishes would’ve looked like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.)
In the movie’s second half, when it turns toward action, The First Avenger becomes a pretty generic (though well-done) superhero punch-up. A lot of the storytelling is clumsy and inelegant. At one point, Cap is suddenly in a motorcycle chase with Nazis, with no real setup and little indication of why he’s there. Most of the fight scenes are too CGI-heavy to be truly great, and a few of the effects scenes, like Bucky’s fall from the train, just look like ass. The big finale, when Cap wakes up in a decades-later New York City, is clearly just setup for the next movie, which means The First Avenger can never really stand as its own cohesive story. It’s not a perfect movie. There are real flaws.
But it’s also an elegant piece of myth-building, and small connections to the rest of Marvel enrich the whole world we’re seeing take shape. We meet Tony Stark’s father, a tycoon adventurer who connects the dots between Howard Hughes (who Johnston had depicted in The Rocketeer) and Stark himself. HYDRA science worm Arnim Zola first shows up as a face on a screen, a role he’ll grow into. Before getting his iconic shield, which honestly looks pretty great, Cap fashions one for himself out of a trash-can lid and a ripped-off car door. Marvel wouldn’t bring all its characters together for another year, but little touches like this make it a fuller experience.
Captain America: The First Avenger was a hit, but it wasn’t a huge one. It wasn’t one of the top 10 grossers of 2011; the same year’s decidedly shittier MCU entry, Thor, made more money. And yet it’s a crucial movie for the MCU, since it showed just how much fun this whole Marvel superhero business could be. After the initial miracle of 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel had made three straight movies that were not special at all. There are things worth appreciating in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, but none of them really demonstrates why this whole world matters to people. Captain America: The First Avenger made that case. And if it had failed in any of the myriad ways that it could’ve failed, the present-day movie landscape would presumably look very, very different.
Other notable 2011 superhero movies: Kenneth Branagh’s aforementioned Thor got one thing exactly right: Chris Hemsworth, who looks like a Michelangelo sculpture of a lion-man and who brings a crazy level of life to what was then an underwritten role. But the movie itself is a bore, full of turgid fantasy gobbledygook and thin CGI and sub-Crocodile Dundee fish-out-of-water jokes. The central love story is so across-the-board half-assed that it practically insults both Hemsworth and the paychecking-hard Natalie Portman, and even Tom Hiddleston’s slithery Loki is really only a rough draft for what would come.
The First Avenger wasn’t the only Marvel adaptation to go period-piece. Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class tried to make a swingin’ ’60s espionage thriller out of a prequel, which works pretty well. The cast—James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence—is almost hilariously overqualified, and while the period details never reach the full Mad Men-style immersion they were clearly shooting for, they’re fun enough. The CGI remains terrible, which for whatever reason is true of almost every X-Men movie. Whenever (speaking of Mad Men) January Jones’ Emma Frost turns into her diamond form, she looks like a Virtua Fighter character. This was a series bounce-back after the putrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but it was also a clear sign that the non-MCU Marvel movies would never be the main event.
2011’s notorious boondoggle was, of course, Green Lantern, a movie that managed to be a self-aware punchline in two different 2018 superhero movies, Deadpool 2 and Teen Titans Go! To The Movies. (As I’m typing this, I haven’t seen Aquaman or Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse yet, so it’s entirely possible that even more 2018 superhero movies will make fun of Green Lantern.) It is a 10 ten-car pileup of a movie. A post-Deadpool and pre-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds attempts to smirk his way through everything, Van Wilder-style, while the writers build a whole interstellar cosmology that somehow comes off both thin and over-developed. Various respected character actors submit themselves to the indignity of bad alien makeup. (In particular, Peter Sarsgaard, a very handsome man, falls victim to makeup-artist ambitions.) You can almost see Tim Robbins and pre-Black Panther’s mom Angela Bassett thinking, mid-scene, about how they’re going to spend the money that this bullshit is getting them. Also, Future Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi is in there in the nerdy tech-head comic-relief sidekick role? Altogether, Green Lantern makes for a great lesson of what can happen when you try to combine intelligence-insulting children’s entertainment with detail-heavy fan service without filling it all out with any kind of resonant storytelling. Also, Reynolds’ CGI super-suit might be the single ugliest costume in superhero-movie history.
And in other chartreuse-misfire news, Seth Rogen’s long-in-development The Green Hornet finally came out and made no impression. There’s certainly plenty of talent involved in the movie. For a while, slapstick visionary Stephen Chow was attached to both direct and to star as Kato, which would’ve been fascinating. Instead, the directing job ends up with Michel Gondry, the sometimes-great homespun music-video fantasist and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind auteur. Rogen and his Superbad partner Evan Goldberg get the writing credits. Christoph Waltz played a villain, which is something that Christoph Waltz knows how to do. Cameron Diaz is in there, too, as Rogen’s implausible love interest. You would think that these people could do something great together, but instead it’s just a rote nothing of a movie, one that never quite gets around to demonstrating why it deserves to exist.
Also, it’s not really a superhero movie, but I remember thinking that Steven Spielberg’s feature-length CGI cartoon The Adventures Of Tintin was a lot more fun than its reputation would suggest. I have not revisited it.
Next time: In January, this column will tackle The Avengers, the long-planned corporate-crossover blockbuster, which kicked the MCU into high gear and proved just how entertaining this kind of movie, when executed just right, can be.