There are few comic movies that have been seen as just great movies, instead of being good genre films – Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) being the two stand outs as movies that have transcended the comic book medium. While Marvel is yet to have a movie reach that level of critical success, I would like to argue that Steve Rogers, the man behind Captain America, has a character arc that is actually one of the best in any trilogy put out.
The Captain America films have all been solid entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is a fun pulp action adventure laced with the fun and tone that have been missing since the last worthy Indiana Jones outing (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ); Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is an excellent action-thriller, and probably comes closest to being the transcendent superhero film; and Captain America: Civil War (2016), while it has some of the same issues of bloat as the Avenger films have had, is grounded with a great central conflict and one of the better MCU villains, in the form of Daniel Brühl’s low key Helmut Zemo.
One of the problems for Steve Rogers within the MCU mix is that he seems relatively bland compared to some of his fellow heroes in the MCU: he isn’t god-like like Thor or Hulk, he doesn’t have the quippy charisma of Tony Stark, Loki or Starlord, nor does he have some of the more flashy powers like Wanda Maximoff or Stephen Strange. As both the first Captain America and Avengers films both highlight, the core strength of Steve Rogers is his earnestness and his moral character, which doesn’t really stand out next to magic crystals, aliens or genius technology. As Abraham Erskine, the inventor of the super serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America, explains in the first film, Rogers was chosen over dozens of other more competent soldiers because of his goodness: “the strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion.” We see through the rest of the film that once given great strength, Rogers uses it selflessly and fearlessly – after Erskine is killed moments after Rogers is successfully given the serum, Rogers doesn’t hesitate to pursue Erskine’s killer, running unarmed and barefoot through the streets after him. While being paraded around as a show pony to sell war bonds, Rogers hears of the capture of his childhood friend and sets out by himself, infiltrating a HYDRA camp solo and rescuing dozens of soldiers singlehandedly. And in the final showdown with Red Skull, Rogers doesn’t hesitate to give up his life to ensure that HYDRA cannot annihilate half of America, crashing the flying HYDRA superweapon into the ocean to ensure its destruction. All the while, Rogers displays that strength with great humility and endless perseverance, especially in contrast to the preening bullying of the other candidates for the super serum program.
In The Avengers (2012), we see numerous instances of that character on display. Rogers doesn’t back down from a fight with Asgardian gods more than once; he discovers that SHIELD, the ostensible good guys, were secretly building weapons with the crazy alien artifact they used to have in their possession, exposing that Nick Fury wasn’t completely upfront about his agenda; and he helps organize the defense and protection of civilians as an alien army rampages through it. All of this reinforces that the physical strength of Rogers is buttressed by his moral strength and goodness.
With all that as the basis for the character, what strikes me is how cleverly the Captain America movies use that foundation for interesting exploration of what it means to be a force for moral good, which is rare in serialized fiction. Most characters that are expected to be part of an ongoing series remain very static – Tony Stark, despite nominally turning his back to some extent on Iron Man at the end of the third Iron Man movie, is still around with endless gadgets and one-liners, still unsettled with Pepper and with barely any greater sense of growth. Thor is now king of Asgard but it can be hardly said that he has evolved as a person – he is less one eye but he remains much the same at a core character level. Hulk is still Hulk, and still smashing. Peter Parker is eternally the young, bright-eyed kid trying to do good by the world.
And in fiction beyond the MCU, most characters change very little over the course of their run. James Bond changes by actor but the portrayal remains much the same within that actor’s time in the role. House MD stands out as the best example of the failure for the character to evolve: here is this deeply flawed character, with crippling dysfunction, and just as they look like they might advance the character forward in the later seasons, he snaps back to the status quo from the start of the show.
At one point, this is just a problem with unrealistic characters in unrealistic worlds. We don’t watch these sorts of movies and shows to see people doing mundane things, like eating, sleeping or getting married and raising small children. The point of entertainment is to escape from the mundanity of our own lives and experience something we could never experience but the downside is that these characters never go through the things that force us mere mortals to grow as people. When you take on the responsibilities of being an adult, and as we grow older, we (hopefully) mature as people. Our experiences shape our character, and make us wiser and more rounded as people. Cut off from those normal experiences, James Bond or Wolverine or Sherlock Holmes are perpetual adolescents, running around the world doing the kinds of exciting things we wish we could all do if we had the chance.
What is striking about the Captain America movies is that Rogers does evolve, as he is forced to make choices about whether he will stand for his principles and how he will stand for them. These choices are not broadcast with a neon sign, saying ‘look at this character is changing’, but are subtly worked into the fabric of the movies. In The First Avenger, as we’ve already seen, Rogers embraces the strength given him to be the good man he truly is, giving up his life to save the lives of millions.
(SPOILER WARNING: I explain the plot of both The Winter Soldier and Civil War here, so spoilers will be had)
In The Winter Soldier, Rogers is still unsure of this place in the world – he is a soldier for SHIELD but finds himself engulfed in webs of lies and deception during a mission, leaving him deeply uncomfortable. As he confronts Nick Fury, head of SHIELD, about the double-dealing behind his back, Fury reveals his grand strategy: Project Insight. Insight would identify any threat on Earth and eliminate it before it can muster its strength – Big Brother combined with drones on steroids. Rogers recognizes the problem: it is ‘holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection’. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear” is how he puts it to his friend, setting up a clash of ideologies between himself and Nick Fury. While it would turn out later that Roger’s WWII nemesis HYDRA had infiltrated the ranks of SHIELD and had taken control of both SHIELD and Project Insight, the dilemma Fury presents is one very much grounded in the world we live in now: how far is too far when it comes to national security? Fury, and later Alexander Pierce, present an argument we hear from the mouths of very real people today, an argument that guys like Peter Dutton or any of the enemies of Edward Snowden in Congress would agree with. We cannot wait for terrorists to strike – we must use extreme measures in order to ensure safety.
This leaves Rogers in the horns of a quandary: how does Project Insight sit with his own moral code and what will he do if he cannot abide by it? With one of the best action scenes ever choreographed, Rogers evades capture and goes on the run as a fugitive, cut off from his resources and pursued by a powerful government agency. Discovering the takeover of SHIELD by HYDRA, Rogers gathers his allies to take down Insight before it can go online and just as they launch their attack, Rogers gives a terrific speech to all SHIELD staff, exposing the truth of the HYDRA takeover, explaining the stakes and calling on others to resist HYDRA. In doing so, Rogers reveals his convictions and his willingness to follow them, no matter the cost. Having explained the danger, Rogers states:
I know I’m asking a lot but the price of freedom is high – it always has been, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it, but I’m willing to bet I’m not.
Rogers is facing down this immense power, backed by world governments and staffed by men and women of conviction, and he cannot turn away and ignore it – he feels compelled to act on what he knows to be right. Even after Nick Fury begs to spare Insight from total destruction, Rogers takes down not only Insight but also SHIELD, in order to expose HYDRA’s lies and secrets – the good soldier rips down the institution he was sworn to serve.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) sees more Stark/Rogers chest thumping but at the outset of Civil War, Steve is engrossed in being an Avenger full time, tracking down the remnants of HYDRA. When a mission goes south, the Avengers are blamed and an attempt to bring the Avengers under governmental control starts to begin in earnest. Once again, we see the movie present a real dilemma, a real clash of ideas. While I think that the pro-signing case has some real issues (can you really blame the Avengers for what happens in Nigeria? Are they to blame for Loki destroying New York? For the rise of HYDRA?), the core of the pro-signing case is solid: will the governments of the world really tolerate a group of vigilantes, with more firepower than most armies, who ignore the rules and do what they want? The Avengers are a threat to the established order and it isn’t hard to see that the governments of the world will want to bring them to heel. The consequences of wholesale rejection of any government oversight would be dire for the Avengers, as it would mean killing a lot of people to stay free, and so I can see why Stark et al would be keen to avoid such an outcome.
Rogers, however, sees the core issue with accepting government oversight: what if they want to send the Avengers somewhere they don’t want to go? Or refuse to let them go somewhere they know they should go? For someone whose convictions are decisive in their moral calculations, Rogers could never turn away from a cause he needed to fight for. The movie explains this explicitly in a great scene that demonstrates the substance of who Steve is (and incidentally shows how great an actor Robert Downey Jr is, and how great the character of Tony Stark is in this movie – a man gripped in the horns of the same dilemma, and who pragmatism drives him to oppose his friend). Rogers can’t stand euphemistic cant when it tries to guise control in the protection of freedom and rejects it wherever he finds it, and it is here that we find that there is a real cost to his conviction and inflexibility. Whereas he previous vanquished enemies, now his conviction leads him to try to vanquish his friends.
Further compounding this is the emergence of Bucky Barnes. Bucky was Steve’s best friend and was thought to have died in WWII, however he resurfaced as an agent of HYDRA in the titular Winter Soldier of the second movie, strengthened through some of the same processes that created Steve but brainwashed to be the top killer for HYDRA. At the end of The Winter Soldier, Steve saves Bucky but Bucky flees into the world, unsure of his memories and feelings. During Civil War, a bombing of a UN building is pinned on Barnes and so begins a chase between Rogers and the authorities to get to Barnes first, with Steve believing that they will kill Barnes if they get to him first.
Eventually, Steve learns that the bombing might be part of a conspiracy instigated by Helmut Zemo to resuscitate a team of agents from the same program as Barnes, and so once again, Rogers goes on the lam with Barnes and others to discover the truth. This leads to the civil war of the title, where Stark and half the Avengers takes on Rogers and the other half. One gigantic throwdown fight in a German airport later, and Rogers and Barnes manage to escape capture and make their way to the HYDRA facility that holds the kill team they are seeking to stop. Stark learns about this threat from the captured allies of Rogers and makes his own way to the facility where he joins Rogers and Barnes, only to discover the real plan had nothing to do with reviving the death squad. Zemo reveals a much darker truth: that Barnes, while under HYDRA control through brainwashing, murdered Stark’s parents when Stark was still a young man. It is here that we learn that Rogers isn’t perfect: when Stark asks if he knew of this, Rogers admits that while he didn’t officially know the truth, he knew that Barnes was responsible the whole time and didn’t tell him. As he would later explain to Stark in a letter, he thought he could spare Tony pain but he was really sparing himself. He knew he could never turn Barnes in because he could never turn his back on his friend. It is this little twist that I think makes Rogers’ arc incredibly compelling – for while Steve’s goodness and moral strength has been his crowning glory, like in real life, we mere mortals make mistakes and Steve Rogers, Captain America, is no different. It is that touch of real humanity that, for me, makes Civil War a great film and a fine capstone to the Captain America trilogy.
From The First Avenger to Civil War, we see Steve Rogers’ convictions tested in a variety of different ways and each one shows how far he is willing to go, upsetting what could have been a comfortable status quo in each. Rather than being a traditional ‘good guy beats up bad guy’ series, I think the movies show themselves to really be about the clash of ideas and how action flows from conviction. The First Avenger is the most conventional of them all, which I think works in the context of an Indiana Jones-style action-adventure movie but The Winter Soldier and Civil War are really about how different views of the world lead to conflict. From my outside perspective, it seems like the Russo brothers asked, ‘How far can we push this character? How can we force him to make real choices?’ and then proceeded to make movies that took those choices to their logical conclusion. In my view, that is damn fine film making, and I wish that more directors and writers of action movies would do the same.
I am not entirely sure why this trilogy of movies hasn’t become transcendent like the Dark Knight trilogy has. Christopher Nolan is one of the great directors of our time, and he brings real cinematic flair to all three – they all evoke the look of classic American cinema, whereas the Captain America looks much closer to the standard CGI action fare. Even at their worst, the Dark Knight trilogy is still ambitious and daring but I don’t think Christian Bale’s Batman is anywhere nearly as good as Chris Evan’s Captain America – you don’t have anywhere near the character development or as clearly the clash of values. Much like Empire Strikes Back singlehandedly elevates Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and particularly Health Ledger’s outstanding performance, elevates the Dark Knight trilogy – if it weren’t for the greatness of The Dark Knight, I don’t think the series would be as well regarded as it is. I think in the minds of critics, the baggage of being part of this rather complicated and expansive movie franchise, and the fatigue it probably brings to many critics, is also a strike against the Captain America series.
The Captain America trilogy also has a really strong supporting cast that probably obscures Steve Rogers himself a little. Rogers isn’t an overly striking character at first glance, given his quietness and humility, and so the great array of supporting characters will tend to make it seem more of an ensemble than a solo film, especially in the case of Civil War. In The First Avenger, you have a classic Tommy Lee Jones grumpy performance and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is just fantastic – Carter and Rogers have great chemistry, which stands out compared to the tepid romance in most of the other MCU films, and it makes me a little sad that those characters couldn’t be a real pairing after The First Avenger. The Winter Soldier has Falcon and Romanoff, both of whom are engaging and charismatic and rightfully share the limelight.
Incidentally, I don’t think there has been a better demonstration of Romanoff’s character than in Winter Soldier, especially in the scene where Rogers and Romanoff first get away. We never really get a full explanation of interior life of Romanoff and yet in this scene, Scarlett Johansson manages to convey so much – when she asks Rogers who he wants her to be, you can see in her eyes that she has spent her whole life in survival mode and it has been through being infinitely flexible and ruthless, and that she knows of almost no other way. Rogers’ earnestness is the perfect counterpoint to that ambiguity, and his friendship with her exposes how harsh a life that is to live.
And of course, Civil War has the excellent Robert Downey Jr, who never fails to own the role of Tony Stark. I don’t really know how Tony Stark was portrayed in the comics but I think RDJ’s performance will define the character from now on.
It will be interesting to see how Avengers: Infinity War plays out, especially for Steve Rogers. Stripped of his Captain America persona, sporting a new beard and a new shield, it will interesting to see what they do with the character, especially since it will eventually result in the reunion of Stark and Rogers. It would be a safe bet that someone will die in the course of the next two Avenger movies, and it wouldn’t be unwise to bet that money on Rogers being killed. Unlike Superman’s useless and pointless death in Batman Vs Superman, I suspect the Russo brothers will know how to make effective use of the death of Captain America, and I think the death of a true morally good character is always a powerful part of a narrative – the death of Steve Rogers would be akin to a death of innocence in a way that probably no one else but Peter Parker (being a kid) could match, and I think it could resonate deeply with audiences.
If that were to happen, I think it would provide a fitting end to a fantastic and underrated character in cinema, a character who has his moral certainty tested again and again. It would sadden me to see Chris Evans’ Captain America disappear from our screens but it has been a great thing to watch, and something I will personally watch again and again.