Here at Moviefone, we think America's greatness should be celebrated all year long -- or, at the very least, for an extra week. That's why we're declaring March 31 - April 4 "America F@$& Yeah" week, with five days of patriotic interviews and features that honor America and the movies.
Captain America has been Marvel's flagship character since Joe Simon and Jack Kirby drew up the first issue in March of 1941, their star-spangled superhero punching Hitler in the face like some fever dream of Betsy Ross. Since his Silver Age revival in the 1960s (under Kirby and Stan Lee) Cap has been a man out of time, an unapologetically patriotic hero celebrated in the Vietnam/counterculture era, transcending the red, white, and blue uniform to become a universal icon.
As portrayed with surprising psychological depth by Chris Evans, our favorite frozen Capsicle has been thawed for a new generation of moviegoers, starting with World War II-era "Captain America: The First Avenger," continuing his introduction to modernity in "The Avengers," and now wrestling with serious moral quandaries in this week's paranoia-infused "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
As compared to trust-fund billionaire superheroes, like Batman in "The Dark Knight" and Tony Stark in "Iron Man," or damning deconstructions, like "Watchmen", this big-screen Captain America is not only relevant to today's audiences but vital, since he represents an idealism which, despite all cynicism to the contrary, remains something people aspire to.
Let's explore how an earnest hero with the word "America" in his name has become more beloved than George Washington and apple pie combined. Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!
Steve Rogers is a short, sickly-looking kid from Brooklyn who is desperate to fight for his country against the Nazi thugs ravaging Europe, despite being branded 4F an embarrassing number of times. It's not bloodlust or even vengeance that drives him to the Army, but a sense of duty: "I don't want to kill anyone. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from," he tells gentle German Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci).
"Well, there are already so many big men fighting this war. Maybe what we need now is the little guy." -Dr. Erskine, "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011)
Just from that one line we recognize that Rogers is coming from a place of genuine compassion for the oppressed, something he's clearly had to live with his whole wimpy life. There's no shred of xenophobia, only solemn duty to his country, to his fellow human beings, which is why, when Erskine gifts Rogers with the strength of 10 men, the kid carries his power with responsibility, something few other cinematic heroes understand. Even poor little Bruce Wayne has a wealthy kid's sense of entitlement in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, trashing police cars, tapping phones, and burning his symbol into the side of a bridge as if it were OK. "What? I'm helping!" Bruce must be thinking.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" both celebrates and lampoons Captain America's origin as one of the legion of Allied propaganda-themed comics characters of WWII (anyone remember The Shield? Spy Smasher? No one? Huh.) An ironic musical number has Steve feeling like a useless showbiz tool selling war bonds, even showing an original Simon & Kirby issue for good meta-measure, but the Cap is destined for greatness. He charges headfirst into the war in Europe, fighting agents of Nazi spinoff group HYDRA at every turn, proving himself in battle time and again.
One of the reasons Marvel's cinematic iteration of Cap is so inherently appealing to fans is he's a straight-up nerd. He reads books about heroism, he draws cartoons in his notebook, he's more interested in going to an enlistment booth than talking to girls. In other words, a nerd. Evans plays this side of Rogers with an earnestness that never comes across as phony or "gee whiz!" He's the genuine article: a smart, conscientious man who uses his considerable abilities and imagination to thwart evil. Any kid (or adult) who ever rolled 20-sided dice during a D&D campaign will recognize Rogers's yen for strategy and willingness to throw himself into a tight corner with the odds against him.
Also prevalent is the man's sense of self-sacrifice, as when he jumps onto a grenade during training, or kamikaze piloting a HYDRA airship into arctic waters to save millions of civilians. This characteristic plays a crucial role when Cap becomes the leader/mascot of Earth's Mightiest Heroes...
"The Avengers" is not exactly "The Steve Rogers Smile Time Variety Hour," as he shares the screen with an ensemble of colorful characters, all riddled with their own personal baggage. That is why, as Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) explains above, it was important for writer/director Joss Whedon to define Captain America's place not only among the super group but in the 21st century.
"With everything that's happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned." - Agent Phil Coulson, "The Avengers" (2012)
STEVE ROGERS: When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn't say what we lost.
NICK FURY: We've made some mistakes along the way. Some, very recently.
This back-and-forth with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Fury (Samuel L Jackson) gives a not-so-subtle hint that Rogers has been debriefed on some of our nation's more prominent political quagmires (Vietnam, 9/11, Iraq, Bush in general) and the punching bag he knocks off its chain says all you need to know on Steve's opinion. This is the beginnings of his wistfulness for the more black-and-white era he fought in during the '40s, though he barely has time to contemplate contemporary grey areas when he's thrust into a war between gods, aliens and men.
NATASHA ROMANOFF: I'd sit this one out, Cap.
STEVE ROGERS: I don't see how I can.
NATASHA ROMANOFF: These guys come from legend. They're basically gods.
STEVE ROGERS: There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that.
On the director's commentary for "The Avengers," Joss Whedon underlines why what seems, at first glance, like a glib, tossed-off comeback during a scuffle between Loki and Thor is actually an essential part of understanding Rogers as a man: "Some people were also surprised about Cap's line here, me being an avowed atheist. I may be, but Steve Rogers isn't, and I definitely think his reaction to this new world feels very real."
That's an important distinction for a writer of Whedon's caliber to make, that when you're dealing with characters as disparate as "genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist" Tony Stark and "earnest idealist" Steve Rogers, you have to show what makes them different, not just what makes them cool. Despite all he's been through and all he's seen (cosmic cubes, incredible Hulks), Rogers still believes in the man upstairs -- and we buy that. It's a far cry from The Comedian, Alan Moore's twisted iteration of Captain America from "Watchmen," who is depicted, in both graphic novel and film, as a sadistic soldier of fortune who has no qualms killing women or children (or pregnant women... or JFK!) in the name of duty. The pragmatist in all of us knows that's probably the reality of a super soldier like Captain America, but Evans's portrayal isn't about reality so much as grounded romanticism.
In a way, Steve putting Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) down as "not the guy to make the sacrifice play" inspires ol' shellhead's noble act at the end, hurling himself and a nuclear weapon into another galaxy towards certain doom. Tony escapes just in the nick of time, natch, but this is a far cry from the Tony Stark we saw in the prior two "Iron Man" films, where he was essentially saving people from technology his own company created (Iron Monger, Whiplash, and his drones, etc.). Imagine Steve Jobs punching out a giant killer iPad and its hard not to recognize how self-serving Tony Stark can be. With the stakes higher and Captain America there to remind him about the glory of sacrifice, Stark is elevated to a new level of heroism.
One angle that "The Avengers" hints at is S.H.I.E.L.D. using the Tesseract / Cosmic Cube to build weapons of mass destruction not unlike those HYDRA made in WWII, something Steve can't abide. Despite the apparent corruption of the very government organization he fights for, Cap carries on his work for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. into the next sequel, where he'll find that indefatigable commitment to what's noble and honorable tested to the limit...
At the beginning of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," we're brought onboard a hijacked S.H.I.E.L.D. boat for what appears to be a routine hijacking / opportunity for Captain America to kick butt. As the story unfolds, you recognize that almost every aspect of this mission was not as it seemed, and Rogers realizes his allegiance does not belong to S.H.I.E.L.D. but to America itself, an important decision for someone who has always marched in-line to the chain of command, albeit hesitantly.
"This isn't freedom, this is fear." - Steve Rogers, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014)
SAM WILSON: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?
STEVE ROGERS: If they're shooting at you, they're bad!
That dialogue between Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Rogers is a humorous simplification of a situation in which S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised and the very implements of war used to stop Loki in "The Avengers" (Quinjets, Helicarriers) are now being turned against all of humanity. This distinction may, in fact, be the fundamental difference between the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, since both "The Dark Knight" and "Man of Steel" posit Batman and Superman as proto-fascists with seemingly little concern for collateral/moral damage so long as the bad guy is subdued. Captain America, however, knows exactly how totalitarian a group like S.H.I.E.L.D. inherently is, and ultimately, has to bring it down.
Marvel goes one step further by aligning the government spy group with the real-life Operation Paperclip, where Nazi scientists like Wernher von Braun were given a hall pass from war crimes tribunals to use all that wonderful knowledge they acquired for our Cold War benefit. In the story (culled from the writing of Ed Brubaker), their covert experiments led to the creation of an agent known as The Winter Soldier, who turns out to be a brainwashed Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Cap's bestest buddy everyone thought was killed in "The First Avenger." It's literally the perversion of Captain America's ideals, taking his closest ally and turning him into some Frankenstein-style assassin robot.
Sam Wilson, on the other hand, is a compassionate veteran of Afghanistan who works at a Washington D.C. VA office counseling traumatized soldiers. Yes, through a super-powered jet pack he transforms into an Icarus-like hero codenamed The Falcon, but he remains a decent, honest man. Winter Soldier and Falcon are like a little devil and angel (respectively) on Cap's shoulder, what he could become if he continues to be the puppet of a fascist government agency, and the other if he remains pure, brave and, well, free as a bird.
By the end of the events of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," our titular hero has had his world rocked, yet remains true to the Steve we knew before he became a roided-out Übermensch. Despite his namesake, he doesn't just want to do right by America, he wants to do right by the world.
There's a part of him that is disillusioned, even a little lost, but thus is the life of a seasoned soldier, and the burden of a good man we all hope to be.
Photo courtesy Marvel