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A Challenge

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

It was just after this movie came out that I think I realized the scope of the MCU for the first time. That there would always be more movies and more stories. And I was reluctant to enter into something that asked for a commitment. So this is one of the movies I skipped at the movies and it wasn’t really a hard choice. I mean, with Iron Man I was curious what Robert Downey Jr. still had in him; The Incredible Hulk I also did not see at the movies because I really didn’t care and didn’t know the movies would be connected. With Thor, there was my interest in mythic stories (I’m more of a Greek myth person, really, but I don’t mind the Norse Gods at all) and it was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

When I finally did watch Captain America, I did like it and also him but my initial reluctance may actually be linked to a bigger problem the first avenger faces worldwide.

What happens in the movie?

Skinny little Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to fight in World War II but being skinny and little are only two problems that have recruitment bureaus rejecting him. Seeing his buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in his uniform doesn’t exactly boost Steve’s confidence but then a chance encounter with Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) lands Steve one of the top spots in a very special recruitment competition – one to make a supersoldier.

Suffice it to say, Steve wins that competition – not by being the best or strongest but by being compassionate and smart. He becomes a supersoldier but he remains the first and only one because Erskine is assassinated right after making Steve big and strong. The army loses interest in an experiment that can’t be continued and Steve is forced to help the war effort by selling war bonds. Until the day he learns that his friend Bucky has been captured and possibly killed by the enemy.

It’s strange looking at the concept of this film and realizing how many boxes it ticks with me. I don’t necessarily come from a superhero-loving background but the 1940s have a special place in my heart – movie-wise. I’m also interested in history, especially WWII. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Captain America, though? The hero’s title doesn’t really invite international audiences, does it? You don’t need to be anti-American to be little enthused about a hero that seems to embody America’s special brand of patriotism. The German distributor of Marvel films actually chose to drop the Captain America-part for the second and third movies, calling them The Return of the First Avenger and The First Avenger: Civil War respectively. This first outing of Captain America made around 370 million Dollars worldwide, only The Incredible Hulk made less. Successful? Yes, but not an instant hit.

Many of us probably only started liking Steve Rogers when he became part of the avengers. It’s a pity, though, because Captain America: The First Avenger is a great movie. Steve is instantly likable, even as he struggles with multiple illnesses that keep him on the short side. He wants to fight, he thinks he has no right to stay home when others lay down their lives. He’s a good guy and that’s what makes him the perfect candidate for the supersoldier program.

The likability of the character is an important factor, especially considering international audiences. But it also makes Steve a little bit bland. He operates in a politically divisive climate and the filmmakers were very aware to make Steve inoffensive. This is not about killing Nazis, really, it’s about modern audiences viewing a time in which it was not just okay but necessary to kill Nazis. Having a good guy kill people (and Captain America probably killed more people than any of the other Avengers) is problematic. And so Steve is a nice guy, a guy we trust in to do the right thing. To further us being okay with him killing Nazis, they made Hydra a faceless mass (yes, they went a step further by making the main antagonist literally faceless), they’re just people in black combat uniform with masks over their faces.

I guess all this explains why the first avenger is also the last to arrive on the scene, just before The Avengers is released. So much was build on how successful Iron Man was but it was also crucial that the other avengers did well. Making Steve inoffensive, making Hydra faceless, at the same time making The Howling Commandoes more diverse (with an Asian-American, a French, and a British soldier in their mix) than they were in the comics, and going as far as giving Steve a Britsh love interest in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), everything was designed to appeal to a wide audience. Only, in Captain America, it shows more than in the other movies.

It’s still a great movie, underrated I think. I really like Steve Rogers but I LOVE Peggy Carter. Maybe it’s because, thanks to the tv show Agent Carter, I’ve spent more time with her than with Steve or any of the other avengers. It’s really a pity that she’s stuck in her time period and thus less accessible to the wider MCU stories. They put her in as often as they could and I’m glad for it. Agent Carter should’ve had a longer run, Peggy’s one of my faves.

A little sidenote: I’m glad, Captain America: The First Avenger didn’t have American actors attempt to speak German. It’s really difficult to understand them in most cases because their speech rhythm is usually off. Instead, they opted for the ‘German’ characters to have German accents in their English. Hugo Weaving does an especially good job at this. They probably did it for English-speaking audiences but as a German viewer, I’m ever so grateful.

Well, if you can make time and give this a rewatch I’m sure you won’t regret it. In light of what happened in Endgame, I think it’s nice to see how Steve and Peggy’s romance started (I like them together, of course, if I had a say in it I would’ve liked for Steve to be with Bucky and Peggy to be with Angie but as long as it has to be heteronormative…).

Next: The Avengers (where everything comes together)

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