In the hands of lesser creators Captain America: The First Avenger could be a cheesy, jingoist, propaganda film about a true-blue hero who goes through the motions of gallant cliché and beats up bad guys while draped in national colors. Because it was made by people who not only understood the character but seem to love what he is, it turned out to be not only a great superhero movie, but a great period movie, a great war movie, and a great character piece. The last point is really what made this film shine.
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers
Many of us first met Chris Evans in the original Fantastic Four movie but we didn’t really appreciate what he could do until his terrific performance as skater Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs the World. I won’t go too far into Steve Rogers’ character, as last week’s post pretty much covered it, but Evans’ performance as Steve Rogers is pitch perfect, maybe even out-shining Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark due to the nuanced complexity of the Captain’s persona. He has to be tough but gentle, ferocious but innocent, and passionate but not obsessive. You catch just how impressive Evans is during a scene where he’s watching his own propaganda movies, his sheepish smile insinuating both pride and embarrassment, without a word of dialogue or broad action. I can’t see anyone else as Cap now, and I can’t imagine the MCU without him.
Hayley Atwell as Margaret “Peggy” Carter
Peggy Carter could have been a cop-out character. I actually expected her to be. Met during his early training (while he was still a 95 pound recruit), I assumed she would be either a hard-bitten, no-nonsense, tough girl…OR…she would be a virtually useless, damsel in distress love interest. In most difficult fashion Peggy Carter is neither, is a bit of both, and is one of the best characters I’ve seen in a while. For some reason (I’ll go with laziness) writers tend to write “tough” female characters in a certain way, giving them the dull traits of toughness and stoicism. Peggy Carter markedly does not do this. She’s a woman, she’s tough as can be, but she’s also still feminine and doesn’t mind putting on her red dress any more than she minds donning combat gear. She’s not a master sniper (for some reason a lot of tough female soldiers are master snipers…I have no idea why) but she’s a whiz with her pistol and doesn’t mind rushing in to the raids herself, Tommy Gun in hand, to blast some Hydra super-soldiers. She’s no-nonsense in her job, but it’s insinuated she does know how to have fun, and her persona is one of someone who is damn good because she’s worked to be damn good.
The writers had a narrow path to walk with her and I’m amazed they pulled it off. The problem is that you don’t want Agent Carter to suddenly warm to Steve only after he becomes the 6’2” 240 pound Chris Evans. It would make her seem shallow and quite unlikable. Instead the filmmakers worked in subtle hints that Peggy Carter actually fell for Steve at the same time her fell for her, when he was still a frail, good-hearted kid just wanting to change the world. You see this in her final moment of the film, where she finds a photo of little Steve in his training dossier. In the later Agent Carter One Shot you see she has that picture in a frame she keeps with her. NOT any of the macho news reel pictures of Captain America, but the little, noble kid who just wanted to stop the bullies.
Atwell’s performance (even if I hadn’t developed a major league thing for her during the course of this movie) is stunningly impressive. A personal favorite piece is during a moment of levity; Howard Stark asks Peggy if she’d like to get a “late night fondue.” The now enhanced but still socially awkward and painfully innocent Captain America asks, “So do you two…fondue?” And her response, again just in her expression, communicates bemusement, confusion, and flattery (she can tell he’s a bit jealous or disappointed) all at once. It’s great stuff.
Sebastian Stan as James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes
Bucky Barnes is another character who could have easily fallen into the worst chasm of film cliché. When he was introduced I arrogantly mapped his entire arc: he is Steve’s friend and protector but once Rogers becomes Captain America he’ll become jealous and resentful, eventually turning on him in the end and becoming some kind of villain. I think the fact that none of that happened the way I thought it would is a most impressive part of the movie. Barnes, at first, represents everything Rogers wants to be, good-natured but strong in his convictions and has the physique to do something about it. Once Rogers becomes the Cap, Barnes at no point expresses any resentment of anger toward Steve. This is, in part, because of how Rogers is portrayed; as described last week, he’s just a good guy and Bucky knows it. So when Rogers comes to rescue Barnes and his fellow captured soldiers it’s Barnes who genuinely leads the “let’s hear it for Captain America” cheer. The banter he and Steve share during his rescue is wonderfully genuine and he joins the Howling Commandos because he’s following “that kid from Brooklyn too dumb to back down from a fight.” The only moments where Barnes shows a tiny bit of (and I hesitate to even use the word) “envy” is when Rogers’ gets the girls’ attention instead of him (though he makes a genuine joke about it, clearly holding no ill-will toward his friend) and when he tries to use the Captain’s shield, the latter more a sign of self-determination (“I can do this!”) than actively trying to show Steve up. Barnes is a great character and the next film just reinforces how great he is…
Hugo Weaving as Red Skull
A great good guy needs a great bad guy. Unlike Loki, Ultron, or Maleketh Red Skull is not a misunderstood or seemingly and justifiably bitter. He’s just bad. He’s bad bad. He’s “too evil for the Nazis” bad. He is perfectly created in this story as Captain America’s antithesis. The serum brought out his worst qualities turning him into an even bigger monster, yet he still fervently insists that he has “left humanity behind.” Weaving has a talent for making characters hidden behind masks express far more than they could have. There isn’t any over-complicated depth to the Red Skull; he has no ambitions beyond using his power to dominate the world. And only wishes to do so because he is a selfish bully, exactly the kind Rogers wants to stop. In what could have been a one-dimensional character, Weaving makes the Red Skull a fully formed being, driven by the base cruelty, but three dimensional. It’s just that all three dimensions are, well…BAD.
The supporting cast also helps establish the world, Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, and even a nice cameo by Natalie Dormer. And this colorful cast is what makes the world of First Avenger feel authentic. Yes the costumes, surroundings, and set dressing help keep you invested but it’s the characters that make you believe you’re in the 1940s. And also almost make you forget this is a Marvel Comics movie about the hero with the biggest Boy Scout reputation this side of Superman.
It’s a testament to the character, the actors, and the franchise that the next installment of Captain America would be drastically different but still maintain its heart and stay true to the character while catapulting the narrative into exciting new places.