During my years writing for SWITCH, I’ve never hidden my criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a haphazardly-begun enterprise that took too long to find its feet, only to eventually settle into a strange and comfortable mediocrity. Apart from a few solid entries (‘Black Panther’/‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’), the others are mostly adequate (‘Captain Marvel’/‘Ant-Man’) or downright unwatchable (‘The Avengers’/‘Avengers: Age Of Ultron’). For me though, the one exception are the Captain America films. Not only are they the only three films I was genuinely thrilled with and engaged by, but the only three I revisit on a regular basis. Thankfully, with ‘Avengers: Endgame’ around the corner, Marvel are bringing the crown jewels of their unwieldy franchise to 4K UHD.
The first film, ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (2011) came quite late in the first phase of the MCU, only two months after ‘Thor’. At the time, it must have seemed a tad incongruous compared to not only the well-received modern snideness of ‘Iron Man’ (2008) but the dark density of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed ‘Dark Knight’ Trilogy. This was more of a throwback - a cheesy, heart-on-its-sleeve adventure film, with not an ounce of wise-cracking or moral ambiguity about it. Ultimately, that’s what makes ‘The First Avenger’ such an endearing and delightful film, and arguably the only genuinely great entry in that first phase. The action sequences are well executed, the WWII production design is beautifully realised, and it has a great sense of sentimentality and fun. Looking back at it now, it’s a surprise not only how much it holds up, but how there’s really nothing else in the MCU quite like it. It feels like a film, has texture and honest wit, and the best cast of any MCU film next to ‘Black Panther’, including Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, a divine Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, Richard Armitage and Natalie Dormer.
It’s also a perfect introduction to the two protagonists of the Captain America arc - the ultimate everyman Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who becomes the best version of himself possible, both physically and morally, and his inseparable best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Their relationship is the spine of the whole Captain America narrative, a brotherhood built on shared experiences and ideals, and the way that ‘The First Avenger’ establishes Steve’s moral compass becomes integral to the development of their relationship. Maybe the best move that the film makes is to remove patriotism from Steve’s motivations. There’s an uncomfortable nationalistic bent to his superhero name, but at the point of his conception as a superhero, he makes a promise to his “creator” Abraham Erskine (Tucci) that whatever happens, Steve will stay as he is. “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” As with Richard Donner’s sublime ‘Superman: The Movie’, the protagonist is being led by the belief in being a good person trying to put some good in the world, and that makes him a much easier character to fall in love with (and also one of the few male characters in the MCU who doesn’t start his arc as an arsehole). With the exception of the clunky-as-hell final minute that ties the film into the forthcoming atrocity that would be ‘The Avengers’ (2012), ‘The First Avenger’ is a deeply satisfying delight (I mean, it has an Alan Menken musical number in it), and struck a visual and emotional tone in the MCU we would never see again.
The franchise returned its focus on Steve Rogers in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (2014), not only a major turning point for the character but an equally important one for the MCU itself. Many regard it as the finest film in the franchise, and I wholeheartedly agree. There’s a maturity of tone and character development to ‘Winter Soldier’ that comes as a real shock compared to other entries, a film that seems far more steeped in not just the real world, but real world politics and concerns. It’s here that Steve’s moral clarity is tested, where his assumptions on who he can and cannot trust are thrown into chaos. Returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely continue to build on the characters and mythology they’d set in place in the first film, while new Marvel directors Anthony and Joe Russo come bursting out of the TV comedy world with a dark and sharply executed 70s spy thriller throwback. ‘Winter Soldier’ moves like a freight train, rarely puts a step wrong, introduces a fabulous new character in Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and finally gives Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) something to actually do.
Where the film is at its best though is the left turn it takes with the relationship between Steve and Bucky, who is now revealed as the antagonist of the film, the unstoppable and barely human Winter Soldier. Bucky’s backstory is about as dark as the MCU gets, and his reveal as his ultimate nemesis presents the first genuine test to Steve’s moral compass. He has to choose between what is best for others and what is best for his friend, and his belief that he can save him (as futile as that seems) is the only way he can find himself out of this moral quagmire. It’s a significant moment of character development for Steve, even now still singular in the MCU for its complexity and the skill with which plays out. ‘The Winter Soldier’ isn’t perfect - the moments shoe-horned in to connect it with other films land with a thud and it cements the visual blandness and flatness that are now an unfortunate feature of the MCU - but what it gets right, it really gets right. If ‘The First Avenger’ was singular in its fun and heart, ‘The Winter Soldier’ is singular in the MCU for its maturity and complexity.
However, when the third Captain America film ‘Civil War’ (2016) was announced, it looked possible that all that character development was going to fall apart. It would feature the most characters of any film so far, introduce two new heroes (Black Panther and yet another Spider-Man) and focus on a feud between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America. It didn’t seem possible that there would be any room for character or narrative, subtlety or storytelling for Steve and Bucky. It sounded, worst of all, like an Avengers film. And yet, somehow, ‘Civil War’ not only ends up being a cohesive and emotionally satisfying film, but an emotionally satisfying Captain America film. The Russo brothers, along with Markus and McFeely, juggle all of the many characters with surprising skill and yet still manage to make Steve, his moral certainty and and his fractured relationship with Bucky, the heart of the film, this time-tested by Tony Stark’s equally certain ideals of right and wrong.
In many ways, ‘Civil War’ is a film about revenge, how it drives our actions and clouds our judgement, our ability to move past it or be consumed by it. Again, this Captain America entry stands out in the MCU because the stakes of its protagonists are genuinely high, not driven by a need to save the world but by their emotional needs, and this allows many of the major characters (especially Stark, Steve, Natasha and Bucky) to once again move forward more so than they have in other films. The scale of ‘Civil War’ means it cannot have the sharpness of ‘Winter Soldier’, and it looks visually even flatter than the last, but it brings the central relationships of the MCU to their most arresting position, not driven by aliens or monsters, but by who they are as people who no longer necessarily want the same thing.
These films are driven by rich characters, sharp narratives and fascinating questions of what constitutes right and wrong and what makes someone a good man.
The ‘Captain America’ films represent the strongest narrative thread in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are driven by rich characters, sharp narratives, and fascinating questions of what constitutes right and wrong and what makes someone a good man. In all three films, Chris Evans beautifully crafts a man who so desperately wants to do the right thing, and has to navigate the chaos of the world around him in order to achieve that. They’re also built on a complex relationship, a brotherhood violently ripped apart and somehow repaired, while also affording the same level of care to many of their supporting characters. It’s such a pity that the behemoths of ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’ may rob the Steve and Bucky story of its much deserved satisfying conclusion, but if these three films have proved anything, it’s that anything could happen and the story of Captain America shouldn’t be underestimated. Amidst all the noise of the MCU, they are genuine portraits of what it means to be a hero - the cost, the chaos and the humanity.
PICTURE & SOUND
Captain America: The First Avenger
Watching this first film on 4K UHD is a bit of an odd experience, because it shows how the advantages of the format can highlight inadequacies in the film itself. ‘The First Avenger’ was shot on a combination of 35mm and digital, and the 2160p 2.35:1 transfer (upscaled from a 2K DI) makes the differences between the two methods clear. The 35mm footage looks gorgeous, with improved clarity over the 1080p release and a real sense of texture, while the digitally shot footage looks weirdly fluid and cloudy due to the drop in resolution. This was noticeable on the original Blu-ray, but the higher resolution of 4K makes it all the more obvious, the source of the digital footage not providing enough visual information to really work in the format. Thankfully, HDR10 amplifies the wonderful colour palette of the film, giving the transfer some degree of consistency. In terms of audio, the film is now given a robust Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track that gives a bit more heft over the original DTS-HD MA 7.1 track (though as with most Disney Atmos tracks, you will have to nudge it up a bit from your standard sound levels).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
For Phase Two, the MCU moved properly from film to digital photography, so this 2160p 2.39:1 transfer is upscaled from a 2K DI. Of the three, this is the strongest looking of the Captain America films in 4K, both thanks to the added clarity of being taken from a digital source and the fact that MCU hasn’t yet entirely embraced the visual flatness that will become their trademark. ‘Winter Soldier’ is a visually cold and hard film, and the added detail and clarity really add to that tone. HDR10 adds weight to the steely blues and greys in the colour grading. This is one of the darker films visually in the MCU, and the HDR and added resolution help to give extra weight and texture to shadows. Once again, the audio has been upgraded to Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1, and you really notice the extra level of detail in the sound design, especially small things like shattering glass and twisting metal.
Captain America: Civil War
The 2160p 2.39:1 transfer for ‘Civil War’ is also upscaled from a 2K DI, though the film itself appears to have been shot in 6K. From a technical standpoint, this would be the strongest transfer of the three, certainly in terms of clarity and colour, but ultimately loses out thanks to the flatness of the image itself. It isn’t as visually dynamic as the first two, and while this transfer replicates perfectly the original intentions (especially the richness of colour thanks to HDR10), it also further highlights how much of a step down it is. The Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track though is a ripper, a bombastic track with heaps of punch to it.
As with ‘The Little Mermaid’, there are no special features included on any of the discs and there are no Blu-ray copies of the films included with any of the three 4K releases, suggesting that this has become standard practice for Disney releases of catalogue titles on 4K. There were never a lot of special features on the ‘Captain America’ Blu-rays to begin with, but those wanting to still have access to them will have to hold onto their old Blu-ray copies. With many more films in the MCU left to carry over to this format, along with Disney classics and the ‘Star Wars’ films, this is an unfortunate move for Australian consumers for Disney to make.