With Captain America: The First Avenger, all 6 of the main Avengers have been introduced. Iron Man was introduced in Iron Man, Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow in Iron Man 2, and both Thor and Hawkeye in Thor. All that’s missing is the star-spangled man with a plan, leading us to this flashback movie. Welcome back to MCU March! Let’s talk about the last movie leading up to The Avengers.
We open with the discovery of a big ass ship and Captain America’s iconic shield in the Arctic. Flashing back to Norway during WWII, Nazi/Hydra agent Johann Schmidt (Mr. Hugo Weaving)–called the Red Skull by Hitler for reasons that will become clear later–finds a glowing cube called the Tesseract. Over in America, we meet Steve Rogers (Mr. Chris Evans), a man who probably weighs 40 pounds soaking wet. He really wants to go to war but a laundry list of ailments keeps him from being enlisted, made worse by his buddy, James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), getting shipped off to fight in Europe. But Steve’s plight is overheard by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who enlists Steve in a secret military program. Steve meets Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Tommy Lee Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) there, and through determination comes out as the top choice for the super soldier program. Steve’s given a cocktail of special drugs that turn him into an absolute slab of all-American beefcake. But a Hydra agent kills Erskine–the only person who knew the exact formula–so Steve’s the only one to get enhanced. He’s tasked with shilling for war bonds, but things get serious when in Italy he finds out that Bucky and a bunch of other soldiers were captured by Hydra. Steve mounts a one-man rescue with help from Agent Carter and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, not to be confused with Iron Man 2‘s Howard Stark, John Slattery), and in the end Bucky and the soldiers are saved! Captain America is a hero and has officially joined the war.
Meanwhile, Red Skull has been using the Tesseract to create super weapons that will bend the world to Hydra’s will. He’s gone rogue from the Nazis–so you know he’s extra evil–but finds a rival in Captain America. See, Schmidt used a early version of Erskine’s serum, giving him super strength but turning his skin hairless, red, and skeletal. The Red Skull name makes sense now. Back with the Allies, Steve gets his iconic vibranium shield (we’ll get to you eventually, Black Panther) and, along with the Howling Commandos, engages in a series of raids against Hydra. One attack captures scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), but Bucky falls to his death. Yup, he’s definitely dead and will never come back. With Zola’s information Captain America launches a final attack against Red Skull. The Hydra leader escapes in his big ass ship and plans on destroying the Eastern Seaboard, but Cap sneaks aboard and the two have a final fight. Red Skull tries to use the Tesseract but is disintegrated and/or teleported into… space? Yup, he’s definitely dead and will never come back. Unable to stop the plane, Steve sacrifices himself by crashing it in the Arctic. His body is never found but while searching, Howard Stark recovers the Tesseract.
…except his body is eventually found, as the opening suggests. He wakes up in the modern day under SHIELD’s watch, a man out of time. Nick Fury shows up in a post-credits scene and we get a commercial for The Avengers. Like, an actual commercial that could show up on TV or something.
One sticking point that keeps coming up with these movies and related shows is the question, “Are all Hydra agents Nazis?” It’s a complex question, since the current origin for the organization goes back to the dawn of civilization. They preceded the Nazis and worked with them, but went rogue. So does that make them Nazis? Yes. Absolutely yes. To quote Jemma Simmons from Agents of SHIELD, “And for the record, Hydra? They’re all Nazis.” Just because you decided to out evil Hitler doesn’t mean you didn’t find likeminded individuals in the Nazis. Red Skull’s a Nazi, Arnim Zola’s a Nazi, a bunch of other people are going to be revealed as Hydra/Nazis in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Agent Grant Ward is at the very least a Nazi sympathizer. So fuck those guys.
COMIC BOOK FUN FACT! Captain America’s tragic hero origin has become a staple in explaining who he is–a WWII soldier frozen in time, found by the Avengers in the year… the actual year doesn’t matter and is constantly changing, but still. Except that’s not how it originally happened. Captain America fought the Axis in his comics, and after the war his story kept going. Hero comics waned in popularity once the war was over, and eventually Cap’s comic was cancelled in 1954. After Marvel teases his return in 1963, Captain America made an official comeback in Avengers #4 (1964) when the team found him trapped in ice, last seen in 1945 and ignoring any adventures after that time. But those stories still happened, so who was that post-war Captain America? It was eventually decided that wasn’t actually the real Cap, but instead a series of people pretending to be Captain America as not dampen American spirits. Originally the costume went to William Nashlund (AKA The Spirit of ’76), but when he died in 1946 it went to Jeff Mace (AKA the Patriot) until he retired in 1950. The costume then went to William Burnside, a man so fanatic that he legally changed his name to Steve Rogers and got plastic surgery to look more like the original. It shouldn’t surprise you to find out he went crazy and had to have the real Captain America eventually beat his ass.
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