Remembering When Captain America Fell on That Grenade – and Created the Soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

(Welcome to Great Moments in MCU History, where we fondly recall great little bits that made us fall in love with the MCU.)

After all these years, it’s fun to look back at early Marvel Cinematic Universe efforts. They’re all so quaint in retrospect, so tiny. Thor loses his hammer and has to fight a big metal guy who breathes fire. (Yes, I know he’s called the Destroyer, but he destroys little more than a block of New Mexico’s smallest town). Tony Stark makes his suit, flies around a bit, and has to fight a slower, chunkier Iron Man. Hulk fights some army guys on a college campus and then has to fight an uglier Hulk.

But we didn’t fall in love with them for their bombastic, non-stop action. Early Marvel films succeeded –  allowing bigger Marvel films to mature – due to their casting, their wit, their heart and their willingness to get a little weird with it. This was the age of Nolan’s Batman films, after all. It took guts to make a colorful, pop-Shakespearean Thor film filled with Dutch angles.

Heart is front and center in the first great MCU moment I’d like to discuss: the famous grenade scene from Captain America: The First Avenger.

The Scene

Steve Rogers wants nothing more than to help people, and in 1943, that means joining the war and punching Nazis (or Hydra folk if he finds any). But despite his infinite spirit and altruism, his scrawny body – and I mean scrawny scrawny scrawny – keeps him from getting in.

But then Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanely Tucci) comes to the rescue. Recognizing Steve’s full-on Mr. Rogers vibes, he gets him in the military, secretly pegging him for a radical super-soldier serum he’s developed. His counterpart, Tommy Lee Jones’ Colonel Chester Phillips, would prefer they use the serum on a pre-tough mean guy which, let’s be fair, I also wouldn’t mind seeing.

So now little Steve’s in the army, trying to prove his worth among a crew of regular-sized, American beef boys. But forget them. The main person he needs to impress is Tommy Lee Jones. Have you ever tried to impress Tommy Lee Jones? No one younger than Tommy Lee Jones has ever succeeded. “I don’t care” is not only his most famous line read, but also his approach to your entire life.

Steve manages it anyway when Jones throws a grenade at his assembled recruits, just to make a point of how disappointingly afraid of grenades they all are. They take their strong bodies and run away like jerks except for our wee hero, who leaps on the grenade without a second thought, hoping to use his tiny gut as an explosion shield for everybody else. This act finally convinces Tommy Lee Jones he has some real hero material on his hands, though no one ponders whether Steve is just enthusiastically suicidal.

Why It’s Great

Let’s just start with the cast. It’s difficult to beat a scene with Tommy Lee Jones and Stanely Tucci together, especially if they are bickering. Marvel gets a ton of deserved credit for casting their heroes, but even this far back, they did a great job matching support roles with just the right actors. It’s easier for us to love Steve when he can melt the ice around Jones’ heart and earn the warmth of Tucci’s.

Captain America, the film and the character, would not be so beloved without the consideration and time invested in scrawny Steve Rogers, all peaking here with this grenade sequence. This is a fully-formed character long before he puts on his costume, and his hallmarks remain consistent all the way to Endgame. Captain America’s world changes repeatedly, but he does not. Remember, he first utters “I could do this all day” while still in his malnourished Gummo form.

So from this point forward, and we’re talking six films here, we all know who Steve is: the guy who instinctively falls on a grenade, facing certain death, to help others. His black and white, perhaps simplistic responses weather fierce opposition in the modern world, particularly from Tony “I think I would just cut the wire” Stark, but he never abandons them. Because despite his big muscles and American ass, he never stopped being that skinny kid who just wants to help. Except for that one time where he finally quit fighting and spent his life with the woman he loved instead. He could do this all day, but come evening he’s got other plans!

What If?

Well, I mean, what if Tommy Lee Jones threw a real grenade and it blew Steve’s guts out all over the other recruits? That would be pretty remarkable too. They’d have to go out and find another indomitably kind and brave and skinny kid as fast as they could. Or they could just be real smart and give the serum to Peggy Carter. Either way, Tommy Lee Jones would have gotten demoted for sure.

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