Review: Captain America: The First Avenger is the MCU's unsung hero

Captain America: The First Avenger started it all for the MCU's Star-Spangled Man and it holds up incredibly well all these years later.
Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures
Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures /

The Captain America trilogy is, in many ways, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's crown jewel. It's perhaps the strongest of the multiple trilogies throughout the franchise, with praise rightly being directed towards it for its compelling drama, intense action sequences, and thrilling plots. And yet, it often feels like the first piece of that puzzle - that movie that started it all - is overlooked in all of those conversations.

Released in 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger brought Chris Evans' Star-Spangled Man With A Plan to the silver screen for the first time, introducing mainstream audiences to a hero who would take up residence in so many of their hearts for the next decade. We didn't know then just how important he would become to the saga, but we did know that the success of the Avengers' storyline was riding on the success of The First Avenger.

The fact that we're here over a decade later talking about its success is evidence of just how well Cap's maiden voyage went. But still, the period-set beginnings of The First Avenger are often forgotten about when reflecting on the alien invasions and multiversal adventures that awaited the MCU in its bigger, louder, and billion-dollar days. And that's a fate that I never felt was earned; so I put it to the test by rewatching the film. Here's how that went.

A classic picture for a modern audience

As I settled in to rewatch Captain America: The First Avenger, I was hit with a wave of memories; memories of the first time I watched it, of the title character's MCU journey, of the triumph of it all. This is an inherently nostalgic movie and that says a lot considering none of its target audience lived through the period in which it is set, but it's something that The First Avenger thrives on.

It becomes clear very quickly that this isn't your typical superhero fare (and I remember thinking that when I first watched it even though modern superhero fare wasn't as common of a thing as it is now). Everything from the sets to the golden hue on many of the earlier scenes set it apart from its own genre, and they hold up especially well now given the MCU's knack for bland CGI landscapes these days. Everything feels real, tangible, and it's all down to the commitment to making a movie that feels very much like a classic picture of the '40s or '50s.

Captain America: The First Avenger review
Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures /

There's an irony in that considering Steve Rogers himself is forced to star in these very classic pictures in the movie when he'd rather be out on the front lines, but what he doesn't know is that he is starring in the most compelling one of all: His own story.

"Maybe the war needs more of the little guy", a frail, physically weak Steve contemplates at the beginning of the movie when he's selected for the super soldier serum program, and he's right. But he has to take a risk to put that into effect, taking the serum that doesn't just increase your strength, but makes you more of who you are. Good for the US army that Steve is a good man, so when that is magnified, they have the perfect super soldier willing to fight the good fight, stand up to bullies, and save lives.

See Captain America: The First Avenger might be about super soldiers on its surface, but at its heart, it's about the strength of humanity, and what good can do when it's given a chance. Steve Rogers takes that chance after fighting so hard for it and becomes a symbol of hope during a bleak time for the world. That's what Captain America was to his audience back then, and it's certainly what he was to the universe by the time his story concluded in Avengers: Endgame.

A fittingly triumphant beginning for Captain America

What makes The First Avenger so unique is its period-setting. While many of the MCU movies have their own styles, settings, and tones, there is something so refreshing about rewatching this one because it stands out in a sea of similarity. There is no doubt that this is down to that commitment I mentioned earlier, because it truly feels like you're watching a '40s movie. Yes, it's in all of the obvious places like the costume designs and the sets, but it's also present in Alan Silvestri's triumphant and nostalgic score, in the cinematography, and the slightly-dated CGI with that off-in-the-distance look about it that resembles the classic effects backgrounds in the old movies.

I mentioned triumph, and superheroes know a thing or two about triumph. The MCU certainly knows about it, too. But perhaps no movie in recent memory is as triumphant as this one. The exception to that sentiment is, of course, 2017's Wonder Woman, which takes a number of cues from the MCU's period-piece, and employs them equally well. And just like Wonder Woman stood up for the people who couldn't defend themselves in World War I, Captain America was able to do that in the MCU's World War II.

Chris Evans is a natural as Steve, with his earnest performance making it so darn easy to root for the once unlikely hero. He's a constant of the MCU, consistently strong in everything he tackles, but it's his turn here in The First Avenger that is his most impressive. A natural heartthrob with charisma for days in so many of his roles, he dials it back for Captain America and strikes gold. Steve's unassuming nature guides the movie, and Evans captures that so well.

Captain America: The First Avenger review
Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures /

Speaking of strong screen presences, he's supported by a wonderful group of actors, particularly Hayley Atwell, whose charming performance as Agent Peggy Carter quickly made her a fan-favorite. She matches him in every scene she's in, with the pair's chemistry instantly making the Steve and Peggy relationship the strongest in the MCU. Though Iron Man had many strengths, the 2008 film was outdone by Cap in the romance department, and I can understand why Marvel dropped any other potential romance for Steve after this one; because, just like Pepper Potts was always Tony's person, there was nobody for Steve other than Peggy.

The Red Skull might not be the most layered of villains, but Hugo Weaving's devilish take on the character keeps him interesting enough, and he spars with Evans' Rogers well (although the two probably should have shared more scenes together). But when it comes to making a lot out of little, let's have a round of applause for Tommy Lee Jones, who adds gravitas to the grumpy Colonel Phillips. Another actor might have played him as he was written, but Jones brought a touch of humor and heart to everything he did, striking the perfect balance for the character to ensure that we loved and hated him at the same time.

Our supporting group of heroes, willing to fight the good fight and crack a joke or two along the way, provide us with plenty of heart in rounding out the cast, but it's Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark and Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes that stand out. It's strange seeing the latter in a limited capacity when you know what the future holds for Bucky, but he plays the reliable best friend well, laying a strong foundation for one of the MCU's most important relationships.

There aren't as many action scenes in Captain America: The First Avenger as we've come to expect from our MCU fare. You can look at that as a good or bad thing, but I'm going with the former; this movie wasn't about epic hand-to-hand combat sequences, it was a movie about a bunch of ragtag soldiers coming together to triumph over evil. They were scrappy, a little disorganized, and highly motivated; they didn't need expert fighting skills. In many ways, the lack of modern showdowns is also a nod to the time period as the classic pictures of the '40s weren't exactly known for their excellently choreographed fight scenes. And hey, we did get a physical battle between Cap and the Red Skull on the plane in the film's climax, so it did what it needed to do in the end.

The MCU's bigger days were ahead of it, but Captain America: The First Avenger is always a delight to revisit. It's a charming movie that serves as a strong origin story for its title character and a solid foundation for the universe that was being built upon it. And even though it isn't said enough, it might just be Marvel Studios' best origin story.

Let's hear it for Captain America!

A+. Captain America: The First Avenger is a timeless movie that has aged remarkably well. Though often underappreciated, it stands out for being different in a franchise full of similarity, and an appropriately triumphant beginning for Marvel's greatest hero. . . Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America: The First Avenger

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