Released in 2011, this was the fifth film to be seen in the MCU but it sits first chronologically. Set in 1943, it tells the tale of Brooklyn born Steve Rogers who isn’t permitted to join the US Army due to several health conditions, but who is given a second chance by a Dr Erskine as part of an experiment. After being given a super serum and witnessing the death of his dear doctor, Steve becomes Captain America- a spokesperson for the Army who later disobeys direct orders to save the captured battalion of his best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. Here, he comes up against a former Nazi organisation known as HYDRA, led by Erskine’s first test for the serum: Johann Schmidt, also known as The Red Skull. Along the way we also meet Steve’s love interest and capable agent Peggy Carter, Steve’s best friend since childhood Bucky Barnes, and world-renowned ladies man/inventor Howard Stark.
The First Avenger is a perfect film to start off the MCU timeline as it introduces us to a load of elements that are going to remain important going forward. First is The Tesseract which is a Cosmic Cube that Schmidt plans to use to fuel HYDRA’s weapons and vehicles, but is ultimately lost to the ocean. It will re-appear in the next film Captain Marvel, before becoming the main plot point of Avengers Assemble and eventually being revealed as one of the 6 Infinity Stones, specifically the Space Stone. What’s great is that there isn’t a bigger picture being painted here, it’s primarily present as a McGuffin which allows it to push the plot forward without drawing attention away from the plot. There’s also a good introduction to HYDRA, who will go on to play a much larger role in the MCU, specifically The Winter Soldier, but work just as well as villainous goons. There’s a lot happening here in terms of universe set-up, but The First Avenger focuses on its own story and characters.
Steve is given the label of Captain America but this story is about the man who became the myth. He’s finally living his best life, falling in love and making new friends, but ultimately gets iced for 70 years, and that’s rough. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Howard Stark whose currently unborn son Tony will become pivotal to the story of the MCU. Meeting Howard first allows for more understanding as to why Tony is the way he is, and it gives his declaration against weapons much more weight. Then there are Peggy and Bucky who will come to define the two pillars of Captain America’s moral compass when he returns. One is the girlfriend who represents the “ordinary” life that he could have had, whilst the other is his best friend whose death ensures that Cap is determined to save every life he can.
The only issue with watching The First Avenger first is the film’s final 15 minutes. Having plunged himself into the icy depths to save America, Steve awakes after almost 70 years, just shortly before the events of Avengers Assemble, which was the next film to be released. It introduces us to Nick Fury, before we properly meet him in Captain Marvel, which is understandable considering the way this universe was built. They wanted the film releases to flow smoothly, and it doesn’t feel like Captain Marvel was ever totally planned so it makes sense to introduce us to him here. Now that we do have Captain Marvel, I think this would have worked better as a post credits scene to Thor which was released the same year as The First Avenger. In terms of a post credit scene, there isn’t space for one here and it seems like Marvel agreed because we instead get a trailer for Avengers Assemble….6 films early. it’s a great trailer, but it does disrupt the flow a little bit to have a trailer featuring a bunch of characters we’ve never met.
As for The First Avenger itself, it has remained one of my favourite MCU films, if not one of my favourite films period, and I’ve watched it more than any of the other films in this franchise. It has all the action and general vibes of an Indiana Jones film which is appropriate given they both take place around the same time, however the Visual Effects are undoubtedly bigger and flashier. At the core, this is a character driven story and that is exemplified by the beautiful leitmotif given to Steve. The rest of the score is fairly standard fare, but the absolute standout is The Star Spangled Man which is such a marvellous mix of the campy tones of the original comic and the military propaganda of the time. As for the title of The First Avenger, there has been some debate that it belongs to Captain Marvel, and I respectfully disagree. Yes, he is never called an Avenger, but he is the first official Avenger to be born and the first person to serve a hero role. Make no mistake, when I think of The First Avenger, I think of Captain America, and when I think of Captain America I think of The First Avenger.