Captain America and the World Building Template of Superhero Movies – A Captain America: The First Avenger Film Review
Captain America: The First Avenger, while a decent film, looks to be the poster child for why the buzz on superhero movies tends to drift downward. One of the key elements for most superheroes is the origin. How said hero got his powers. Where the name and costume came from. You know that drill.
This isn’t the case for every hero. For Wolverine, for decades, there was no origin and part of the character’s appeal that nobody was quite sure where he came from and even he couldn’t remember. Marvel Comics eventually got around to filling in his backstory and all are not in agreement that it improved the character. Cinematically, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is generally viewed as a bit of a dog.
A friend of mine recently commented that a book he was reading didn’t actually have a story, it was just a world building exercise and the thought the story would probably start in the second volume. Superhero movies, particularly the last couple Marvel movies are flirting with this road. That is to say, superhero movies have been templated. You need to have the origin, a love interest and villain.
Almost all super heroes have an origin. That origin frequently does not revolve around any of their main villains. And not all superheroes have love interests. (Wolverine, for instance, will periodically have a doomed romance. Dating is not his normal state of being. Likewise, Batman isn’t known for steady, committed relationships.) Shoving these three elements into the same script doesn’t always work, but it’s the world building that’s been the biggest offender of late.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a world building film. It functions to do two things: establish the characters of Captain America and the Red Skull while building on the bits and pieces of elements introduced in the previous Iron Man and Thor movies.
Captain America works best in the first act, the traditional origin of Captain America: 98 lb weakling Steve Rogers is denied entry into the Army until he’s drafted into the medical experiment that turns him into the ever-so-slightly superhuman soldier we all know and love. Not coincidentally, this part follows a tried and true narrative established in 1941 and ever so slightly tweaked over the years.
From this starting point, things start to shift around and the world-building sets in. There’s a sequence of Captain America being used as a publicity tool/fundraiser/USO performer that attempts to rationalize why a commando would be wearing such a gaudy costume. Which is to say, cue a montage scene.
Then you have Captain America going on his first mission, oddly without any training. (i.e. BIG fight scene #1.) Then you have a fight scene montage. Then another fight scene, slight bridge and final fight scene. The entire plot is “hey, go get this Red Skull guy who’s got superweapons that relate to the last Marvel Movie.”
You get world building with a supporting role for Howard Stark, the father of Tony “Iron Man” Stark. You get world building with the Red Skull chasing after artifacts from the Norse gods. In fact, if you watched the scene after the closing credits of Thor, you’ll recognize one of the Red Skull’s toys. If you’ve seen all the Marvel movies, you’ll see gaps in that universe getting filled in, right and left. Fans of the comics will also notice the original android Human Torch, still dormant, when Steve Rogers goes to the World’s Fair stand-in. The Howling Commandos are in the movie (although in movie continuity, it appears Nick Fury no longer led them in World War II). You have what might be the film version of the Cosmic Cube. You have a pre-surgery Arnim Zola. (If you’re not a comics fan, don’t ask about that one.)
Much like the movie version of Thor, this moves just fast enough and has just enough decent acting in the supporting and villain roles to get you past the thinness of the plot.
Particularly good are Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, the scientist responsible for the Super Soldier treatment; Hugo Weavering as the Red Skull; Toby Jones as Arnim Zola, the Red Skull’s scientist sidekick; and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, the love interest. Tommy Lee Jones does well enough chewing the scenery, but this isn’t going to make his highlight reel.
Chris Evans may have been slightly miscast in the Captain America role. He’s very good playing the naïve, sincere pre-treatment Steve Rogers, but you never quite see him develop into the iconic leader of men Captain America was supposed to have grown into. Part of that could also be the script’s thinness, once the origin segment was completed.
The biggest flaws of the film are inserting montages where a bit more character development would have served better and not making it completely clear in the film’s opening that they found Captain America frozen in a block of ice, not just his shield. If you never read the comics, that might not be obvious.
While Captain America: The First Avenger is enjoyable, filmmakers in the new superhero subgenre really, really need to start moving beyond this world building template. For many characters, the origin is something to be recapped in a page before getting on to the real story. Thor: more world building than plot. Captain America: more world building than plot. Green Lantern: plot seemed to be cut to give more screen time for world building. Batman Begins: while a world was established, this film was much more plot-driven.
Incidentally, if you stay for the end credits, you get what I’d call half-scene with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and the Captain, followed by a trailer for the Avengers. If they’re going to be emphasizing the world building, at least they being up front where this is all going.
If you like Captain America, this film is pretty faithful to the spirit of the character and it’s worth viewing. If you’re looking for popcorn action movie, this will suit you just fine, too. In the continuum of superhero movies, I’m put this just below Thor, a movie with many the same flaws, but a hair more pep. A word of warning to parents with small children: this is mostly set in World War II. This means it’s a war movie. There’s a pretty high body count and a lot of dead Nazis.
If you’re interested in the literary Captain America, we have a short guide to the better periods of the comic and how they’re reprinted.