The Education of Captain America: 10 Must-See Films for a Thawed Superhero

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Let’s say that it’s World War 2 and you’re a super-soldier, gifted with peak human physical condition and nearly limitless endurance courtesy of science, and born with a dauntless spirit to put all of that strength to good use. Now say that, by a cruel stroke of fate (and an ultimate display of your innate bravery), you wind up frozen in hoary Arctic depths, saving the day one last time at the cost of sinking to an icy, watery grave.

Except that one day, you wake up in a recovery ward in 2011, still in possession of all your fortitude, fearlessness and selflessness, but hopelessly out of time and out of place.

That’s where 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger left poor Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the star-spangled superhero of the title, following his final encounter with the Red Skull. Fast forward to today, and we’re in the post-Avengers phase of Marvel’s cinematic endeavor, where Rogers has slowly begun to acclimated to modern times, still out of his element—and still fighting the good fight—but making a go at making up for lost time.

In this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’re treated to a scene where Rogers does just that, taking musical cues from Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka The Falcon, who name-drops Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man as a way for Rogers to learn about modern culture. At the suggestion, Rogers takes out a notepad to jot the song down, revealing a whole laundry list of things for him to catch up on—including Star Wars and Rocky (and maybe Rocky II).

But that’s just a drop in the cinematic bucket from the last seventy plus years Rogers has spent in hibernation. He’s missed out on some of the medium’s biggest developments in that time, passing right on by some of its best years and most important milestones. So how best to bring Rogers back up to speed? By nailing down ten culturally significant films, one from each decade (doubling up where necessary), to help him understand the transformation film has undergone since his first campaign as, well, the first Avenger, and teach him a little bit about the changes America has gone through as a nation, to boot.

We’ll start things off in the decade Rogers’ chilly detention began, with…

1. Double Indemnity, 1944


This pick may be a bit of a taunt for poor Steve, since it opened in U.S. theaters just one year after he became the world’s most patriotic popsicle, but 1944’s Double Indemnity helped shape the blueprint for one of the most popular and defining genres of its period: film noir. The birth of noir (announced in 1940 by Boris Ingster’s Strangers on the Third Floor, though that depends on who you ask) caused a shift in American filmmaking from propagandic entertainments—ranging from The Great Dictator to Wake Island—to works boasting outlooks of cynical disillusionment toward the state of the nation.

Double Indemnity, a nasty little yarn in which Barbara Stanwyck uses her considerable feminine wiles to seduce insurance salesman Fred MacMurray into committing fraud, is about as bleak as film noir gets. That’s largely a credit to the grim flourishes cinematographer John F. Seitz and director Billy Wilder brought to production (notably their use of light and shadows), many of which became staples of noir thereafter. Being that noir was only just getting started at this point in time, Double Indemnity’s influence on the archetype is undeniably monumental, and can be seen in countless other noirs that followed in its wake. The film doesn’t just mark a turning point in cinema, but in American culture at large, both of which should be of interest to Steve given his status as a WW2 vet.

2. On the Waterfront, 1954


Elia Kazan’s most iconic, and memorable, film is a dual-pronged snapshot of 1950s America, one that not only captures a critical moment in the meteoric rise of Marlon Brando—the man who invented modern acting—but also captures the anxieties and tensions of living in the era of McCarthyism, both a shameful practice and a moment in time that’s essential toward understanding mid-1900s American history (especially for a man of principle and a defender of liberty like Rogers). Robbed of proper context, that particular bit of connective tissue is meaningless, and the film remains nothing more than a tale of broken ambitions and a powerful ode to the plight of New York’s longshoremen (as screenwriter Budd Schulberg alleges he intended); that and, of course, a testament to Brando’s preternatural thespian abilities.

But taking into account Kazan’s appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 changes On the Waterfront’s tenor irrevocably. The film is about dockworker Terry Malloy’s (Brando) struggle with morality as he’s goaded by numerous parties into testifying against Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a union boss with mob connections that run deep. When Terry makes his ultimate choice and later proclaims his pride in informing on Johnny, he’s speaking for Kazan, who named names to the HUAC more than half a century ago and didn’t express any regret for his actions all the way up to his passing in 2003. He was glad what he done to the end.

3. Dr. Strangelove, 1964


Maybe using Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as an instrument for teaching the Cold War to someone who wasn’t conscious during its tenure doesn’t make a lot of sense at first blush. The film is a black comic satire, after all, and not necessarily an educational tool that documents the conflict in any sort of realistic detail; it even ends with Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb like it’s a bucking bronco. But by engaging with farce and taking the inherent paranoia of Cold War politics that it depicts to the most absurd extremes possible, Dr. Strangelove winds up saying just as much about the Cold War as other films of its kind, like On the Beach or Fail-Safe.

For all of Kubrick’s exaggerations, the anxiety and distrust expressed by his hilariously monikered characters—Buck Turgidson, Merkin Muffley, Lionel Mandrake—actually reflects Cold War reality quite astutely. And if the United States didn’t officially adopt preemption—a notion that Cap himself disagrees with intrinsically—as a legitimate military strategy, the country never made a no-first-use pledge, either. (Plus, the act one conversation about first-use doctrine between Turgidson and Muffley echoes and extrapolates on very real exchanges made between members of the Gaither Committee.) Dr. Strangelove pokes a lot of fun at its somber apocalyptic scenario, but Kubrick’s deft synthesis of comedy and history is the film’s best stroke of genius.

4. The Godfather, 1972


Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s crime novel is something of a monolith in American cinema. The film manages, all at once, to distill the experience of Italian-American immigrants into one three-hour narrative, to examine and critique the American dream, and to make a harsh indictment of the American justice system all at the same time—and if Rogers cares about anything, he cares about justice. To deny or overlook its vast influence would be a tremendous mistake; this is the same picture that changed Italian-Americans’ self-perception back in the 1970s (and, frankly, made Americans of other stripes want to be Italian themselves), and a work that pop culture at large—from The Sopranos to Modern Family—continues to borrow inspiration from even today.

The film remains so ubiquitous in its influence that recapping it barely feels necessary; primarily, it concerns itself with chronicling the saga of the Corleone crime family, and in doing so providing fertile ground for delving into each of the themes mentioned above. In staging Michael Corleone’s slow ascent to the pinnacle of his father Vito’s mafia syndicate, The Godfather showcases the tragic demise of the American dream that Rogers still fights for to this very day, as well as the futility of assimilation.

5. Nashville, 1975


Robert Altman drew his own sprawling portrait of contemporary America against a canvas made up of politics and country music, blending more than twenty characters, around an hour’s worth of musical numbers, and countless intersecting storylines into a balanced, nuanced cultural cocktail. It’s an intricate pastiche, almost epic in scope if not in quality, that fully encapsulates the nation’s many complexities and idiosyncrasies—its dedication to community, its misogyny, its racism, its jingoism—all while demonstrating just how removed we are from one another despite living in such close proximity. In other words, Nashville is a story of contradictions.

When the film was first released, it was assumed by some that Altman intended condescension toward certain members of his audience. In truth, Nashville is definitely a satire, but it’s a gentle, fond satire, one that’s peppered by a certain degree of warmth and amicability toward its broad collection of characters. There’s too much geniality here to allow for the kind of backhanded moral superiority that Altman’s detractors claimed to see in Nashville’s rich array of micro-narratives. If the film is a snapshot of an America under duress—the specters of Vietnam and Watergate, two events of major significance to Rogers, haunt the edges of the proceedings—it’s a sympathetic one.

6. Wall Street, 1987


Greed culture and the 1980s are inextricably linked to one another, and if there’s one reason why, it’s Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. There are multiple reasons for that association, mind—the ’80s were the time of Reagan’s America—but Gekko’s “greed is good” credo remains relevant even in 2014, one year after American cinema was thematically defined by films about reckless self-indulgence (The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers chief among them). Gekko has lost his touch in the last couple of decades—2010 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps proves that quite handily—but he’s still a major avatar of greed philosophy despite being so past his prime.

Wall Street is all about the degradation of the quintessentially American belief that hard work and dedication are the keys to success (something Rogers himself, a paragon of perseverance, knows a thing or two about), an ideology that Gecko betrays with his tactic of trawling for stock tips, coveting the insider information he needs to execute his corporate raids. In telling the tale of how Gekko (Michael Douglas) seduces Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) with the promise of vast wealth and elite social status, Oliver Stone leveled a scathing reprimand at the adherents of me-first ideologies and created the genre blueprint that every one of Wall Street’s potential heirs have mimicked ever since.

7. Malcolm X, 1992


Here, we’re appealing to the equal opportunity side of Rogers, a man who stands up for people no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they look like. Discussing American cinema of the last eighty or so years without bringing up films related to the Civil Rights movement is impossible, and there’s no film better to rely on as a Civil Rights touchstone than Malcolm X. This isn’t a film that’s at all about the decade in which it opened—Malcolm himself was assassinated in 1965—but it is about systemic American racism and about the life of one of its greatest opponents, and it covers such a wide swath of time that the lack of temporal specificity doesn’t matter at all. Malcolm X doesn’t just capture the spirit and the journey of the man, but also presents these qualities robustly, refusing to reduce Malcolm to nothing more than a symbol.

The film is also notable for bringing together one of the great black contemporary filmmakers (Spike Lee) with one of the great black contemporary thespians (Denzel Washington); they’d collaborated just two years prior with Mo’ Better Blues, but Malcolm X saw them both working at another level of craft. Lee weaves his passion for social justice into the fabric of a revolutionary’s personal narrative while Washington all but disappears into the lead role, and together, they produce not simply a movie about Malcolm X’s life, but an event unto itself.

8. Three Kings, 1999


The Gulf War’s relative recency means that there’s a dearth of films that cover the conflict, but among those meager offerings, Three Kings easily stands out as the most successful; it plays to cliches of the war film, but twists each of them just enough to make them feel fresh. The cinematography is grainier, better showcasing the unforgiving climate in which the film takes place; the characters (be they protagonists or antagonists) more well-rounded; and the violence, though somewhat less graphic, is more specific, more in-depth than that of its kin. What other war movie shows us a lung wound being repaired, quick and dirty, on the field with such up-close insistence?

Three Kings is arguably the best film of David O. Russell’s career, vaulting him out of original, unhinged comedies and square into important topical projects (though he loses none of his biting wit in the transition). Most of all, though, it presents a thoughtful, multi-sided commentary on American intervention in the Middle East, discussing necessity and hypocrisy in equal measure while presenting a driving metaphor for the U.S. presence in Middle Eastern territories through its central plot, in which George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze attempt to pull off a gold heist amidst the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein. If Rogers is still on active duty, then he could use a few refresher courses on the U.S.’s overseas conflicts and its involvement in foreign nations—and though it takes liberties, Three Kings makes a fine cinematic starting point for brushing up on recent history.

9. Anchorman, 2004


Sometimes, it’s enough just for a movie to be deliriously funny, and for everyone attuned to the impactful pleasures of slapstick comedy, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is an American classic. Endlessly quotable, infinitely rewatchable, Anchorman is lightning in a bottle, a film that features all of its talent—from leading man Will Ferrell to co-stars Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Christina Applegate—operating in concert at the peak of their powers (and before half of them wore out their go-to schticks), and whose efficacy hasn’t quite been recaptured in the decade following its release.

But there’s more at the center of Anchorman’s irreverent insanity. The film is cartoonish, willfully abandoning reality at its outset in favor of hitting cosmic heights of comedy, but the story of Ron Burgundy, anchorman for fictional San Diego station KVWN, actually grounds itself with a throughline about women breaking through the boys club that was the newsroom in the 1970s, something Rogers may be able to appreciate as a man working alongside capable women in modern times. Ron’s struggle to come to terms with Veronica Corningstone’s (Applegate) success as an anchor is mostly defined by unbridled silliness, but it gives the film a brain and a conscience that somehow makes its punchlines even funnier.

10. The Social Network, 2010


Welcome to the present, an age where people are growing ever more content to communicate and interact with each other through the soft, warm glow of a monitor than in person. If we can reasonably trace the origins of online tete-a-tetes prior to the explosive popularity Facebook enjoyed a decade ago—say, to computer gaming—then we can still look at Mark Zuckerberg’s brilliant, culture-shaping invention (or is it?) as the progenitor of today’s widespread obsession with status updates and “like” tallies. And for that reason alone, The Social Network is kind of a huge screaming deal in the canon of contemporary American cinema.

Divorced from that cultural significance, The Social Network also happens to be a really great film on its own merits; much of that has to do with David Fincher’s absolutely stunning direction, coupled with Jeff Cronenweth’s equally sterling cinematography, which blended together result in not just one of the most socially relevant, but also most technically well-crafted films of the current decade. Rogers is probably too busy for marathon Facebook sessions, to say nothing of Tweeting, but that doesn’t mean shouldn’t learn about one of the technological cornerstones of our time.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.