Lost in the Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger (The Unseen 2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger (The Unseen 2011)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Captain America was #2 for 2011.

The Story: He's always an odd man out - initially as a scrawny Brooklyn kid who fails every Army physical and eventually as a fossil reawakened in a world he can't understand. But in between those two demoralizing positions, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets to be exceptional in the best way possible. Chosen for a top secret World War II experiment due to his fighting spirit and unpretentious sense of virtue, Rogers is injected with a high-tech serum which expands his muscle mass and increases his endurance. The goal is to create a fierce fighting force of fellow supersoldiers; unfortunately, he remains an army of one when the leading scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is killed, and the formula which transformed Rogers dies with him. Reduced to selling war bonds and touring the European theater in a tacky costume with the hokey name "Captain America," Rogers receives another opportunity for valor. He discovers that his childhood best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been taken prisoner by the renegade German faction Hydra, led by the scientist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Schmidt has received the same serum as Rogers and becomes his nemesis, especially after Rogers defies Colonel Phillips' (Tommy Lee Jones') orders to rescue Barnes.

With the encouragement of the smitten British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the technical support of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Rogers leads a band of misfit commandos on war raids, eventually climaxing with a battle against Schmidt over the Atlantic. Saving New York City from a devastating weapon (powered by the mysterious Tesseract that later shows up in The Avengers), Rogers is forced to crash land on an icy island where his body is discovered in 2011. He wakes up in a familiar forties hospital room...but it's a bit too familiar: he remembers the baseball game on the radio from several years before his disappearance. Breaking out of the false soundstage where he's being held, Rogers races into the modern Times Square and is confronted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency that has been cultivating superheroes across the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Informed that he's been frozen and comatose for seven decades, Rogers is most morose about the final conversation he had with Peggy shortly before his fate was sealed. "I had a date," he sighs, a Rip Van Winkle dismayed rather than relieved to discover the passage of time.

The Context:
This was the year that Marvel firmly shifted away from its earlier, typically disparate brand output: an X-Men franchise launched in 2000, a Spider-Man franchise launched in 2002, an aborted Hulk franchise in 2003, and a Fantastic Four franchise launched in 2005, all of them licensed by Marvel to various studios and pursued independently from one another. Their novel maneuver was to cross-pollinate and coalesce these various characters and storylines, with 2011 proving a far more successful stab at this than 2008. Back then Iron Man had been a big hit but The Incredible Hulk had registered as a financial, critical, and fan disappointment, the second strikeout for one of Marvel's most iconic characters with Edward Norton replaced by Mark Ruffalo when The Avengers rolled around. This time, the back-to-back triumphs of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger paved the way for the full-on round-up/MCU breakthrough the following year, which I've already covered as my "Unseen" viewing for 2012.

Captain America was particularly unusual in the snarky, self-aware Marvel canon for being a old-fashioned period piece; in this it called back to an earlier era of blockbusters with Raiders of the Lost Ark a very conscious reference point. Of course, the character himself had his origins during World War II - created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (the children of Jewish immigrants) to fight Hitler's forces months before the U.S. would finally join the already ongoing war effort. A staple of Timely Comics (Marvel's predecessor), he was discontinued in the fifties and revived in Marvel's sixties heyday. Perhaps the most conventionally square-jawed, straightforward hero in Marvel's collection of misfits, his origin story still established him as, at heart, an underdog confused by his unexpected powers. Although many dozens of Marvel characters made their major theatrical feature film debuts before him, Captain America was the first to appear on celluloid in any capacity, in a 1944 serial. That said, this earlier Captain America appears to squander the character - replacing Steve Rogers behind the mask with a differently-named district attorney by day, urban vigilante by night who doesn't even get to go after Nazis (despite the year of release).

My Response: Of the Marvel films I've watched thus far, the majority of them for this series, this is one of the most purely enjoyable: a return to the colorful, nostalgia-tinged nineties blockbuster mode that I grew up with, which itself rested upon the foundation of the Spielberg/Lucas eighties breakthroughs. Even the action sequences, which I often find unengaging in the age of CGI superhero pyrotechnics, have a bit more zest to them. That said, I viewed Captain America while also fielding other distractions (mostly mindless tasks that nonetheless intruded on my field of vision). This is not a way I usually watch movies, but it seemed to suit the pleasingly familiar and formulaic nature of this one. Contributing to this adolescent comfort zone are the scenery-nibbling supporting performances of Stanley Tucci and particularly Tommy Lee Jones, a welcome presence even on autopilot. Again, as with The Avengers (although the impression would start to shift by then), Captain America gives off the vibe of a summer popcorn flick that just so happens to be a Marvel movie. It's a branch of mainstream cinema rather than the overwhelming trunk. Perhaps surprisingly given the low-key nature of its appeal, this is the first MCU film that actually sparked my genuine curiosity to explore other areas of the universe. The character's situation only becomes more interesting at film's end and I'm particularly keen to see his old-fashioned sensibility clash with the narcissistic irony of Iron Man in Civil War (in that sense, I suppose, The Avengers initiated this interest although it took this movie to spur me into adding that film to my queue).

I've heard that the Captain's follow-up, Winter Soldier, is the most formally compelling Marvel movie - with the Russo brothers credited for pushing the boundaries of the house style. Nonetheless, Joe Johnston seems like the perfect filmmaker to launch this franchise-within-a-franchise. Watching the first part of the movie with my cousin, I remarked that it reminded me of a childhood favorite, The Rocketeer. I only realized when the end credits rolled that it shared the same director. In that sense, while it follows Raiders of the Lost Ark by many decades and countless other iterations, Captain America isn't so much copying a copy as drawing from a similar well of inspiration. Johnston is a boomer who got his start as an Industrial Light & Magic visual effects whiz before directing wide-eyed spectacles like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (one of my earliest big-screen memories), The Pagemaster, Jumanji, and the smaller-scale but no less aw-shucks October Sky. The Rocketeer is a love letter to Depression-era Southern California and Golden Age Hollywood (with its own hero battling Nazis as well), which glories in its production design. While Captain America takes place a few years later and has less room to breathe as it paints its world, it nonetheless conveys Johnston's fascination with Americana from a decade or two before his own birth. Just as firsthand experience can convey a vivid, earthy immediacy that later generations can only grasp at, there is also a distinct charm to secondhand experience, lost to those who follow - the sense that children often have of the just-passed eras of their parents' youth, as if entering a room that others have left moments before. The nostalgia may be even more potent in these cases, for being close at hand yet heavily mythologized.

I vaguely recall people calling Captain America "corny" at the time, in contrast with the less embarrassing Iron Man, and am not sure how much of this reaction was affectionate vs. irritated (though my impression was more the latter). Coming out of zeroes cinema's penchant for the grimdark, monochromatic, and/or smugly self-aware, I probably would have found this aesthetic refreshing - but I didn't find out at the time. In the summer of 2011, I was taking a break from blogging; I even thought I'd hung up my hat for good after a couple years. Meanwhile, I was immersing myself in purely pleasurable film-viewing for the first time in a while, watching movies not for the sake of writing them up but just for entertainment and/or edification (this would eventually drive me back to this site within a few months for a film clip series and more). I don't recall much theatrical moviegoing that summer, however; most of what I watched was on DVD. Even as I prepared for an imminent move that wouldn't materialize until the winter, I was expanding my collection at a rapid clip and for the last time. So that's where I was that summer, trying to turn over a new leaf while also getting sucked back into the passions of the past. Which is a very Steve Rogers place to be, come to think of it.

Signs of the Times: Rogers' dual appearance as a scrawny pipsqueak and a brawny action star was made possible by digital techniques of this period that wouldn't have been available to earlier productions. (Indeed, Johnston's manipulations reflect those of a former ILM colleague, David Fincher, a few years earlier when he aged and shrank Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - which is also scheduled for this "Unseen" list.) Personally, I found the technique a bit distracting and unsettling, nestling too snugly in the Uncanny Valley as so many CGI human simulacra do. To the extent it succeeds, it's as much because you're swept up in the flow of Johnston's earnest cheer and Evans' energetic commitment to the character at all stages. Speaking of Evans and "signs of the time", it's noteworthy that even as they reach into the mythological past, Captain America and Thor represent a demographic shift in the Marvel universe. Directed by the guy who captured the mid-nineties Gen X zeitgeist with Swingers and starring the guy who perhaps most embodied that same vibe as a performer in that same era, Iron Man launched the MCU as a distinctly X spin on the superhero genre. Like Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr., late thirtysomething Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige also landed squarely in that generation. But Chris Evans and Thor's Chris Hemsworth are older millennials, cast in the prime of their youth rather than on the cusp of middle age. This adds an interesting twist to the Iron Man/Captain America rivalry in The Avengers and later films, as well as a humorous undercurrent to Stark's frequent dismissals of the old-fashioned but physically more youthful Rogers as an "old man".

Beyond those compelling generational contradictions - Johnston the boomer directing Evans the millennial as the greatest generation Rogers in an Gen X-dominant landscape - Captain America doesn't quite capture a zeitgeist the way other entries in "The Unseen" have, even other Marvel entries. I suppose it can be identified less as a post-Crash, early Obama time capsule than as relic from the Bush era when it was conceived. The film particularly evokes the early years of the previous decade with its unabashed embrace of old-school patriotism rather than the troubled later years captured so memorably in The Dark Knight. Not that 2011 lacked for attempts to stir up that sense of flag-waving righteousness altogether - this was, of course, the year that Osama bin Laden was finally killed, while the Arab Spring fostered a sense that maybe freedom was spreading across the globe. At home the Tea Party did their best to rebrand the right, replacing the now thoroughly-discredited neoconservatism of the War on Terror with a tricorner-hatted, star-spangled return to founding libertarian principles as the right's primary posture. Captain America, of course, belongs to an earlier age of nationalism when the far right was explicitly America's enemy, and the U.S. fought under the leadership of a muscular, left populist New Deal government at least ostensibly as determined to help the common man at home as defend the little guy abroad. Little of this is in the film itself, of course, although you can catch glimpses of it in the texture of its fighting spirit - even as it shifts the significance of that collective effort onto the shoulders of an individual hero.

Other Films: Sequels saturated the 2011 box office - a reminder that Marvel did not usher in the era of franchise dominance but rather rested upon that already firm foundation. In fact, Captain America was squeezed out of the top ten and Thor barely made the cut, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes squeezed between them. The Help and Bridesmaids, at #13 and 14 just behind Captain America, were the highest-ranked non-franchise films. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, The Hangover Part II, Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides, Fast Five, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Cars 2, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows swamped the top ten with Thor, an avalanche of numerals and multipart titles. The Academy may have in part been reacting to this environment when it awarded an unusual throwback to silent cinema, The Artist, as Best Picture of the year. A world apart from Hollywood's tentpole mania, Terence Malick released 2011's most acclaimed feature, the lyrical and experimental The Tree of Life; other critical favorites include A Separation, Melancholia, The Turin Horse, Margaret, and Hugo. Mass audiences as well as film buffs took to the stylish Drive. My favorite film from this year, at least when I assembled my "alternate Oscars" list soon after, was the British miniseries The Story of Film, a sprawling, idiosyncratic documentary by Mark Cousins. More notable titles from 2011 include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Descendants, Moneyball, Rio, The Muppets, and Steven Spielberg double feature: War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. The MCU's one-man antithesis - comic book movie auteur Zack Snyder - released the notorious flop Sucker Punch (the film, which I've not seen, has its many detractors as well as, increasingly, passionate advocates). Finally, one more hit bears mentioning: the Marvel-but-not-MCU holdout X-Men: First Class places its superheroes inside a twentieth century historical event - in this case, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After writing this review (several months before publication), I watched and briefly discussed Winter Soldier and Civil War as film capsules on my Patreon podcast.

Next - in two weeks (Wednesday, December 28, 2022 at 8am): Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)Previous (published back in May): The Avengers (2012)

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