Captain America: The First Avenger might mark the beginning of Captain America within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this origin story film actually marks the end of an era in a couple of ways. First, it was the first MCU movie that, aside from some scenes shot on Super 35 film stock, was mostly shot digitally at 1080p resolution using HDCAM SR as the source format. (Naturally, after the movie was shot and edited, it was finished on a 2K digital intermediate, as well, though as I have pointed out in previous MCU movie reviews, even the Marvel movies shot on film were likewise finished on a 2K DI instead of photochemically.) Captain America: The First Avenger was also the final MCU movie — other than the Spider-Man movies, which have always belonged to Sony and are in the MCU as part of a special partnership — to be distributed by a studio other than Disney.
Disney purchased Marvel for $4.24 billion in 2009, but distribution deals were already in place for Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), all of which were released by Paramount. It’s interesting to look back at the box office grosses though and observe that none of these early MCU movies did overwhelmingly well. Generally speaking, a movie has to gross two and a half to three times its budget worldwide to break even since theaters keep about half of the box office revenue and the studios have to pay a lot to market the movie as well. Captain America made $370 million against a $140 million budget, or a 2.64 to 1 return. Thor made $449 million against a $150 million budget, or a 2.99 to 1 return. Iron Man 2 made $623 million against a $200 million budget, or a 3.12 to 1 return.
So while these all did fine and certainly boosted the studio’s top line, they weren’t exactly smashes in terms of its bottom line. It’s really pretty amazing that five movies into the MCU it still wasn’t anywhere close to a guarantee that The Avengers was going to be the gargantuan success it turned out to be when it kicked off the summer movie season in 2012. But I see I’m getting ahead of myself. What we have in Captain America: The First Avenger is yet another origin story superhero film, but since it’s set in the past during World War II and doubles as a period film and war film, it feels novel enough even when it’s hitting familiar beats. The Captain America franchise is my favorite within the MCU, probably because even though the Captain America movies aren’t realistic, they at least acknowledge reality in some way.
Well, actually, scratch that — that sentiment only really applies to the first film, not the sequels. Given that this is a comic book movie, there isn’t much pretense that the movie is pretty much bullshit, but to the extent that it is played relatively straight, Captain America: The First Avenger has a pleasantly Indiana Jones quality to it. The best Indiana Jones movies — Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Last Crusade (1989) — were about the same thing: Indiana Jones preventing Nazi Germany from obtaining a relic from antiquity that possesses the supernatural power to make them unstoppable in their pursuit of world domination. There are worse movies to steal from, obviously, and to be brutally honest, Captain America: The First Avenger is much better than 2008‘s thoroughly unnecessary and painfully mediocre Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
To be honest, the familiar elements are many. We have the aforementioned Nazis and their pursuit of a supernatural artifact — one that, in a really cool stroke of universe-building that I didn’t catch when I first saw this in 2011, is found in Tønsberg, Norway during the Nazi invasion. This is the same Tønsberg that was the site of the opening battle a thousand years earlier in Thor, so naturally this supernatural artifact (called the tesseract) is the same blue Casket of Ancient Winters thing from that movie that was the source of the Frost Giants’ power. The Nazis that find it (in a castle straight out of Last Crusade) are led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a villain that, like René Belloq in Raiders and Walter Donovan in Last Crusade, isn’t a Nazi per se. Rather, Schmidt heads a sub-group of Nazis called Hydra, and with the tesseract in hand, he plans on conquering the world himself, Hitler’s plans be damned.
The Indiana Jones similarities actually don’t end there, believe it or not. This one has more to do with style than narrative, but when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) becomes Captain America and receives his assignment to tour the country selling war bonds, there is an intentionally ridiculous and hammy old-fashioned patriotic dance presentation that recalls the elaborate Shanghai opening credits sequence of Temple of Doom, actually. There is also the matter of Steve going into the lion’s den (to borrow a phrase used in Last Crusade) to rescue his friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) when he hears he has gone missing behind enemy lines. Indiana Jones, of course, does this in Raiders to rescue Marion Ravenwood when she is taken prisoner in Cairo, and also does this in Last Crusade to rescue his father when he is held in some castle in Nazi-occupied/Nazi-annexed Austria.
During The First Avenger‘s climax, perhaps the most direct bite from the Indiana Jones formula takes place. Remember how, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Belloq and the rest of the Nazis open the Ark and are destroyed for doing so? In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, something slightly different happens, but it’s a variation on the same theme. Donovan drinks from the wrong goblet/chalice and is similarly destroyed. Indy picks the correct cup, fills it with holy water, and heals his father’s wound with it. However, Elsa Schneider fails to heed the knight’s warning about taking it past the temple’s entrance, causing the ground to split apart and for the grail to fall in between one of the cracks. Schneider memorably falls to her death in an attempt to save the grail, while Jones Sr. wisely instructs Indy to let the grail go. The resulting message from both movies is ultimately the same: supernatural power does not belong in the hands of easily corruptible humans.
We see a version of this play out during the climax of The First Avenger that is so similar it’s pretty much theft. As Captain America dukes it out with Schmidt — who by now has long since thrown away his human face and now takes the form of Red Skull — aboard the aircraft carrying weapons of mass destruction headed for New York City, the tesseract comes out of the container it’s in. Since a tesseract is higher-dimensional space, this opens a wormhole, and since Schmidt is holding the tesseract, he vanishes into the wormhole, dissolving not unlike the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (We later find out in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War that Red Skull ends up on the planet Vormir, where he acts as the keeper of the Soul Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones the supervillain Thanos seeks to collect throughout the film.)
Do I bring up any of these similarities with Indiana Jones as a way of criticizing The First Avenger? Actually, no, not at all. Like I previously mentioned, even if borrowing heavily from the Indy playbook were a problem, the resulting film is still loads better than Crystal Skull, which attempted to bring Indiana Jones into the 21st century but was a pretty big misfire. (It was too heavy on CGI and it had been so long since the previous film that the franchise suffered from “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” syndrome when it came to sticking to the established formula. There will be, however, more Indiana Jones in the future due to the sale of LucasFilm to Disney for $4 billion in 2012. That purchase price wasn’t just for the Star Wars franchise.) Interestingly enough, Indiana Jones itself was based on the kinds of adventure serials and comics like Captain America that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew up consuming. Maybe that’s why this movie version of Captain America gets away with stealing some of those elements back.
Part of what makes The First Avenger not feel like a ripoff of Indiana Jones even if it borrows many plot elements is the character of Captain America. When we meet Indiana Jones, he’s a badass already in full flight, avoiding booby traps and gigantic boulders in South America. To be sure, Jones is the all-American male too, but he’s kind of the educated white collar renaissance man version of it. Rogers is the blue collar GI football linebacker version of it. He isn’t particularly cerebral, but the fact that his natural state is the undersized underdog means the character has a different sort of depth that’s more emotional. Even if he now has the body of an NFL player, he still has the heart of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. Whereas Jones is frequently motivated by righteousness (“it belongs in a museum!”), Rogers is more of a guardian and a protector and is more focused on the people he’s trying to save.
Jones also tends to be good with women, whereas Rogers, by his own admission, completely lacks experience with them. Like in the James Bond films, there is a different woman in each Indiana Jones film, all of which are nice foils for Jones in the sense that they contrast with him in a way that forces him to reveal more of his character. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), of course, assumes that role in The First Avenger for Steve Rogers. She meets him before his transformation, so she knows how bad with women he is even when some start flinging themselves at him and has a way of grounding him. That she is British and is working with the US Army is somewhat odd, but again, that’s how a foil is supposed to work — being British makes her significantly less likely to be entranced by his new Captain America persona. In other words, the writers do a pretty bang up job here of making these characters fit together. The sharp-tongued Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is also a highlight.
Comparatively, the villain Schmidt / Red Skull is something of a disappointment. He serves the movie just fine in terms of the Indiana Jones aspect of the film’s plot, and there’s nothing really wrong with Hugo Weaving’s performance either, but something kind of seems missing. Part of the issue might be that he finds the supernatural artifact at the beginning of the film, unlike in the case of the Indiana Jones films, where it’s always a race between Jones and the Nazis to find the relic by the end. Schmidt’s purpose and motivation, while obvious — he wants his Hydra organization to take over the world and remove Hitler in the process — is, at the same time, somewhat formless. If he finds the tesseract in the beginning of the movie, should it really take him very long to actually take over the world using its supernatural power? It seems a bit contrived that there is somehow enough time for the US — which doesn’t really even know about Schmidt or what he’s up to — to able to create Captain America and send him in to stop him.
As far as storytelling goes, this is probably The First Avenger‘s biggest weak spot: Schmidt is basically in another movie for the first hour and a half. Yes, the same German scientist (Stanley Tucci) that created Schmidt (before he was ready, or so he tells us) creates Captain America and yes, someone from Hydra assassinates the scientist after he creates Captain America — but not before, strangely — but it otherwise isn’t really part of the narrative. The war effort is shown to be exactly that: a war effort. As in, the army is mobilized to take down Hitler, not Hydra, for most of the movie. In that sense, Captain America doesn’t really have an antagonist until too late in the movie, but I want to be clear that I’m nitpicking here and don’t consider this a glaring flaw by any means. The movie stills works as is, it just maybe could have been even better. It’s still a really fun movie that is even more fun when you realize it takes the Indiana Jones formula but flips it on its head: the villain does obtain the supernatural artifact, and only a superhero can stop him.
One of the additional disappointments, though this is far from a slight, is that Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell are so delightful that it’s a shame this movie has to take place during WWII since we never see Jones again in the MCU and only briefly see Atwell again in later movies. (Atwell would subsequently appear in the MCU TV series Agent Carter, but it was cancelled after 18 episodes.) Strangely, the actor Kenneth Choi appears here as a soldier on Captain America’s team late in the film but also appears as the principal in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. I guess we aren’t supposed to notice? Because that is some pretty epic cheating. Really though, the cast is all good here. Marvel has continued to do a good job of casting good dramatic actors (Stanley Tucci was a nice get) in these action films, and it pays dividends once again. Both Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell don’t exactly have a lot of dramatic roles under their belts, but they certainly do fine here and lend a nice comedic and romantic touch whenever necessary.
I would actually rate The First Avenger as slightly better than Iron Man, and I would also consider it the best movie overall in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase One, which includes the first six MCU films: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012). (Haven’t seen The Avengers in a while, but I don’t have to watch it again to know it isn’t the best of Phase One.) If you are interested in how The First Avenger looks and sounds in 4K, I would recommend reading Blu-ray.com’s review of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. Keep in mind something I mentioned in the opening paragraph: The First Avenger was finished on a 2K digital intermediate, so any 4K (or 8K or 16K) image of the film will just be an upscale of that 2K image rather than a true 4K image. (A true 4K image can only result when the movie is completed on film or on a 4K digital intermediate.)