I am a cynical, contrarian broad. I know, you’re so surprised. But I’m hardly the only one out there, if the general love of the anti-hero is any indication. These days, the Lawful Good character seems hopelessly quaint, something that can only be subverted or deconstructed because playing it straight just wouldn’t work.
But I love Captain America, more than just about anyone else in the MCU. (And I’m strictly talking about the MCU, mind. The few comics I read growing up were mainly DC.) It surprises the hell out of me, because he never struck me as my kind of character, but I just can’t resist the charming bastard. Naturally, I started trying to break down why, and discovered that he’s actually quite complex.
Have you ever played D&D with a paladin in the party? Did they make you want to slap them repeatedly? There’s an unfortunate tendency for the white knight character to lapse into annoying smugness, to make the leap from “I am good” to “You are not, therefore I am better.”
But we don’t get that with Cap. It’s actually the major distinction between him and Red Skull: Schmidt is convinced that his abilities make him superior to mere humans, while Steve insists that he’s “just a kid from Brooklyn.” (Because once upon a time, “Brooklyn” was shorthand for “poor and scrappy” rather than “hipster.”) It’s rather telling that he only refers to himself as “Captain America” just the one time (during the rescue in Azzano); the rest of the time, he’s just Steve Rogers, even while in costume and kicking ass.
Speaking of Azzano, one of the best examples of Steve’s humility comes when he returns from his successful but unauthorized mission and turns himself over for discipline. It’s the kind of thing you never see with other heroes; if they’re breaking the rules for the right reasons, that’s the end of it. I mean, contrast that scene with the scene from Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk seems utterly appalled that violating Starfleet directives can have consequences even if things more or less turn out okay. (Infuriatingly, those consequences don’t really stick, but that’s another post.) Steve knows that going AWOL to perform a daring rescue mission is still going AWOL, and he doesn’t hesitate to face whatever might come of that.
On that topic…
I was rather shocked by the trailers for The First Avenger where Cap bursts into a room, pistol blazing. See, as I said, growing up I didn’t really have access to or interest in comics, so my familiarity with those properties was mostly by way of the cartoons, where firearms were strictly verboten. The idea of a superhero with a gun seemed inherently contradictory to me; guns represented that bright line that you simply did not cross.
You know that Doctor Who quote about how good men don’t need rules? I think that’s the difference here. A Superman without restrictions is a terrible alien god. A Batman who uses guns looks a whole lot like a villain. But Steve Rogers is a soldier in a war, and not only that, but he’s fighting Nazis. It’s just not as problematic for him to use lethal force as it is for some rando in a cowl.
Consider the moment when Captain America and the Red Skull first meet face-to-face. Steve throws a punch, and Schmidt throws one right back, a punch that’s so strong it nearly goes clean through Steve’s prop shield. Steve responds by immediately reaching for his sidearm, in a cut so quick it took me several viewings to catch it. He realizes that he’s dealing with someone who is his physical match or better, someone who represents a major threat to both himself personally and the Allied war effort, and he does not hesitate to put him down. Or he would if the gun didn’t get knocked away, anyway.
An even better example of this occurs right after the super soldier transformation, when Steve is pursuing the Hydra spy through the streets. The spy takes a kid hostage and throws him into the harbor as a distraction. This is where you’d expect a bit of dithering and wangst from the hero, faced with the impossible choice between saving an innocent and pursuing justice for his fallen friend and mentor. But nope, Steve goes without hesitation toward the child in danger, only continuing his pursuit after the kid confirms that he doesn’t need help.
Winter Soldier does introduce a bit more doubt and handwringing about what the right thing really is, but still, in our obsessively introspective culture, it’s rather refreshing to see someone who simply does what needs to be done, no fuss or whining.
True, Cap doesn’t have any of your stock character flaws: no drinking problem, no dark secrets, no hidden vices. But that doesn’t change the fact that our boy is a little fucked in the head. The more appearances he makes, the clearer it becomes that Steve Rogers has a serious death wish.
Bucky calls him out on it when it’s still just a question of him trying to get into combat when he’s woefully unfit; the very first line they exchange is “Sometimes I think you like getting punched,” and later he cuts through Steve’s high-minded talk of service with, “Yeah, ‘cuz you got nothing to prove.” Over and over Steve puts himself in the most direct and extreme danger without considering other less suicidal alternatives, from jumping on a (fake) grenade that doesn’t really present a danger since everyone is already clear, to his decision to crash the Valkyrie despite Peggy’s pleas to at least try finding another way.
This stance gets clarified a bit in The Avengers while everyone’s bickering in the Helicarrier’s lab. He calls out Tony for being selfish and unwilling to sacrifice, which Tony doesn’t deny. “Always a way out,” Steve says. “You know, you may not be a threat, but you’d better stop pretending to be a hero.” From this statement, it’s clear that Steve equates heroism with sacrifice. As the skinny kid, he shows the desire to have his life mean something, and to that end he takes every opportunity possible to die for a cause, whether it’s necessary or not.
He’s a dork
I think this is a big part of Cap’s appeal for me. Even after he becomes, as the Apple Store guy in Winter Soldier says, a specimen, he’s still that socially and physically awkward little guy inside, still the guy who brought a trunk full of books to basic training. Thrown into a chase immediately after undergoing his transformation, he’s a newborn foal, constantly oversteering and crashing into things–and apologizing every step of the way. One of my favorite moments in all of cinema occurs in The Avengers, where Steve gets excited about catching a cultural reference, then abashedly explains himself to the group. It’s a brief exchange, but it perfectly encapsulates his character.
He’s also quite intelligent, especially when it comes to tactics. It’s first evidenced when he outsmarts the flag challenge at Camp Lehigh, and eventually even the egomaniacal Iron Man defers to him during the Battle of New York. It’s a minor point, but it really does help flesh out the character, and ensures that he’s the one driving the plot by actively figuring things out.
Honestly, much of what makes Cap wonderful is Chris Evans’s performance. Yes, he’s got the All-American aw-shucks thing down pat, but he also uses his wry deadpan delivery to fantastic effect. It’s the same understated comedy that made him so perfect as the straight man in Not Another Teen Movie. So many heroes, especially of the paladin variety, are so goddamn humorless (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel) that it’s really a treat to see someone who’s always ready with a self-deprecating quip.
So really, it turns out that there’s quite a lot to like about Captain America, even for an unpatriotic and jaded sort like myself. He’s a well-constructed and multifaceted character portrayed with skill and subtlety. Marvel’s films have given us a lot of memorable characters, but Steve Rogers has a special place in my wrinkly, black heart.