Captain America Movies Should Have Stayed in the Past

We have an unpopular opinion: Captain America movies would have been better if they stayed in the 1940s and World War II.

I have a pair of contradictory opinions for you. The first popular one is that the Captain America movies are the most consistent mini-franchise in Marvel Studios’ gargantuan, multi-headed IP-Hydra that we call the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Indeed, whereas most franchises tend to lose steam by their third installment, and most Marvel Studios sequels have tended to be a stepdown from their predecessors, The Winter Soldier and Civil War both improved upon what came before, specifically Captain America: The First Avenger. But on the flipside, this still doesn’t mean the franchise should have ever left the 1940s—and particularly in the hurried manner that makes The First Avenger a fairly weak film.

And there’s that darn unpopular opinion. You were warned.

Yep, for as good as Winter Soldier and Civil War are—not to mention The Avengers—it will never seem like anything less than a missed opportunity for Marvel to have turned The First Avenger into exactly what the title implies: an advertisement for the epic team-up slugfest to come a year later. For while that 2011 movie actually has plenty of merit on its own, it could have been so much more.

To be fair, Captain America: The First Avenger opened in a different time. Unlike 2017, when Marvel Studios runs Hollywood and thus more or less the moviegoing world, Marvel Studios was still in its fledgling “Phase One” stage seven years ago, and there was no guarantee everything would work out. While 2008’s Iron Man was a runaway success and a homerun the first time up to bat (not counting the non-canonical Punisher: War Zone), that same year saw The Incredible Hulk, a so-so semi-sequel/semi-reboot that did the equivalent of “meh” in box office receipts.

By the time 2011 came around, Marvel had two new origin movies, their first since Iron Man in 2008, and one of them had “America” in the title only two years and change since the globally unpopular President George W. Bush left office in the midst of a worldwide financial meltdown.

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On paper, a Captain America movie looked like a riskier bet than even mythological Thor. Hence the subtitle “The First Avenger,” and the implicit tease that if you want to enjoy 2012’s upcoming mega-film, The Avengers, you must give ol’ Cap a chance. It also helped a great deal to set it in the distant past during the last cleanly “just war,” aka World War II. It’s a conflict that has become enshrined in the American identity and our country’s own self-mythologizing. This is the “Greatest Generation,” and Captain America exemplifies those qualities.

And he does since that generation may very well be exactly what Tom Brokaw exalted with his turn of phrase. The greatest. Still, the trick of it is to use the setting to emphasize a romantic view of perceived American Exceptionalism while steamrolling the character into an Avengers team-up movie that would heighten his popularity for a sequel.

And from a strictly business vantage point, it quite honestly worked. Captain America: The First Avenger did a respectable $177 million in the U.S. and $371 million worldwide. By the time of his third installment (coupled with an assist from the ever-popular Iron Man), Cap was headlining in billion-dollar grossing films. Nevertheless, The First Avenger is at odds with itself as a movie, right down to the fact that it really doesn’t feature a second act beyond a bridging montage. There is a wonderful first act to the film, which introduces Chris Evans as the Star-Spangled Man to perfection, and then there is almost wholly an hour-long race to The Avengers. Consequently, the picture is incredibly uneven and squanders all the potential of its premise.

At the start, Captain America: The First Avenger is a highly romantic vision of 1940s America. More than director Joe Johnston’s previous pulpy Disney film, The Rocketeer, this first Cap movie imagines a wartime United States in glasses so rosy that it’s impossible to see anything beyond the bloom. Steve Rogers (Evans) is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn—which he’ll never let you forget—that wants to serve, and the U.S. military is so fair and open-minded that British women can command combat roles and the services are desegregated in 1942… a full six years and two wars earlier than when Harry Truman actually dissolved that racist practice.

But historic whitewashing aside, this sequence works very well, because Captain America is himself a product of that time’s patriotic (and propagandist) comic books. Also who doesn’t enjoy seeing a man draped in the American flag punching Adolf Hitler in the face? The First Avenger even has some fun with that iconography in its most inspired moment: a USO show montage of Cap performing for war bonds while decking stagey Nazis across their crumbling glass jaws. It plays better at Radio City Music Hall than to the actual boys on the frontline, of course.

This is the movie at its best, reveling in its lead characters, Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). It’s also probably why the first act of the movie—everything from when the movie flashes back from its 2011 prologue to Cap finally becoming a soldier and saving a bunch of POW G.I.s behind enemy lines—runs longer than usual at over an hour. And honestly, this is fine, save for the fact that the movie then realizes it doesn’t have time for a second act.

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What follows is a glorified montage of years’ worth of history, and Captain America going from PR prop to authentic legend. Newsreels in the vein of “The March of Time” explain most of Captain America’s exploits, and the entire narrative turns into a fumbling gallop toward a dippy climax. Even for fans of the later sequels, this had diminishing effects, as a relatively minor character’s death during this speedy and incoherent portion of the movie becomes a focal point of the sequels. Yet when Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes barely registers in the first movie, his resurrection becomes equally irrelevant in the following sequels that would place him at their center.

Eventually, the movie limps into a finale where the villain isn’t so much killed as put on a backburner to seemingly return (although even that has yet to pay off), and Cap is warped awkwardly to 2011, just in time for the next one. As aforementioned, this made good business sense, but going back to that strong first hour, the multiple missteps are obvious.

The story of Captain America would have benefitted from several movies set during the Second World War. As the fact that the first movie is even moved to that period indicates, it’s his natural habitat as a pulpy action hero. Everyone in the MCU speaks in whispered tones about how mythic Steve Rogers’ legend was from this era, but we never see it except in flashing vignette. He apparently inspired a generation of soldiers to fight a little harder, but he never appears to even be on a battlefield save for an ugly slab of blue screen work in that “second act” montage that features a solitary shot of Captain America blowing up an enemy tank.

Nor do we get a sense of the camaraderie of Cap and Bucky, or any of his other sidekicks. The movie is in such a hurry to get on with its fiduciary obligations that it is easy to forgive any viewer who cannot recall if the “Howling Commandos” had individual names. Instead of being a movie about Cap’s greatest hits, there could have been a trilogy of films building up his historic stature in this setting, just as Christopher Nolan convincingly turned Batman into a figure for Gotham City memorials.

But that is the tradeoff that comes with valuing franchise brand synergy over individual stories. There is a very practical reason to set The First Avenger in World War II, but the movie never seemed that comfortable with it. Cap doesn’t ever really see a battlefield and he also never fought Nazis except in USO pantomime. Despite being German villains, the bad guys of The First Avenger are the more cartoonish HYDRA. Johnston mentioned at the time that he wanted the movie to evoke his mentor Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones pictures, but Spielberg wasn’t afraid of offending foreign markets by having Indy punch out clearly German dressed baddies. Nor did he mind if they used guns instead of the Star Wars-esque laser zappers of HYDRA, which more or less turns the second half of Cap’s first movie into a strangely earthbound space opera.

These flaws have only become more profound in 2017 with the release of Wonder Woman, a movie that moved its protagonist’s story from World War II to the first Great War to End All Wars. Even so, it didn’t shy away from its setting. In a single moment of putting Princess Diana on a No Man’s Land battlefield, and then in a German-occupied Belgian village, Wonder Woman did more to create a sense of mythic aspirational awe than Cap’s apparent years of service.

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This is in large part because even though Gal Gadot’s superheroine is scheduled to also appear in this year’s Justice League, director Patty Jenkins and her studio did not mind making a self-contained movie that was in no hurry to get anywhere other than Armistice Day. It also didn’t mind sending a few lovable characters to the underworld and let them stay there… as wars tend to do.

Tellingly, recent accounts suggest that Jenkins and Gadot’s upcoming Wonder Woman sequel will also avoid a modern era setting. While they are moving pretty far ahead in the 20th century—to the 1980s to be exact—they have the inherent advantage of their heroine being immortal. But more cunningly, they realize that period settings give freedom to explore modern issues without ruffling as many feathers. The Reagan Years allow Wonder Woman to continue to tackle a modern issue in the past that it only touched upon in its 1918-set predecessor: Diana’s fight for equality for women. It’s a fight that is still going on today, but it’s easier for corporate products to be more honest in a period context, while it also simultaneously continues Diana’s growth from the last film with the freedom to say whatever it wants. This is a refreshing alternative to being beholden to the corporate branding needs of tying her storylines into whatever the hell is happening with the latest crossover movie.

Sometimes, good business can allow for good creative decisions too. It’s a shame when those things are treated as mutually exclusive in this genre. Just as it’s a shame that we never saw Steve and Peggy get that dance, which a better film should have had time to do.

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