Okay, first of all, I’m going to make a lot of jokes about how hot Chris Evans is.
Secondly, I’m going to spoil Captain America, Avengers and Winter Soldier. Sorry! Really, though, I mean it: spoilers from here on for all three films.
(Thirdly, I saw Avengers when it came out, so it doesn't count as part of my Film 101 project.)
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Back in the old days, I didn’t think very much of Captain America. I liked the X-Men, with their stupid costumes (so many flappy coats and tiny pockets!) and soap-opera lives. All the old standards – Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four - seemed so old fashioned. But none more so than Captain America. I mean, come on. So hokey!
And yet, in 2012, I turned into a Captain America fan. And it wasn’t because of the first Captain America film. It was because of Avengers. And then it was because of Avengers Alliance, that ridiculous Facebook game we’re always talking about. And then it was because of Mark Millar’s run on Avengers Ultimates. It all broke me. Because this Captain America embraces his hokieness. And finds a place for his hokieness in the modern world.
And this run of cross-media stuff, that all ties together in a surprisingly less-unwieldy package than you’d suppose, totally works. But I’ll come back to that.
To be honest, I only just saw the first Captain America film all the way through a week before Cap 2 was released. I tried watching it on a plane not long after it first came out and couldn’t get into it, but I wanted to see Cap 2, so I forced myself to try again.
The plot, in a nutshell, is this. It’s nineteen hundred and World War II. Giant, beautiful Chris Evans (it’s not worth beating about the bush on this one; he’s a handsome man) begins the movie CG’d into the creepily, unnaturally wee Steve Rogers, a guy who very much wants to go fight for his country. He can’t because he’s a walking disaster – short, skinny, asthmatic, catnip for bullies – but Stanley Tucci is impressed with his good heart and, yes, cleverness, and puts him forward for basic training (where Tommy Lee Jones yells at him and Hayley Atwell flutters her eyelashes at him). When Steve proves himself as the nicest, smartest, biggest-hearted guy out there, Tony Stark’s father injects him with a super serum. Like, literally; he becomes super. Super-big, super-strong, and, oh, ALSO SUPER-HOT, AMIRITE.
Once Steve’s all supered-up, though, he’s still not allowed to go fight. Instead he has to parade around the US with the Rockettes, in a silly costume, raising war bonds. His stage name? Captain America. Cap’s very popular with the ladies on the homefront (BECAUSE COME ON), but he finds his job pretty soul-crushing. He’s finally sent out to the actual front – but again, not to fight; instead to raise morale out amongst Our Boys. When Captain America performs for this audience, though, he gets booed and is overwhelmed with shame. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) the battalion he’s visiting gets sent out to fight Elrond (Hugo Weaving, having a really good time playing the Red Skull – and props to the makeup team; the Red Skull face is awesome.) and is, to a man, captured. Cap ignores Tommy Lee Jones’ orders to stay put and takes off after them. Unfortunately, Cap’s asshole best friend Bucky (seriously, Bucky is such a jerk) is among the missing.
Cap saves most of the men, but not Bucky.
Cap, now sad, makes out a little with Peggy Carter, upon whom he has an understandable crush, and faces down the Red Skull (in a legitimately cool sequence) and wins the day, but eventually gets stuck on a plane trying to hide the tessaract cube from the Nazis. When the plane’s damaged, he winds up sinking it – and himself – in the Arctic Ocean and freezing for 70 years. Finally, he and the tessaract are retrieved and SHIELD tries to rehabilitate him, but he’s a man out of his place and time, and everyone he knows has died, and what does the modern world want with a simple stand-up, all-American guy like Steve Rogers?
Honestly, Captain America has a surprisingly downbeat ending – compare ‘man out of place’ to the famous ‘I am Iron Man’ speech at the end of Iron Man. But… well, the franchise makes it work. Much as it made the Iron Man speech work.
Captain America is fine¸you guys. It’s a paint-by-numbers superhero-origin film. It hits every beat at exactly the right time, but never really goes the extra mile. The truly great stand-out performance is by Stanley Tucci (of course) who is the first (only?) person to believe in Steve Rogers, which means he bites it pretty early on. (Thorin shoots him, on orders from Elrond.) Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is great, except for the fact that the screenwriters wrote some deeply irritating jealousy into her character, and she’s one of exactly two female characters with any lines; the other being Marjorie Tyrell, who exists to drag Rogers into a dark corner and make out with him in sight of Peggy Carter.
As far as Cap is concerned, Avengers opens up essentially where Captain America leaves off: our boy Steve is wandering around NYC feeling pretty lost. Without putting too fine a point on it, he finds himself during the course of Avengers. And let’s not forget that surprisingly germane Iron Man comparison above; Tony Stark is his primary antagonist throughout Avengers, constantly questioning Captain America’s value in a post 9/11 world. Stark’s devastating line ‘everything that’s special about you came out of a bottle’ is powerful because it speaks to Steve Roger’s fundamental insecurities about himself. Everyone who understands Steve Rogers’ value has long-since died.
By the end of the film, however, our boy Cap has earned Stark’s respect, and ours, and his own; he’s clearly the tactical genius of the group and the character best suited to getting a bunch of fiercely individualistic, highly trained but mostly maverick-y folk to act like a team. And they – and we – have come to respect him for these qualities; he’s a soldier, and a good one, and adds great value to the group.
In short, we have a chance to see in the first Captain America film that Cap isn’t just a test-tube symbol of progress and patriotism; in Avengers, everyone in the present-day Marvel universe gets to see it. Captain America may be a symbol, but Steve Rogers is a skilled fighter and a decent human being, and that’s what matters.
This is part of the reason why I struggled with Captain America; we live in a world that’s deeply suspicious of patriotism and sceptical about the unquestioning assumptions our parents and grandparents made about war. But Captain America sidestepped all that suspicion and scepticism by setting most of its action seventy years in the past.
Although The Avengers did, ultimately, come down on the same side in the debate about patriotism and war as Captain America, it did at least question itself in the process of doing so. Again, this debate found its voice in the interactions between Iron Man and Captain America – Tony Stark and Steve Rogers – one a literally self-made man, whose inner goodness was brought to light by his exterior heroism; the other a truly decent human being whose exterior was created to reflect his internal goodness.
Let’s just take as read that that the entire film could have been over in ten minutes had anyone bothered to call Tony Stark.
The first Captain America movie intentionally grounds itself in its atavistic ideas about manliness and heroism, and unironically celebrates a lot of ‘greatest generation’ nonsense: times are simpler, the morality is black and white, the good guys are all good, the bad guys are really bad, and Captain America is the best of the best.
But it’s the second decade of the 21st century, and times have very seriously changed. So, too, have moviegoers’ expectations about heroes, and movies about heroism. Avengers brought Cap forward, from a world where he was the only superhero to a world where there are lots of superheroes all over. More importantly, however, Avengers brought Captain America forward to a world where heroism is defined as much by maverick individualism as it is by self-sacrifice.
Avengers toyed with those themes, but the final product was more preoccupied with teaching Tony Stark to be ‘the guy who lays down on the line’ than anything else. Avengers, at the end of the day, is all about how maverick individualism isn’t inconsistent with ‘the sacrifice play.’
So Steve Rogers has taught Tony Stark the value of self-sacrifice. But where does the ultimate team player fit into the new world order, if he’s not roping a bunch of fiercly individualistic heroes and superheroes into line to fight off the alien menace? How does a character who recognizes the danger inherent in vigilantism, in individualism, fit into the modern world when he can’t be part of a team?
Winter Soldier forces Rogers out of his role as team player by, you know, knocking out his entire team. It becomes clear early on in the film that SHIELD can’t be trusted, and that someone (or many someones) wants him dead, leaving Rogers without a lot of options. He’s forced to take matters into his own hands, to operate outside the system, and he does. (Spoiler: the good guys win.) Forced to team up with the Black Widow (who, despite a significant presence in two previous films, is still as much a mystery to us as she is a puzzle to the other characters in her universe) and Falcon, another soldier, and take on SHIELD itself.
Oh, and hey! Bucky’s alive! But he’s got some issues, yo. And flappy hair and a metal arm that can, like, arrest Cap’s shield in mid-flight in defiance of all the laws of physics. Hail Hydra!
A quick note on Winter Soldier’s production design: I was deeply unsettled at the film’s beginning with the way the camera lingered lovingly over the (kill all the dangerous people) guns and enormous steel SHIELD eagle, all of which looked uncomfortably close to the iconography of, well, Nazi propaganda. It was not entirely inconsistent with the way SHIELD’s iconography has been represented (to a much lesser degree) in previous films, but it took it to a degree that made the parallels uncomfortably clear. This, of course, all occurred before we learned that Hydra had entirely infiltrated SHIELD; when the degree of that infiltration became obvious, the iconography suddenly made sense.
Another quick note on Winter Soldier’s production design: they still put Black Widow in heels. Through the whole film. They even put her in those tennis shoes with heels. I know Scarlet Johannsen is short, and I know we all sexualize stilettos or whatever, but COME ON. You cannot run in heels. It is exceedingly difficult to balance on one leg while you’re kicking someone’s ass while wearing heels. It’s incredibly painful to run and jump in heels. They literally fuck up your knees and feet.
STOP PUTTING FEMALE SUPERHEROES IN HEELS.
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What’s the difference between Captain America the symbol and Steve Rogers the person? The first Captain America film is entirely consumed by this question, but Avengers explores it more meaningfully. In Cap 1, Rogers is a good guy and Captain America is a costume; his journey is about how Rogers expands to fill that costume, in turn making that costume mean something. But in Avengers, he’s forced to prove that he, Steve Rogers, means something – that the costume’s symbolism, that the life-altering serum with which he was injected, are not what makes Captain America great.
A couple of scenes were cut from the beginning Avengers in which Rogers wanders around New York City feeling out of place. Inspired by his storyline in Mark Millar’s Ultimates, these scenes are meant to bridge the gap between the end of Captain America and set up the evolution of Cap’s character during Avengers. It’s a pity they were cut, but it is a long film!
Without these scenes, however, Cap’s character does still evolve. He begins Avengers as a man uncertain of his value to society and he concludes the film having convinced others (especially Tony Stark, the most mavericky individual of the bunch) and himself that there’s still a place of old fashioned good-guyness in the 21st century.
This is a superb, sensitive reading of what makes Captain America, and particularly Steve Rogers, such a good character, as well as being a meaningful way to poke holes in our own modern obsession with vigilante antiheroes (Batman, anyone?) and maverick individualists (Iron Man). Characters like Iron Man and Batman reject the system, even as they fight to uphold it. Captain America is a symbol of old fashioned heroic values that still have meaning, even if we question them. But Steve Rogers honestly believes in the system, which makes him almost totally unique in the modern movie superhero pantheon.
But we as an audience keep questioning Captain America’s value, as a superhero and as a character, because the idea of him is so powerful, and so overwhelming. No matter how much work goes into reassuring us that Cap belongs in the modern-day Avengers team, our knee-jerk reaction is still, always, to question his place and his value.
And it’s this idea that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is preoccupied with. It calls back to Captain America time and time again, and is hugely informed by the character work of Avengers Assemble. These three films together have made Steve Rogers as fascinating, as multi-facted, and as well-rounded a character as the Iron Man films (including Avengers) have Tony Stark.
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Can you see Captain America: The Winter Soldier without having seen Captain America and Avengers Assemble? I suspect so; the stuff people like in their action movies is all there, from good looking guys to giant action-heavy setpieces to kersplodykaboom (and lots of it).
Did I like Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Very much. Does the plot withstand scrutiny? Not remotely. Does it matter? Not particularly. There were good looking guys and action-heavy setpieces, and a lot of kersplodykaboom, and beneath it all there was enough exploration of Steve Rogers’ character to make it hang together. And, credit where credit’s due: Chris Evans’ performance is hugely instrumental in making Cap work. And I mean that sincerely, beyond the fact that the guy is staggeringly good looking.
And beneath it all, Marvel (and Disney, I guess) deserve a lot of credit for doing for Captain America what it did for Iron Man – finding a way to make an old-fashioned character fresh, relevant, and really fun. These films have been very carefully thought out and put together, and I unabashedly love them.
Now bring on the Black Widow solo film!
A version of this review first appeared on Hodderscape, 31/3/14.