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Captain America: The First Avenger at 10: How the overlooked origin story became one of the MCU's most important movies

Captain America: The First Avenger
(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Cast your minds back to 2011. The Avengers had yet to assemble, Thanos was a name only comic book readers would recognize, and the Hulk was Edward Norton. That year, Captain America: The First Avenger hit the big screen, and though it wasn't obvious at the time, this film would have a huge impact on what would become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe – so much so that, a decade later, we're still feeling its effects. 

The First Avenger was the fifth installment in a series of linked Marvel movies, before they were all owned by Disney. Iron Man was a massive hit, yet its follow-ups – The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor – weren't breaking ground in the same way. The first Captain America movie was to join this line-up, and also had the unenviable task of setting up The Avengers: the first crossover "event" of its kind.

An origin story

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

While Chris Evans is a familiar face now, we nearly missed out on his take on Steve Rogers. Multiple actors auditioned for the lead role, including A Quiet Place's John Krasinski, Guardian of the Galaxy's Chris Pratt, future US Agent actor Wyatt Russell, and soon-to-be Bucky Barnes, Sebastian Stan. In fact, Evans – who had previous superhero experience playing the Human Torch in the Fox-released Fantastic Four movies – turned the role down twice before eventually accepting. 

"Getting the [Captain America] offer felt to me like the epitome of temptation," he explained to The Hollywood Reporter. "The ultimate job offer, on the biggest scale. I'm supposed to say no to this thing. It felt like the right thing to do." Ultimately it was talking to friends, and a call with Robert Downey Jr., that convinced him to take the role. 

A different Steve might not have been the only significant change during pre-production, either. The film first entered into development in 1997, and at one point only spent about half its runtime in the '40s. But, after 14 years, Joe Johnston's The First Avenger movie finally made it to cinemas in July 2011. 

Captain America arrives

Captain America: The First Avenger

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Despite the years of tortuous development, the movie landed without much fanfare, falling short of Iron Man, Thor, and Iron Man 2 at the box office while outperforming The Incredible Hulk. Reviews were positive, but not overwhelmingly so. Still today, you won't find the first Captain America movie high on many peoples' MCU rankings, though the movie is fiercely loved by those Marvel fans who now hold Captain America as their favorite Avenger.

Of course, it's understandable that The First Avenger has been overshadowed by what came afterwards, especially considering that, a year later, The Avengers arrived and transformed the cinematic landscape, blowing everything that came before out the water. Yet, Cap's origin story more than holds up against the rest of the MCU today. Not only is it an entertaining action adventure, it's also genuinely full of heart, giving us one of the MCU’s most touching love stories between Steve and Hayley Atwell's Peggy: I challenge anyone watching Steve in 21st Century Times Square wistfully declare "I had a date" to not feel a lump in their throat. That earnestness can also be seen in Stanley Tucci's character Erskine having the belief that Steve is the right candidate for the Serum because he's "not a perfect soldier, but a good man." Proper comic book stuff. 

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The movie also clearly establishes the values of Captain America and what it means to wield the shield. Steve's morality is simple: he doesn't like bullies, and he'll fight them whether he's scrawny or strong. He won't give up – he can do this all day. If he thinks something is wrong, he won't rest until he's put it right. In fact, his first ever act as Captain America is to disobey Tommy Lee Jones' Colonel Phillips, go behind enemy lines, and rescue some imprisoned soldiers (including his best friend, Bucky). All of this would turn out to be incredibly important to the trajectory of the MCU, though it wasn't so obvious at the time. 

Captain America's legacy

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

That black-and-white morality, and Steve's willingness to break the rules, is essential to what happens in The First Avengers' two sequels. The Winter Soldier plunges Steve into the moral gray zone, but he still finds a way to stick to what he believes, becoming a fugitive from the HYDRA-infested SHIELD and refusing to give up on the brainwashed Bucky. It's also the slicker and more action-heavy The Winter Soldier that propelled Steve into the fan-favorite status the character still enjoys today, after he was viewed as maybe a bit boring post-The Avengers. Similarly, Civil War saw Steve on the run, this time fighting his own teammates, because he refused to do something he thought was wrong – and the seismic impact that movie had on the MCU is obvious. 

Peggy and Steve's relationship is also very significant: at the finale of Endgame, Steve passed his shield to Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson so he could return to the past and be with his lost love. Not only was their relationship the very last thing depicted in the at one point highest-grossing movie of all time, it also set up The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which would delve deep into the legacy of the shield. The First Avenger showed us what makes someone the right candidate for the serum, which played out in the series: the perfect soldier, John Walker, versus the good man, Sam Wilson. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier grappled with racism in the US and what it means for a Black man to be Captain America, it also dealt with the legacy Steve left behind, and Sam soon made the mantle his own. 

With Mackie recently suggesting that he could be playing his character for years to come (and reportedly starring in a fourth Cap movie), it's clear that Captain America's impact will continue to resonate across the future of the MCU – and it's unlikely we would know and love Cap in quite the same way without The First Avenger setting the scene all those years ago.  


Check out what's coming next in the MCU with our guide to Marvel Phase 4.

I'm an experienced online writer with articles published on film, TV, and pop culture. I am currently working at GamesRadar+ as a freelance Entertainment Reporter. I previously worked on the Disney team and freelanced on CBeebies magazine with Immediate Media.