You could almost consider Captain America: The First Avenger to be the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we’ve come to know it. The 2011 Joe Johnston film wasn’t the first Marvel movie, nor was it the first to bring in elements from upcoming projects (The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 both beat it to the punch). But it is the one that does the most heavy lifting in terms of world-building for the Marvel Universe, and some of its scenes have taken on more weight recently, thanks to projects like the Agent Carter TV series, not to mention its two sequels, The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, and let’s not forget Avengers: Infinity War.
It’s really amazing just how much Marvel lore this movie contains, and how faithful it is, at least in spirit, to the very first Captain America story, too. So join us as we overanalyze as much of Captain America: The First Avenger as we possibly can…
Just to get this out of the way right up front, our primary players in this movie, Captain America and the Red Skull were both introduced in Captain America Comics #1 in 1940. They were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
– The framing sequence of the movie, which deals with the discovery and revival of Captain America has its roots in a number of places. For starters, Cap was revived in Avengers #4 (1964) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. As you might have guessed, in the comic book Marvel Universe, the Avengers had formed while Cap was presumed dead, and they were the ones who discovered his frozen body and revived him.
Here, it’s SHIELD who are tasked with reviving Captain America, which makes sense, as they’re the ones who end up forming the Avengers in the first place. But that’s not the amusing thing…
– The crash site being found by a “Russian oil team” however, kind of mirrors a less celebrated piece of Captain America history. In the infamous 1990 Cannon Films movie (a flick that I kind of have a soft spot for, but that’s an article for another time), where there was absolutely no such thing as a “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” it was a German oil team who found the Capcicle. I’d like to think this was an intentional nod, but it probably wasn’t.
– This film also marks the first official appearance of Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hydra first appeared in Strange Tales #135 in 1965, and like most awesome things in these movies, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The thing is, the Hydra of the comics was never really a WWII-era organization. It was, however, always a post-Nazi one, led by Wolfgang Von Strucker (remember him from the opening moments of Avengers: Age of Ultron?) and it did get some support from the Red Skull. But the idea of Johann Schmidt as the founder of Hydra is an invention strictly for the movies.
We’ll talk a little more about ol’ Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull in a few minutes…
– The Tesseract is not only “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” (and that connection to Thor and Thor: The Dark World really doesn’t need any additional explanation, does it?), it’s one of the Infinity Stones (specifically, the space gem), the series of Maguffins that has linked the Marvel Cinematic Universe together.
But in the comics…
…the Tesseract was something known as “The Cosmic Cube” (it was the ’60s, yo), and it was a purely technological, not magical or alien piece of superhero headache inducingness. It’s general, all-purpose ability to “warp reality” is more or less in place throughout its comic book history, though, and the Red Skull has shown a fondness for it on more than one occasion…always to his undoing.
– The ties to the Thor movies don’t end with that line about Odin’s treasure room, however. You can see the seeds of Thor: Ragnarok hinted at here. The tesseract is stashed in a wall sculpture of Yggdrasil, “the world tree,” and the serpent (whose eye holds the key to unlocking the tesseract’s hiding place) is Jormungandr, the serpent that Thor does battle with during the Asgardian end of days.
– Even though Hitler’s real life obsession with the occult is well documented, I’d like to think that Skull’s line about how “the Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the desert” is a reference to the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston worked on the Raiders production (as did legendary Marvel artist Jim Steranko). Marvel also published a comic adaptation of that classic film, as well as The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones comic book series.
In other words, if you want to believe that Indiana Jones is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, be my guest…Disney owns him, anyway.
– Scenes of a pre-Cap Steve Rogers getting outraged about the Nazis while watching newsreel footage in a movie theater are staples of any expanded telling of his origin, but especially in the criminally overlooked mini-series, The Adventures of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty by Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire.
– Bucky Barnes is a drastically different character from any of his comic book incarnations. Initially first appearing in the pages of Captain America Comics #1, he was a typical “kid sidekick” of the era, complete with Robin-esque domino mask. Bucky Barnes was adopted by the guys at Camp Lehigh after his father died in combat. It was later revealed that the teenaged boy was an accomplished sniper and field agent…but again, none of that is in play here.
The idea of Steve and Bucky having a friendship that predates their military days was introduced (like many elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) in the pages of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates. There, Bucky was a photographer, but he also helped keep Steve from getting his ass kicked in the streets of Brooklyn in their youth. The tables, of course, were turned once Cap took the super soldier cure.
– The “Modern Marvels” title of the World’s Fair exhibition needs no explanation, but note “Phineas Horton’s Synthetic Man.” That’s the original Human Torch you’re seeing in that tube. He’s an android who bursts into flame, and he graced the cover of Marvel Comics #1 in 1939.
A Golden Age Human Torch movie would be amazing, but it might take some gymnastics to get that name on film, given that 20th Century Fox owns the rights to “the Human Torch” with the Fantastic Four movies.
Torch’s big nemesis was Namor, the Sub-Mariner, a character whose movie rights might be tied up at Universal. But if any of this is ever resolved, well…we need to see these two go head to head on screen.
– While this isn’t the first appearance in the movies of Howard Stark, it is the first time we meet him as a young man played by Dominic Cooper (he was played by John Slattery in Iron Man 2).
The red car that Howard Stark fails to levitate seems to be a precursor to Phil Coulson’s beloved flying red hot rod “Lola” on Agents of SHIELD. The red color might indicate a fondness for red that manifests in Tony Stark’s armor. Howard is using “reversion” technology to try and levitate this, while Tony famously uses “repulsors” in the Iron Man armor.
– Not a comic book easter egg, but yes, that’s Jenna “Clara Oswin Oswald” Coleman as one of Bucky and Steve’s dates. If you’d like to consider this a side adventure of “the Impossible Girl” through time in order to make Doctor Who part of Marvel continuity, I won’t stop you.
– Aside from the fact that Stanley Tucci is just delightful as Professor Abraham Erskine, the character has an interesting little history, too. In that very first Captain America origin story, he was referred to as “Josef Reinstein” (which probably rhymes with the most famous scientist of the era). It was later revealed that “Reinstein” was an alias used to protect the good doctor from his Nazi pursuers.
We’ll talk a little more about this version of Dr. Erskine when we get into the Red Skull’s entry in a few minutes…
– While the big screen Steve Rogers is a Brooklyn boy, in the comics, he was born on New York City’s Lower East Side…the same mean streets that helped mold his co-creator, Jack Kirby, into the force of nature that he was. Incidentally, the story that Steve gives about his parents dying roughly lines up with what we know in the comics, although his mother died of pneumonia, not TB, there.
Arnim Zola first appeared in Captain America #208 (1977) during Jack Kirby’s incredibly wild return to Marvel. When we first meet Arnim Zola in the Red Skull’s lab, his face is distorted through a weird lens. It’s a reference to Arnim Zola’s rather distinctive Jack Kirby design, which…ummm…you’d better see for yourself:
Crazy, right? Anyway, we see some of Zola’s next evolution in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Also, if you squint, you can spot designs for his robotic body in the blueprints in the laboratory.
– In that lab, Red Skull can be seen looking at a book that shows an old-fashioned illustration of the Norse “nine realms,” one of which is “our” world, Midgard, and of course, there is Asgard.
– Peggy Carter first appeared in Tales of Suspense #77 (1966) and was created by (who else?) Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Trust us, the Peggy Carter of the screen is a much more interesting character than the Peggy Carter of the page. Needless to say, the original Peggy Carter is an important part of Cap’s history, even if she wasn’t always quite the badass that Hayley Atwell gave us. We have much more on Peggy’s comic history right here, if you’re interested.
– Enlisted douchebag Gilmore Hodge appeared in that excellent Cap origin story I mentioned above, The Adventures of Captain America. In that series, it was revealed that Steve was part of a program of guys who competed for the role. The Hodge of the comics was even more insufferable than the jerk on screen, if you can believe that.
– Sgt. Duffy is a favorite of mine, mostly because he’s played to such perfection by Damon Driver. Duffy dates back to Cap’s first appearance in Captain America Comics #1. Part of Steve Rogers’ cover when he was at Camp Lehigh had to be that he was kind of a big, dumb, lummox…and thus, poor Sgt. Duffy, who wasn’t in on the truth often found his blood pressure rising because of Rogers and his “goldbricking.”
– Colonel Chester Phillips didn’t make his way into the comics until the 1965 re-telling of Captain America’s origin in the pages of Tales of Suspense #65. Needless to say, Tommy Lee Jones is more fun on screen than the comic book version of Phillips ever was on the page. His little speech about “super soldiers” to the folks at Camp Lehigh refers to how Captain America was referred to in his early days, and the name of the serum that would grant him his abilities.
Colonel Phillips eventually became General Phillips, because you’re goddamn right he did.
– Now is as good a time as any to talk about the super soldier serum, the Red Skull’s origin, and this movie’s ties to the less beloved 1990 Captain America movie. The idea that the man who gives Captain America his powers first devised a serum (under duress) is something borrowed, intentionally or otherwise, from Albert Pyun’s 1990 Captain America flick. The imperfect serum is what ultimately turned the Red Skull into, well, a red skull.
That wasn’t always the case, though…
– In the comics, Schmidt was just an evil young man who Hitler chose to be his representation of the Reich’s “values.” There was no super soldier serum involved, and for most of his career, he simply wore a mask…his face wasn’t actually a red skull. That came later.
Anyway, back to Cap’s origin…
– The origin sequence with Steve Rogers’ transformation is a nearly perfect translation of the original Joe Simon/Jack Kirby story. From the car pulling up at the antique shop (it was a “curio shop” in 1940…same thing), to the old lady ready to blow you away if you give the wrong countersign. She even looks like the character who appeared in just a handful of panels back then.
By the way, the fact that they managed to sneak the words “vita-rays” into a movie released in 2011 provides me endless amounts of joy. There are few things that scream “golden age superhero origin story” like “vita-rays.” I could use some vita-rays, come to think of it.
Also, that’s Richard “Thorin Oakenshield” Armitage as Heinz Kruger, another character from Cap’s first appearance. In the comics, Cap beats the hell out of Heinz before accidentally knocking him into the machinery which electrocutes him. Whether that’s less gruesome than a cyanide pill or not is entirely up to you to decide.
– The scene of Steve having his blood taken so that the government could try and duplicate the super soldier serum made sense in the context of the movie at the time, as Cap was always “the only one of his kind” because of the murder of Dr. Erskine. But after watching Agent Carter season one, this scene carries a whole lot more weight, doesn’t it?
– There’s a moment here when the SSR is told that all their focus is going to be put into fighting Hydra. So, with one line, we get the origin of the SHIELD vs. Hydra struggle. Holy moley, this movie got a lot done, didn’t it?
This next bit isn’t from the comics, but it’s too cool not to point out…
– Steve’s desire to fight in the war and the government’s efforts to keep him stateside as a symbol of heroism parallels the story of a real life World War II hero, Marine Corps Sgt. John Basilone. Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor after some nearly superhuman acts of heroism in combat at Guadalcanal. After that, he was sent back to the States to raise money for the war effort. Basilone was determined to help win the war in a more hands-on fashion, and requested they send him back overseas. He was killed in action (after sending a good stack of enemies to meet their maker) at Iwo Jima.
Basilone’s story was told on the HBO series The Pacific, where he was played by John Seda. It’s a good watch.
– The costume that Cap wears during his war bond effort is a perfectly comic book accurate version of the classic Captain America costume (right down to the original shield…the round, more offensively minded shield didn’t come around until Captain America Comics #2). It says an awful lot about Chris Evans’ physique that he can actually make this look good, and he probably would have been just as effective wearing this throughout the movie. But here’s the thing…
It’s a little ill-fitting, isn’t it? And there wasn’t any spandex in 1942. In fact…
…it looks more than a little bit like the version of the costume worn by Dick Purcell in the 1944 Captain America movie serial from Republic Pictures.
There’s moments where it appears they’re filming a Captain America movie serial during this montage, too. Considering that the Republic Pictures serial had almost nothing to do with the character from the comics beyond the costume (he was District Attorney Grant Gardner, not Steve Rogers), I’d like to imagine that’s what they’re filming here: a fictionalized version of the “real” Steve Rogers’ non adventures.
– The bit with Cap socking Hitler on the jaw is taken straight from the cover of Captain America Comics #1. Remember when I said that thing probably hit the stands in late 1940? It was nearly a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the US got formally involved in World War II. So that comic showed Cap socking a foreign dictator back when there was war being waged in Europe, but the USA was still a year away from involvement. As a result, the earliest Captain America comic book adventures featured him taking on saboteurs stateside.
This probably explains why they moved the movie’s timeline forward to 1942-1943 rather than the comic book Cap’s early days of 1940-1941…it makes more sense for this movie to take place at a time when the US was already well embroiled in Europe.
– Oh, and Cap is selling war bonds. You know where else Cap sold war bonds? On the covers of various Marvel/Timely publications in the ’40s. It’s what all the superheroes did!
– The Howling Commandos have a rich comic book history all their own. These were the guys led by Nick Fury in World War II…in comics that didn’t appear until the ’60s. They were created by (wait for it) Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and first appeared in the appropriately titled Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 in 1963.
There are some notable characters in the big screen version of the Howlers, though. Dum Dum Dugan, of course, has been hanging around the Marvel Universe forever, and has been Nick Fury’s right hand man in SHIELD many times. Gabriel Jones grandson is Antoine Triplett , who showed up for awhile on Agents of SHIELD.
Oh, and Kenneth Choi, who plays Commando Jim Morita here, shows up in Spider-Man: Homecoming as the principal of Peter’s school, and the grandson of the character he plays in this very movie!
We wrote much more about the individual Howling Commandos and their comic book origins in our guide to Agent Carter Season 1, which you can read right here.
– Also note that the British demolitions expert, James Montgomery Falsworth, in the comics had a costumed identity as Union Jack. Falsworth’s inclusion is a nod to the superhero team known as The Invaders, who operated during World War II. Their ranks included Union Jack, Captain America, the original Human Torch, and Namor.
– While Stan Lee does have a cameo here, please remember: he did not have anything to do with Captain America’s creation. Cap was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. However, Mr. Lee did write a good stack of my favorite Captain America stories in the mid-60s, and he was the writer on Avengers #4, the comic that brought Cap into the “modern” Marvel Universe (all with Cap’s co-creator Kirby).
In fact, the only characters in this movie that Lee had any hand in actually creating are Peggy Carter, the Howling Commandos, and Nick Fury.
– Yes, that’s Game of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer leading Cap astray. Your eyes do not deceive you.
– During Bucky’s adventures with the Howling Commandos, we see his proficiency with a sniper rifle, something that obviously comes in handy during his future as a brainwashed cybernetic assassin in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the original comics, Bucky was a more traditional “kid sidekick” type, like a more combat ready Robin.
But Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting took elements of Bucky’s history (he always seemed proficient with a rifle, he spoke a bunch of different languages) and foregrounded that as they retold Cap’s origins in the early 2000s. Why would Bucky be so effective with firearms and languages if he wasn’t actually a highly trained operative, right? It’s these things that helped lead to the whole “Winter Soldier” badassness.
– Bucky’s “death” however, differs dramatically from the comics. The comic book version of these events saw Bucky and Cap trying to disarm a heavily armed drone. Cap falls off (into the Arctic…you can guess the rest) and Bucky got blown into sidekick mcnuggets. Or so we thought for about 40 years, until Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting brought him back as the Winter Soldier. Either way, as he does in the film, Cap held himself responsible for his pal’s death.
The villain they were trying to take down at the time was Baron Zemo, not the Red Skull, and he ended up appearing in Captain America: Civil War, where he was played by Daniel Bruhl.
– Oh, and when Cap begins his assault on Hydra HQ, he plants his shield on the front of his motorcycle. That’s something that Reb Brown did in the not exactly awesome Captain America TV movies from the 1970s.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add ’em in here!
Mike Cecchini was almost born on the Fourth of July. Shoot roman candles at him on Twitter.