Every superhero Jack Kirby created, or co-created (if we are being generous), started with a mixture of real life events and a theme. He would take a topical event and integrate it with a thesis, usually based on a literary inspiration. The Incredible Hulk is about duality of man; the good part wrestling with the bad part (the obvious parallel being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The X-Men are super powered mutants, but that’s a loose analogy for any minority living in America in the ’60s. You can trace this trend all the way back to the beginning with the first superhero he’d work on: Captain America.
In 1940, Joe Simon –morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany– began work on a new superhero. He enlisted the help of his old pal Jack Kirby and the two created the first superhero that was a direct result of World War II. Captain America hit shelves a year into the war, and a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and was an instant success. I assume the cover depicting Cap punching Hitler in the face had something to do with it.
Kirby’s work elevated what was essentially rah-rah American propaganda to the level of high art. He took what was essentially a walking, talking American flag and added a level of relatability to him. Unlike other super humans of the time (most notably Doc Savage and Superman), Captain America wasn’t born perfect. He was an average Joe. He was a scrawny kid from the Bronx that lacked muscle but made up for it in heart. But it was that heart that got him chosen for the super soldier program. Once injected with comic book magic serum, he went from a sickly, pup of a boy–into an Adonis of liberty.
Comic book readers identified with the message; that anyone, regardless of background or abilities, could be a hero if they were just pure of heart.
His popularity lasted as long as the war did but once it was over, the comics industry was hurting for readers. Soldiers no longer cared and America was ready to move on. He bounced around from comic to comic to varying degrees of success until 1963 and the reboot that would change everything.
The comics industry was completely different place when Captain America was created. We immediately identify him as being among the top tier of Marvel’s pantheon but it’s easy to forget that he was created just three years after Superman. He was around almost two decades before Marvel was officially a thing. By the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to reboot him with the creation of the Avengers, his popularity pulled a 180. He was in the public consciousness for so long, his old age actually made him relevant. He was like a hip relic of the good ol’ times.
But how do you bring back a hero that fought in World War II? It is not like comics could use a silly plot contrivance such as time travel or clones. I mean, it wasn’t the ’90s yet.
His reintroduction would prove to be the bedrock of his entire persona. In the final days of World War II, he had fallen from an experimental rocket into the Atlantic ocean and had been frozen for decades. Due to his accelerated healing –thanks to the super soldier serum– he was able to be preserved in a state of suspended animation. He was thawed out and became the leader of the Avengers.
It was the perfect analogy of Cap as a character. He was an old superhero from the past, brought back to the present. They could have hung their hat on the irony and called it a day but Kirby ain’t no one trick pony. They did not just bring him back but added a level of depth that would redefine who he was as a character. He was now a man out of time and had to adjust to 1960s society. Beside the technological and political advancements he’d have to adapt to, he also had to come to terms with the fact that everyone he knew, was now dead.
Captain America now had pathos. He would never be considered “cool” by any metric but now he had an emotional core that audiences could sympathize with. Peter Parker was a school kid trying to juggle school, work and being Spider-Man. He was relatable but his greatest tragedy at that point was seeing his uncle die. That’s sad shit but that kind of pales in comparison to everyone you know being dead and everything you know being different.
His new origin, as well as his new role as the leader of the Avengers would keep him popular for the next couple of decades. So popular in fact, that he was one of the first superheroes to get a big screen adaptation (in 1979’s Captain America).
Then there was the 1990 trash-terpiece (which I won’t talk about). Seven years after that abomination hit theaters, negotiations were being made to have a new Captain America film out by the year 2000. Which would’ve put it ahead of X-Men but a lawsuit brought on by Joe Simon put the kibosh on the entire project. He sued Marvel over the ownership of Captain America copyrights and around the time the lawsuit was finally settled, Marvel (thanks to a $525 million investment from Merrill Lynch) became an independent producer. They had a 10-picture goal in mind and the first film on the slate was, you guessed it: Captain America.
The original take was for half of it to take place during World War II and the other half set during modern day. Jon Favreau was approached to direct it and although he was interested, he chose to direct Iron Man instead. After a writer’s strike halted progress yet again, Captain America was finally scheduled to be the last film of the first phase of solo films leading up the Marvel’s The Avengers.
Directed by Joe Johnston, Captain America: The First Avenger is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film. First and foremost, it is a period piece. The entire film is set during the 1940s, which automatically sets it apart from the rest and that setting puts it into a different genre. This is not a superhero film. This is an action-adventure/war film.
I believe another difference between this film and the other MCU films is its episodic structure. While most use Iron Man as their blueprint, in terms of plot, The First Avenger is constructed far more ambitiously. Before Steve Rogers becomes the super soldier we all know and love, the film has to set up his relationship with Bucky, the villain and his plan and most importantly, it has to convey to the audience that Rogers has a strong heart. A strong heart that happens to be stuck in a weak ass body.
Combining CGI and a body double, the effect is a mixed bag. It does not always work but when he steps out of that super soldier tube, and you see the real Chris Evans, the payoff is one of the best moments in the film. It kind of all hinges on you to suspend your disbelief and the film rewards you with Evans abs. But before we get those glorious abs, we need a training montage.
Tommy Lee Jones needs to be convinced that Steve Rogers is the right one for the procedure, so he puts him, along with a group of other soldiers through some tests. He is only there because Stanley Tucci‘s character met him previously and saw in him a true hero and since he is the lead scientist running the experiment, Jones humors him.
The training montage is less than ten minutes, but I would argue it is the best moment in the entire MCU. You need an entire film to buy Tony Stark becoming Iron Man; you need an inciting incident to see why Peter Parker would become Spider-Man; but, the moment Steve jumps on that dummy grenade, you understand why he was Captain America long before he ever got the shield and the powers. He is willing to immediately sacrifice himself for strangers he barely knows, because that’s what heroes do.
It is a powerful moment and even though it is a dummy grenade, I believe it is one of the most heroic acts in any superhero film. Later films will confuse scale for stakes, thinking that if more people are in danger, the more exciting the action will be but it is the exact opposite. They become nothing but faceless CGI puppets that carry no emotional weight. I don’t care because I’m looking at a cartoon. This moment has weight.
As does his last moment, when he sacrifices himself for real. Thanks to bad guy treachery, the plane Rogers is flying can’t land without risk of detonating its weapons on board, so he decides to crash it into the Arctic ocean. Again, like the CGI, it is a set up you’re going to have to ignore to get to the emotional payoff, which is his last conversation with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). It is not exactly romantic because they were never an item but it is the broken promise of romance, that is heart breaking. We know Rogers will live but we also know that he will never see Peggy again. A fact reinforced in the film’s last lines.
The First Avenger does not end with a big action scene or a set up for a sequel, it ends with a now “100 year old” Captain America lamenting the loss of a date he will never get, because Captain America has pathos. His tragedy is being stuck in a world he’s unfamiliar with and even though the world have changed around him, heroism is timeless.
There is so much more of this film I want to cover; from the musical numbers, to the supporting cast to Hugo Weaving‘s fantastic performance, but I feel like with each new MCU film, an older entry gets further and further away from the limelight. Sequels have robbed this film of attention and I feel like it’s been far too long since a lot of you have seen it, so I highly recommend you check it out again.
It is far better than you remember.