I’m always slightly conflicted over how to judge ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’. On the one hand there are prevalent flaws within the structure of the story and its pacing that prevents me from loving it. But on the other hand it has such an indelible charm to it that I can’t help but have a soft spot for it in the MCU catalogue. It has its fair share of unremarkable moments but at the same time it has many outstanding elements that you can’t help but be endeared to.
A lot of that charm is down to the loving direction of Joe Johnston, whose 1991 film ‘The Rocketeer’ (which has been labelled an underrated gem so often that I don’t even think it qualifies as being underrated anymore) worked as a similar love letter to the Golden Age of comics. Johnston takes the same approach with ‘The First Avenger’ as his direction seems to bestow such a nostalgic feel to the narrative without seeming like an empty substitute. Johnston goes out of his way to establish a consistent tone and visual style to the film through his affinity for smaller details. The camera loves to swerve through the nuanced aspects of this world and pay close attention to what makes them unique.
The same can be said for the film’s way of introducing characters. Johnston creates such strong characterisations through such simple means that it’s no surprise that the events which motivate Steve Rogers in this film have continued to have an effect for the entire franchise. You can tell from the way Rogers is framed that Johnston cares a great deal about retaining those key characteristics that define Captain America. From the admittedly not so subtle foreshadowing of Cap using his shield to the simplistic but strong attitude he takes to navigating his training.
If anything I think it’s this love for establishing Cap and his identity that ultimately harms the movie slightly. ‘The First Avenger’ has a first act that can’t help but overstay its welcome a little. There’s a great deal of build-up and time spent establishing the principle characters, but it takes its time a point where the unfolding narrative afterwards feels somewhat rushed. Even Johnston’s direction seems to take a downward turn as his methods of conveying action and exposition descend into a repetitive and generic style.
Luckily though the strength of that first act also carries over in that the characters are so well established that watching them navigate this admittedly predictable narrative is immensely enjoyable. To see Steve Rogers using all of his founded characteristics shining through in his heroic actions has a great catharsis to it. Chris Evans completely embodies everything you would want from a big screen portrayal of Captain America. Confident without arrogance, sincerity without cheese, and charm without contrivances. It’s just impossible not to root for Steve Rogers and be endeared to his ongoing journey.
Upon revisiting the movie I was also greatly surprised by some aspects, namely the supporting cast and the pathos throughout. Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell in particular Sebastian Stan all make for brilliant allies to the titular hero whilst also being distinct counterparts in their own right. Every one of them has an endearing relationship with Cap that changes over the course of the movie to great results. In any other Marvel movie Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Red Skull would be ludicrously over the top but in this context it just seems to work. It’s not complex in the slightest but it’s highly entertaining.
Then there’s the biggest surprise in retrospect, how the film handles its humour. I think the MCU does have an issue with balancing their humour and pathos as they sometimes undercut the latter with the former. But all of the humour in ‘The First Avenger’ feels earned, nuanced and brilliantly character driven. Once again it goes back to the core of what makes this film special, an affinity for the small details and subtle moments that just bestow an undeniable charm to ‘The First Avenger’.
Despite some of its broader narrative issues, ‘The First Avenger’ is an endearing and endlessly entertaining introduction to one of Marvel’s most timeless heroes.