2012 was inarguably Joss Whedon’s biggest year ever. Not only did he take center stage of a sold-out ravishing audience at the 10th anniversary Firefly reunion panel at San Diego Comic-Con, have his micro-budget adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing premiere to enthusiastic reception at the Toronto International Film Festival and get picked up for distribution by Lionsgate and receive vast acclaim for The Cabin in the Woods, his horror film co-written with longtime Buffy and Angel writer/Daredevil creator Drew Goddard, he also had the biggest box office hit of the year with The Avengers, which made over a billion dollars worldwide (“The Avengers”) and gained vast critical acclaim, with Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times saying that “[Whedon has] got an innate gift for bringing stories like this to life with the energy and intelligence that should be popular entertainment’s birthright but rarely is.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said that Whedon is “a filmmaker who knows that even the roaringest action sequences won’t resonate without audience investment in the characters. Whedon is not afraid to slow down to let feelings sink in.” Although much of the critical praise of the characters in the film was directed at Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk—and rightfully so—Chris Evan’s Captain America, due to his centrality in the film, is equally worth examining.
But it should be noted that The Avengers was not Whedon’s first work for Marvel Studios; indeed, according to a profile in Wired, he also, albeit uncredited, rewrote the script for its predecessor, Captain America: The First Avenger. By his own admission, he didn’t change that much from the existing script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, saying in a fansite interview that his rewrite was small in scope:”I just got to make some character connections…The structure of the thing was really tight and I loved it, but there were a couple of opportunities to find his voice a little bit — and some of the other characters — and make the connections so that you understood exactly why he wanted to be who he wanted to be. And progressing through the script to flesh it out a little bit.” Although it was speculated that Whedon would infuse the dialogue with his trademark wit, the finished film reveals that, with some exception, to not be the case. Rather, it’s easy to spot his influence in the character development. In particular, Steve Rogers is, as Bob Chipman puts it in his video review, “a good guy. That’s just not his broad moral affiliation; it’s his entire character. Captain America is a good guy…His arc is more about him finding the outlet for that heroic persona.” Indeed, even before his big transformation, Steve Rogers is sincere and earnest to a fault; “I just don’t like bullies,” he says when he is asked if he wants to go overseas just to kill Nazis. The scene that best demonstrates this comes early in the film: in a movie theater of all places, he sits behind an obnoxious boor who, during a newsreel of America’s ramping involvement in the war, demands that they “just play the movie already;” Rogers implores him to shut up and this bigger—much bigger than Rogers—man rises, turns towards him as the newsreel narrator intones “that together with Allied forces, we’ll face any threat, no matter the size;” the camera then cuts to the man beating up Rogers in an alleyway, but Rogers, rather than cowering, gamely puts up a defense until James “Bucky” Barnes—Cap’s sidekick, here retconned to be Rogers’ age instead of a teenager—shows up to intervene on his behalf. In that scene, Rogers’ staunch idealism and refusal to back down is characteristic of Mal Reynolds and the other Independents in Firefly who demonstrated a similar ferocity when their beliefs were mocked.
The supporting characters in The First Avenger also have some fun moments. The one that comes to mind most easily for me is when Cap frees Bucky, Dum Dum Dugan and the rest of the Howling Commandos (although I don’t believe they’re called that onscreen) from the HYDRA fortress. One of the men snarkily asks if they’re gonna bring Japanese-American soldier Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi) along given that he’s Japanese. “I’m from Fresno, ace,” Morita snips back, then grabs a gun and joins the fight. Then there’s the villains.
While Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull isn’t as charismatic or gripping as other Marvel Cinematic villains (although he gets a fair bit more to do than poor Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World), he’s still exciting to watch and tears into his lines with obvious relish. As he is elsewhere, Toby Jones is a quiet scene-stealer as the unassuming but actually ingenious Armim Zola. Neither of them get the flashiness of, say, Spike, but that’s okay given that First Avenger is meant to explore the more simple world of war movies.
The most haunting part of the film is undoubtedly the ending, where Steve wakes up in a 1940s-era hospital room (prepared by the SHIELD agents who found his frozen body, so as not to shock him) and, learning where he is, promptly runs outside into modern Times Square. Absolutely overwhelmed, he’s approached by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
“At ease, soldier! Look, I’m sorry about that little show back there, but we thought it best to break it to you slowly.”
“Break what?” Steve asks.
“You’ve been asleep, Cap,” Fury says. “For almost 70 years….You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah,” Steve says, “ I just… I had a date.”
Here, Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue is employed to devastating effect. This film shows that Whedon’s Captain America—and given his authorship on this film and The Avengers, it’s best to say that this is Whedon’s Cap—is not only a heroic figure, but also a man out of time, trapped in a world he saved but doesn’t recognize. And that is the true essence of Captain America.