A big part of any superhero’s story is how he or she transcends the ordinary to the extraordinary. When you read comics, the origin is part of the background; everybody knows how the superhero got his or her special abilities and why to start wearing a mask. In the movies, that isn’t always as well known, so a lot of superhero cinema has to spend an unfortunate amount of time re-establishing the ground rules for the main character, his or her primary themes, main adversaries, and more. There’s a cruel irony to this, since a lot of superhero movies depend on their long-time fans to bring newcomers to the theatre, and those same long-timers are rewarded by watching a quarter of their movie taken up with what amounts to a refresher course on subject matter they already know. So when it came for Marvel to produce Captain America, a hero with one of the more interesting and extensive back stories in the Marvel Universe, there was only one way to go on the origin tale: all in.
The story takes place in WWII, and young Brooklynite Steve Rogers is desperate to join the fight. Physically scrawny, and generally unfit, he is rejected for any number of reasons but has such a fighting spirit and so believes in the cause of stopping Hitler that he falsifies his draft application so he can hit every recruiter station in the Tri-State area. While chided by his dashing friend Bucky Barnes, Steve is also noticed by Dr. Samuel Erskine, a German scientist who is developing a super-soldier serum for the United States. He knows he doesn’t need a ready-made infantryman for this project. He needs somebody with the heart of a champion so he might be fitted with the body of one. He takes in Steve and subjects him to a dangerous experimental process that instantly transforms Steve transformed from 98-lb. weakling to an Achilles-like avatar of physical perfection.
But even then, Rogers is relegated to celebrity status as Captain America, a showman meant to raise money for the war effort. Undeterred, he finds a way to put his life on the line, and once he proves himself, he and his band of Howling Commandos brings the battle to the doorstep of the nefarious Red Skull, a malevolent super-genius who runs Hydra, a supertech organization of evil for which alliance with the Nazis is just the means to an end. As the Allies and Axis duke it out, so does Cap wage a private war with the Red Skull that yields victory and heartbreak in equal measure. Cap might save the world, but he loses his biggest reasons for doing it, and in more ways than one. And even though he is called on to fight again one day, he must do so robbed of the very certainty of purpose that once drove him. Of all the Avengers, none of them are farther from home than he.
This movie spends almost its entire running length getting the audience to forget that this movie’s main purpose was to introduce Captain America so that the Marvel Cinematic Universe could move on to the mega-event that would round out Phase One of the MCU: The Avengers. Captain America: The First Avenger does this by keeping its action within a war within a war so far removed from the rest of what Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor have been up to, that we learn how to appreciate Cap on his own merits, and understand most what it really is that he gave up when it came time for him to save the world. If this movie was meant to be an also-ran to distract us while waiting for bigger and better things, then that’s one front on which it fails, because this turned out to be one hell of an addition to Marvel’s cinematic canon.
This movie also benefits from its unusually strong cast. Chris Evans pulls the greatest superhero casting rebound in history a career-making turn as the kind of Cap that makes you think that nobody else could have done justice to the role. He brings that unique mixture of strength and humility, courage and empathy, duty and pathos that makes Captain America one of the greatest superheroes ever written. He couldn’t be played by just anybody. Nor could Agent Peggy Carter, Cap’s British liaison officer (and future founder of SHIELD), played to perfection by Hayley Atwell. And rounding things out is Hugo Weaving, who nails the Red Skull so naturally we kind of wonder if maybe he really does wear a Hugo Weaving mask instead. You know a movie is well cast when Tommy Lee Jones plays an awesome, hard-charging colonel and somehow fades into the background.
This movie is square-jawed, four-color heroism from start to finish as Cap, Carter, Bucky and the Commandos storm their way across Europe. But there is a wonderful pivot halfway through the movie when Cap is enjoying success as the war’s top spokesman for the bond drive. That is, until he suddenly finds himself in front of an audience of actual GIs in Italy who have been ground down by relentless fighting against an immovable enemy. The last guy they want to hear from is some costumed jerk from back home who hasn’t fired a single bullet in anger. And nobody knows this more than Cap. He might be America’s superhero, but he’s no soldier. In that moment, he decides that the war doesn’t need more heroes. It needs more soldiers, so he becomes one. The hero stuff, well, that’s all just details. Costume? Super-serum? Shield? None of it matters if you don’t put yourself on the line for the people who can’t. That’s why he becomes one of the guys who runs toward danger when others are running from it. And in that moment of truth, Captain America is truly born.