Road to Endgame: How Marvel Made Captain America The Coolest
Of all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s accomplishments, the one that remains the most remarkable to me is that they made a character named Captain America (Captain…America…) the coolest Avenger.
The core of Steve Rogers/Captain America has been smoothly translated from page to screen, arguably more so than Thor or Iron Man. And yet he was supposed to be the toughest nut to crack! How could a goody-two-shoes patterned after the American flag, armed with an equally ostentatious star spangled Frisbee, ever prove to be compelling to the masses? Especially the non-American masses?
Permit the tangent, but even at the turn of the 21st century -- with George W. Bush in office and the catastrophe of the Iraq War hanging over everything like a dark cloud -- the comic book writers struggled with Cap. The boy-next-door heroism for a hero named Captain America wasn’t plausible to a country reeling from a traumatic event and feeling the beginnings of real bloodthirst. Comic book Captain America reflected this bloodthirsty milieu in Mark Millar’s hugely successful Avengers reboot series called The Ultimates, when he sneers at the suggestion he surrender with a snarky, “Do you think this “A” on my head stands for France?” Another storyline has him briefly deployed in the Middle East, as a bullying muscleman invader pushing around the little brown people. Less Captain America and more Captain ‘Murica, seemed to be the way to go. To its credit, the story presented itself as a critique of Captain America, but still…it’s hard to find a smirking critique aspirational.
And this could have been the blueprint for the big screen. It would’ve been easy to construct Cap as some gruesome embodiment/parody of America’s warmongering foreign policy (think: Michael Bay’s Captain America). The ‘Murica Fuck Yeah crowd would’ve lapped it up like red meat and the limp-wristed left-leaners such as myself would’ve appreciated the black comedy of it all. It could’ve worked. And it would’ve been poisonous.
But Marvel pulled off something uplifting instead: they allowed us to buy into the fantasy of the altruistic hero, one free of the usual motivators of ego and guilt and anger. He is relatable without being so obviously flawed. This should qualify as its own kind of special effect.
They pulled this off by plausibly building the conditions of this fantasy with a few simple, but effective strokes.
First, they convinced us that emaciated, sickly Steve Rogers deserved the Super Soldier serum that would give him the strength and speed of ten men and having him looking like an Aryan Adonis; if he didn’t earn it through his grit and his selflessness, we’d resent him for being so obviously better than us.
Second, we can believe in Steve Rogers’ maintaining that purity of heart as Captain America because he literally slept through decades of a nation’s appalling self-inflicted damage – the Vietnam War. Iran-Contra. Watergate. The War on Terror. In 2011, Cap awakens from the ice that entombed him in 1944, automatically pitting him against a country he used to proudly represent and can’t recognize anymore, one shaped by historically accurate paranoia and cynicism. He’s a loyal soldier, but he’s no cornball lackey for the Man. It is this distinction drawn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that makes it one of the finer MCU films, aside from the hard-hitting action and thrillingly mature tone.
These are the conditions by which we can accept the altruistic hero. Because it is not easy to be kind, straightforward, and principled in real-life; it isn’t easy for Captain America, either.
And that isn’t a particularly American conundrum, that’s just what it is to be a person, right? This is why the Captain America star symbol doesn’t represent a nation and its baggage; it represents simple human decency. It’s telling that in Avengers: Infinity War that though he’s stripped of his shield, the red, white, and blue colours – and even the name Captain America – he’s still the same guy.
But while all that stuff works on paper, it wouldn’t amount to much if an actor couldn’t bring these ideas to the third dimension. Chris Evans, known mostly as the charismatic party boy superhero The Human Torch, perfectly inhabits the opposite role of a corn-fed All-American good boy. It is perfect because it isn’t vanilla, it is believable. It’d be so easy to go broad, to overplay Cap as a brooding star-spangled Hamlet or on the other end of the extreme as a blonde haired blue eyed doofus. Chris Evans threads the needle with elan, playing Cap as an easy-going regular type dude with his emotional shit together, giving only suggestions of being torn up inside from all the tragedies that have befallen him. It’s a nuanced performance. Captain Fucking America is nuanced in large part because of Chris Evans. I don’t know if that is appreciated enough.
Avengers: Endgame will likely be the last we see this version of Captain America, at least for some time. As ridiculous as it may sound, I think I’ll shed a few tears as Cap breathes his last breath or rides into the sunset, metaphorically or otherwise.