The Road to ‘Endgame’ Part 3: How ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ Give Meaning to Future Franchise Installments
Why we need to understand the past to appreciate the present.
In the lead-up to the highly anticipated conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s epic “Infinity Saga”: Avengers: Endgame, we’re taking a look back at the decade-long road it took to get to this point. Up today are 2011’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, two movies which were very impactful on MCU fans upon release, but have become somewhat overlooked in the near-decade since their respective releases.
These two films considerably widened the scope of the MCU, taking us to different times and places beyond the late-2000’s America in which the prior three films had taken place. While Thor does spend some time in the good ol’ USA, it also introduces us to the titular characters’ homeland of Asgard, and despite its title, the bulk of Captain America: The First Avenger actually takes place in England during World War II in the 1940’s. It was exciting for fans to get to explore different corners of the MCU, and between this type of expansion and the first hints at a crossover factor in the previous movies, the scale of the franchise was growing. By this point, it was starting to actually feel like a true universe.
As mentioned earlier, Thor and Captain America both saw positive reception from fans back in 2011, but nowadays the consensus on them seems to fall more in the “lukewarm” category. This is probably because in the eight years since they were released, the central characters have gone on to appear in movies (and in Agent Peggy Carter’s case, a TV show) that got even better reception, so these films have sort of faded from memory in comparison. While this is certainly fair – and speaks to the quality we’ve come to expect from the MCU – it’s also sad in a way since it seems the big impact these movies had on the MCU has been forgotten to an extent.
It seems a little funny to think about now, but Thor had a lot of people hyped after they first saw it. We may criticize the lack of creativity in the Asgard setting, the boring love story, and the wasted potential in general (especially with Thor himself, despite a pretty good performance from Chris Hemsworth), but none of that mattered back in 2011. While the movie was named after the God of Thunder, its true purpose was to introduce us to the God of Mischief. Loki may be the villain in this story, but in a way he’s also the heart of it. He’s the one forced to deal with the discovery his whole life has been a lie, and his arc, despite not getting as much focus as Thor’s – was definitely the one that had a larger effect on the overarching story of the MCU. (It adds a whole extra layer to The Avengers in particular.)
Aside from maybe The Incredible Hulk, Thor is probably the least essential hero origin story in the MCU; while Thor does learn a lesson in this movie, he started the movie with the same powers he ended it with and his personality was pretty much the same in his next few appearances beyond not smashing cups on the floor anymore. It really is a shame the filmmakers clearly didn’t know what to do with their main character. (It’s even more of a shame that this sadly didn’t change for over half a decade.) But it is without a doubt one of the most essential villain origin stories, making it pretty much the complete opposite of a typical MCU movie from the first two phases.
The First Avenger is about as run-of-the-mill of an origin story as you can get. Guy no one believes in gets superpowers, learns to use them, and comes into his own, while his strong morals and good heart always remaining his greatest assets before and after acquiring the superhuman abilities. Much like Iron Man (which was, interestingly, the origin movie for the yin to Cap’s yang) the only real unconventional part of the movie is the ending, which hit audiences like a ton of bricks. Even though the final line of “I had a date” didn’t quite match the metaphorical mic drop of “I am Iron Man” (though Chris Evans did a good job with its heartbreaking delivery) it was still a gut-punch because the romance between Cap and Peggy was done so well throughout the rest of the movie and how the scene as a whole showed the juxtaposition of our hero’s life in the past compared to what we’d soon see him face in the present.
The First Avenger tells a story that is structurally standard, morally black-and-white, and yes, more than a little cheesy. It’s not nearly as complex or fresh as what we’d see Cap face in the Avengers movies and especially his future solo films. But in order to truly understand just how much of a fish-out-of water Steve Rogers is in the modern world, we needed to experience the one where he came from and see just how big the difference between the two really is. Captain America, more than any other MCU character, is defined by the experiences and relationships in his origin film. Unlike most of his fellow heroes, he looks to the past over the future. And this is precisely why The First Avenger is arguably the most important origin movie in the MCU.
Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger may not be anywhere near the top of the MCU food chain anymore, but they will always be the films to have began two of the franchise’s most emotional story arcs, and are definitely worth revisiting for that reason.