Published on April 22nd, 2015 | by Hazel Southwell0
MCU Retrospective Review – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Year of Release: 2011
Film Number: 5
Budget: $140 million
Box Office Takings: $370.6 million
Director: Joe Johnston
Written By: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
America! Fuck Yeah?
Captain America is a World War II biological weapon from a discontinued and extremely dangerous experiment forged in the desperation of war. He wears a suit that’s a flag, he’s big and buff and blonde and although he’s a much beloved character in comics, he’d actually been slightly dead for awhile when this film came out.
It’s a pretty tough brief, in a lot of ways. None of the characters that Marvel had retained the film rights to were the most obviously convertible to the big screen; appealing chaps like Spider-Man’s underdog story and the X-Men’s ensemble impact were long gone, yet by the time The First Avenger was in the works, the studio had committed to a long-term plan. This film was made to feed into Avengers and, indeed, way beyond that; maybe a big ask for a flick about a made-up hero in a real-life war, representing a nation whose military interventions had lost considerable favour in the 70 years between Pearl Harbour and The First Avenger’s release.
The First Avenger is a war film, which by necessity makes it a film about grief. Not the personal, specific motivators of Uncle Ben’s death or the fall out of old friends that Xavier and Magneto play out or even the brooding resentment of Iron Man. We’d seen Marvel movies tackle war before, of course, with Tony Stark’s debut heading directly to the (again, real-life) modern conflicts in the middle east but billionaire arms dealers selling death and destruction overseas are characters all too believable for the 21st century.
Hollywood has reproduced, reconstructed, reinterpreted and romanticised the second world war again and again. The level of offense or inaccuracy a film undertakes itself with has no direct correlation with its box office takings but since the turn of the century and a return to widespread international wars, it had been purely sentimental, human (or erm, horse) stories that have done well.
How do you reconcile a changed appetite for intense, intimate war stories about emotional connection with a super soldier who looks like a walking propagandist icon? The 1940s were far from a time free of cynicism but the popular conception of them as innocent days and the lack of popular will to seriously interrogate a time known only in living memory via your grandparents’ tales do not an explosively exciting superhero premise make.
And worse than that, Captain America is your grandparents; he’s some chap who, although Avengers announcements by the time the film was debuting strongly suggested would make it through to the 2010s, is kicking around at the tail end of the worst depression America would see until, erm, the 21st century.
Then all that big, socio-political and personal stuff has to be reconciled with the fact that, in order to use Cap’s seminal villains, you somehow have to shoehorn everything around a movie that is about a cartoonishly unstable, fictional, sci-fi Nazi who experiments on himself until his face falls off. No big deal.
I was asked to write this piece some time ago, when I thought ‘yeah I’ll just bang that one out’ – two days past deadline and nine hours in, I can’t say I’m offering you quite the same thing as the rest of Need To Consume’s MCU Retrospective but I sure have written an awful lot of words.
MEET OUR CAST, IN SOMETHING ROUGHLY APPROACHING ORDER OF APPEARANCE:
The Second World War was a real war that raged worldwide from 1939-1945 and which resulted in somewhere between 50 and 85 million fatalities worldwide, many of which were a direct result of genocidal actions committed in eastern and western Europe by the Nazis.
Hermann Schmidt aka the Red Skull is a cartoonishly unstable, fictional, sci-fi Nazi who starts off the film as some kind of close partner to Hitler and then experiments on himself until his face falls off, making him apparently slightly too extreme for the Nazis.
Arnim Zola is a cartoonishly nervous minion of Schmidt’s whose ill-gotten science is the reason for his master’s face falling off in the pursuit of the ultimate (in)human ideal.
Steve Rogers is a scrawny, breathless and, in the days before even the rudimentary barbarism of the current US healthcare system, not-long-for-this-world chap in his mid-twenties. His interests include overwhelmingly strong feelings about the sheer fucking injustice of the world around him and consequently being thrown into bins on a bi-weekly basis.
Bucky Barnes is a dashing young chap who, despite having managed to negotiate life before the wide availability of antibiotics and so presumably possessing a fairly hardy constitution, is also not long for this world because he’s been conscripted to the US army during World War fucking II.
Peggy Carter is a woman with a hand pistol, excellent lipstick and an overseas career in a special scientific branch of the allied forces. Despite presumably having a similarly strong constitution to Bucky and an extraordinary tolerance for and ability to overcome gender-based harassment, she probably isn’t long for this world either due to her habit of making extraordinarily risky life choices.
Howard Stark is Tony Stark’s dad and isn’t long for this world because he keeps making weapons and then making it so tempting to point them at him.
HOW TO WHIP THIS UNLIKELY COLLECTIVE OF BAD IDEAS, LOSERS AND PEGGY CARTER INTO SOMETHING APPROACHING A WATCHABLE FILM ABOUT A REAL LIFE WAR BUT PORTRAYING TOTALLY FICTIONAL EVENTS?
Here’s a confession: I’ve watched this film once, in 2011. I am writing this review from memory because although I did at one point possess the blu-ray, a variety of trying living circumstances mean I can no longer watch it.
I’m confident that the film is fairly etched onto my brain, however because I remember the exact circumstances under which I went to see it. Partly because I see a maximum of three films a year and partly because at the time, I knew absolutely nothing about Captain America, I hadn’t read any comics and I didn’t really think superheroes were much cop. I went to see it because it came out two days after the death of my friend and extraordinary comics editor and enthusiast Martin Skidmore, who certainly did know who Cap was and had probably tried to tell me at great and now deeply regretted length despite my blank look of unrecognition.
I knew that Martin liked Cap, that he’d wanted to see the film and was astonished that they were making it. So despite a state of mind close to ‘numb, miserable shut-down’ and a total sense of apathy bordering on rage towards the theatrics of Hollywood sentimentalism in comparison to the clinical, absurd and exhaustion of dealing with the death of someone close to you, I took myself along to Islington with a few fellow close friends of Martin to see it.
It sticks in my brain because I didn’t like the film. I mean, I did; I liked elements of it- I got quite weepy in a lot of it but I hated the drawn-out, cinematic ending. It made me cross enough that I vaguely resented Cap as a character for quite a long time after I’d got into comics, an incredibly idiotic miss of a year later.
I think I was wrong. Because all the things I listed above, all the impossible barriers to The First Avenger being a success, are things it not only performs well at but exceeds expectations. It had the challenge, in addition to being a superhero film about non-real events embedded in living, traumatic memory, of setting itself up for a long run in a franchise that was, to some extent, dependent on its success. So the film was acting within a made-up continuity that held it to far fiercer deadlines than the real-life continuity its backdrop was set against. Ugh, god. Comics.
STEVE ROGERS: SUPER STROPPY
A central reason why anyone is capable of giving a single solitary fuck about Captain America is that he is Steve Rogers. I mean, sometimes in the comics Steve is not Captain America and actually those are times when it’s quite interesting to care about Captain America but for the purpose of talking about this film and not having anyone’s head explode from Marvel convolution, let’s assume he is.
Well, he isn’t at the start of the film. The problem with origins stories is you always have to have a bit of dicking around in the first third where no one has superpowers and nothing interesting is going on. Actually, that last bit was kind of conveniently solved by World War II having been going on for some time by the start of the film and indeed, it being at the point where US troops would enter the battlefield.
Steve Rogers, the aforementioned height, lung and generally viable future-challenged dude, enters the piece essentially the same way he will leave; suicidally challenging something much bigger than him for the sake of a principle and to the despair of the people who have made it their business to attempt to preserve his stupid little life. Steve Rogers, born in a faltering society, plunged into a recession, is an idealist not in the sense that he blindly adheres to the sort of patriotic dogma he’s often cast with but in that he has that absolute inability to do what would be good for him in the face of injustice.
Maybe because Steve was dealt a fuck of a hand to start off with; the skinny, asthma-racked man we see at the start of The First Avenger is not the staple of war films, except perhaps as tragic French cannon-fodder in World War I trenches. Even Bucky is not quite what you’d expect- a conscripted, poor soldier from the US, he’s not the glamorous, idealistic boys of war or a valuable asset by rank.
But conscripted soldiers have been shown. We know about bright young men made heavy by conflict, that’s no new story. Comparatively, the last time someone was shown repeatedly being told they were unsuitable for combat was probably Dad’s Army- Steve at the start of the film is not even good enough to die. Not worth the boots they’d grab off his corpse ten minutes after deploying him.
No one wants to go to war, unless they’re terminally naiive (which Steve certainly isn’t) but here’s this tiny goof-off trying another, different name to enrol with. He can throw himself at it with such enthusiasm because of all his pre-existing character traits; Steve Rogers isn’t going to survive ten minutes in a war but he isn’t going to last much longer in New York, either. He’s an irresponsible douchenozzle wilfully putting himself in the way of danger because inside a frail body, there’s a lot of impotent pride and this fucker’s going to go down fighting if he has to offer literally everyone out before someone’ll knock him out.
Which is where the first bit of the grief this film is about comes in; Steve at the start is grieving for himself. There’s a fine line between that and self-pity but which one of us haven’t, narrowly or by country miles, missed an opportunity or an ambition? And which of us wouldn’t find, in depression America, that tantalising never-lived experience a miss too far to come back from? When you’re fucked because you’re a poor son of immigrants, there’s no basic healthcare for your as-yet-untreatable-anyway medical conditions and the whole (healthy, unhealthy, poor and dirt poor) population beneath a tiny strata of the super-privileged or the gang-enabled starts off at a cruising average of ‘completely and totally fucked’ then, well; son, I may have some news for you.
It’s healthy to grieve for that, for the chances denied; grief is often about unfairness, always about unavoidable finalities, for which there doesn’t necessarily have to have been a death for a life to have been taken.
THEATRE AND WAR
A lot of the way we talk about World War II is about grief. It has to be, with so many lives lost. Different countries feel it differently, according to their immediate fronts but the hideous spectre of the Holocaust has continued to haunt the conscience of Europe. During the recent conflict in Donbas, one of the few active aid agencies assisting people in Donets’k was for Holocaust survivors, even in 2015.
The level of malicious grotesque necessary to systematically commit genocide holds a hideous fascination; how do perfectly ordinary people decide to round up and kill their neighbours? How do we deal with the frequency with which this happens? What does it mean that, efficiently and calculatedly and cleanly, we will slaughter each other for ethnic difference? Is it a base part of our brains or something even worse and smarter?
The question of how to portray Nazis on film is a consistently fraught one; the problem is that people, essentially, are mundane. Many Nazis probably spent a lot of time kicking their heels at guard posts and complaining about dinner being the same again. That’s the horrible thing, that people who commit hideous, abhorrent and impossible-seeming crimes against other people are just shitty humans. And frighteningly, on a biological and psychological level, they’re no shittier than the rest of us, as morally aberrant as they might have become.
But that’s quite a horrible and complex thing to drop in to something and Nazis have been a morally comfortable pick as a bad guy for a long time, dating back through wartime propaganda. No one has a problem with killing Nazis or with explaining why anyone would want to kill Nazis.
The really unfortunate thing about that, though, is that Nazis have themselves become almost fictionalised bad guys. Whilst the facts of the Holocaust and horrors of what happened across Europe are widely known, they’re not half as recognised as the fact a swastika and a military uniform means those are the people you shoot. Everyone’s killed like 9,000 Nazi zombies in Call of Duty, no big woop.
So how the fuck do you make Nazis an interesting villain for a superhero? How do you draw the type of uncomfortable parallels that it’s kind of taboo to draw, between an American soldier and a Nazi? How do you make that a provocative conversation, not a stale
The ace card the film has in its pocket is the grotesque Arnim Zola, a Swiss scientist who voluntarily heads to Germany to join the Nazis. He’s a semi-brilliant biologist, blocked from achieving the super-soldier serum that he really wants to create by his own overreach. When he’s forced to turn his inferior, unstable serum on Schmidt he takes a perverse glee in the Red Skull’s pain, while clearly racked by his own failure. He loves cruelty too much to be truly creative.
And so, here, a second and twisted and hideous grief. We don’t have to feel sorry for them, clearly but Zola and Schmidt are both grieving things- Schmidt his Icarus moment, as much as he attempts to repurpose it as his identity, infuriated that he could have misjudged and Zola his own pathetic cowardice and failed, derivative science. They and their Hydra are a faked ambition- a desire for power and a lack of knowledge of what to do with it, other than an intense willingness to exact cruelty and to ensure a uniformity that allows general mediocrity to convince them of their own exceptional status.
They are mundane; they are cruel bosses and irresponsible technicians, they’re frightening because they’re a big screen play on what would happen if your worst manager got to a position of genuine power. They’re scary because as intensely played up as they are, they’re recognisable characters. The media grossness of Red Skull, the savvy ability to play and lead and nod along with his own group hidden in another, more “palatable” (to Nazi Germany) one is today’s purvey of tabloid columnists and hashtag hate groups. And Zola is just a coward, who, rather than merely being not-brave, is also ill-intentioned with it. He’s barely brave enough to commit his own torture but, well, he wants it done so it’s under medical disguise; an anonymous, accusatory shrill.
It’s not easy to make the Red Skull human. Hugo Weaving does a highly enviable job of being utterly hideous here. And this was important; to make Cap more than a cartoon flag punching cartoon Nazis, both sides of that equation had to be horribly real, for all their super powers, without treading too close to actual history as to start creating even more problems for themselves.
So here we are: seventy years of culture and fictional Nazis are slightly realer and more scary than a lot of media portrayals of the real thing. Fucking Hollywood.
WHEN I WAKE UP IN MY MAKE UP, HAVE YOU EVER FELT SO USED UP AS THIS?
Whilst we’re talking about fucking Hollywood, there’s a central segment to this film, between the bit where Steve’s skinny and doomed because he’s gonna choke to death and the bit where Steve’s huge and doomed because he’s going to choke himself to death with other things. It’s the tights bit. For some reason, this segment doesn’t get discussed much – it’s not the big emotional beats of the piece, it’s not even very long and frankly there’s a whole level of relatively tedious economics about war bonds in there but let’s not discard it offhand.
The tedious war bonds bit is important. Steve’s been transformed from sickly-tiny-Steve to giant-buff-Steve, who was meant to be one of many super soldiers deployed to the field. As it is, he’s now a relic piece – the last remaining source of anything approaching Erskine’s super soldier serum and as such, too precious to deploy, un-combat-tested and unused for anything other than the promotion of an American war machine he’s dying on the ass of.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (well, some of them) films thrive on an excellent and intuitive understanding of mental health pitfalls. That someone from the 40s suffers from depression-with-a-small-‘d’ is almost a cruel pun as much as anything else but that’s what this segment is. Despair snatched from the jaws of hope, Steve’s in total shutdown. His performing monkey self-portrait is a hammer-blow metaphor but it’s more the fact he doesn’t even notice where he is, clearly isn’t answering his post, had no idea he was even going near where Bucky might have been.
He’s in an all-too-familiar incommunicado mode, in a greater impotent doom than he was when he was skinny, except compacted. Pre-serum, he could hold on to the idea he could have been great if he’d ever got and chance. Now: this.
Steve carries his failures with him, of which until this point he’d not had many. He’d had limitations but not outright misses, moments where he could honestly have said he could have done more. He’d had moments of impotence but never with the idea he had greater capacity. In this segment, he’s the high-achieving teenager flunking out of their final year of university with no ability to really say why, he’s the job you never applied for although you can’t quite explain it, the email opportunities missed because you can’t open that inbox.
So: grief on grief and truly self-indulgent this time but nonetheless.
PEGGY CARTER IS 5000% DONE
One of the ways in which this all could have been far easier would have been if they’d just given Peggy Carter the super serum, let her punch her way around the world and probably ended the war in about three minutes.
Sadly, that wasn’t to be. The candidates were all male- probably not by design, Dr Erskine didn’t seem like a bigot, but by societal habit. So Peggy was left to influence candidate selection, shoot motherfuckers and bang her head endlessly against any available surface.
Peggy Carter is an expert in… well, let’s roughly calculate based solely on The First Avenger: espionage, military tactics, military training, mechanics, weapons, excellent dresses and touching buff dudes. She’s introduced as infinitely more competent than Steve and remains so; although its his suicide move at the end, she’s right there with him at the heart of the fighting, indeed, leading the way. She teaches him tactics and encourages his natural defiance, shows him heroism is mostly made of not having enough (probably quite perfectly manicured) middle fingers.
Steve kisses her once, in the middle of the final firefight. She gives him a lot of time, during all stages and whether they would have been a legendary romance or not, they’re clearly as close and mutually respectful as two people in variously frustrating situations during total war can be. Which is a nice thing to be able to say about a movie romance; they were both their own people, in their own places and they liked that to be the same place – some garbage about duty could interrupt that but as people whose specialism is being in emergency, it’s no bad dynamic.
Peggy is a brilliant military operative, an international special agent in a science division. This, particularly in Britain and France, was not all that unusual in World War II as many women became spies, codebreakers and scientists, not least because there was a chronic shortage of available young men due to the carnage of World War fucking I only a decade and a bit previously. For some reason, this has never been a particularly popular trope to portray and so I’m not sure how realistic people realise the role actually is (many of the most alarmingly daring missions in occupied territory were by women) and consequently it’s hard to say how much it goes towards redressing anything but I’m fucking glad it’s there.
COME ON A FUN TRIP TO THE ALPS, THEY SAID
Regular readers of incoherently enormous thinkpieces by me may be bemused by the absolute absence of discussion of Bucky in this piece. I’ll be real: I didn’t even notice him in this film.
There’s a deleted scene where Bucky and the (prototype) Howling Commandos are captured, first coming up against the impossible weapons the Red Skull has developed and it’s a tragedy it wasn’t included; it’s the only traditional war scene of the film and it has this excellent, scared moment where Bucky’s infinite ability to cover fear with cockiness collapses. When the full horror of the weapons they’re seeing and their inability to do anything about it.
The endless Tumblr gifset loop means I really barely need to have re-watched the film in the interim to have seen every part of it several times. And the bit I’ve seen the most is the moment when Bucky starts to grieve. It’s when Steve’s rescued him and they’ve walked back to camp, when he fully recognises what’s happened, when he’s close enough back to something approaching normal that he can’t avoid analysis, when he has to call him Captain America. Sebastian Stan does a great thing with the dead flatness and grief of coming back from the brink, rescued by a friend and this spelling the end of so many things.
War is about status change. About intense and irrational disruption. About there being no rules or specifics or tactical brilliance that will let you predict what will or won’t save you. The same friend who rescues you might watch you fall off a train- a mundane, almost non-violent way to die, months later. You might survive a million missions to be knocked down by a bus. Existence is shitty and random and so is obliteration, in the nightmare scenario of total war.
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
Captain America: The First Avenger is a film about a man in his mid twenties plunging to his death, a few days after he attempts to drink himself stupid in a bombed-out pub, grieving the death of his best friend.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a film about the senseless, rapid destruction of millions of people with weapons that should never have existed.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a film about adjusted ambitions, about dreams and realism and restriction, about becoming grown in every sense.
Captain America: The First Avenger is about the catalyst of war that speeds all those things up to a traumatic, fever-pitch brake wail.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a character piece about the wreckage of humans that gets tossed into an internationally manipulated vomit-swirl by conflict and death and destruction.
Captain America: The First Avenger does its job as a war film, in that it is a film about grief and pointlessness and the mundaneity of evil. It’s a film about injustice, about depression and about the significant insignificance of any one act.
THAT ENDING BIT
When I watched The First Avenger, I got annoyed with the ending. All that building, all that building and then it’s an oversentimentalist, messy, Armageddon of a finale. A million cuts! A final countdown that takes five times its stated length! Christ.
I now think of it quite fondly, weirdly. When I saw it, I was full of the rage of a recent bereavement- I was furious at the general injustices of the world and when it became clear Cap was taking the plane down I just thought ‘get the fuck on with it.’ It wasn’t a reasonable state of mind but then, I feel the circumstances were mitigating.
Now though- of course it’s got that ridiculous ending segment. Of course. Because The First Avenger is a war film and war films are about grief; you can read it into the earlier parts, you can see the reams of fan critique about it, you can analyse it to death but without that segment, that over-long, over-indulgent scene where Steve takes the plane down, it wouldn’t have ended thematically. This film had to stop itself on a low note, had to go without the satisfaction of a full ending, knowing that Cap wouldn’t rest in peace. The ending scene is drawn out an absurd to almost hysterical, Hollywood levels and it’s to flag the rest into sharp relief while it finally draws out all the stops. The final seconds, of a young man drowning, are not a statement of hope.
What I didn’t appreciate was having my own situation, those overextended moments of certain finality, played back at me. But that’s not a symptom of a bad movie, that’s a symptom of it knowing and understanding so much worse.
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