If you knew absolutely nothing about comics or superhero movies and just heard the words “Captain America”, what would be your first thought? Possibly “Sounds like nationalist military propaganda” or “I bet he’s a real dick”. Well, in the case of the former, you wouldn’t entirely be wrong, and the latter isn’t an unfair assumption considering how self-congratulatory the embodiments of a country’s values can turn out to be. Yet here we have Marvel’s Steve “Captain America” Rogers, and company, one of the most three-dimensional and heart-tugging batches of supersoldier beefcake I’ve seen on a big screen recently.
I wasn’t particularly interested in Captain America (he seemed fairly ridiculous, and that’s even next to Thor), but you know, made sure to see The First Avenger so The Avengers would make sense, and went to see The Winter Soldier with WB because she half-dragged me there to the tune of the internet’s wailing about it. I don’t live under a rock. I’m not some old academic fuddy-duddy that thinks superhero movies (especially ones that dare to be fun. Yech!) can’t give you a poignant emotional reaction or possibly contain any value beyond passing a few popcorn-flavoured hours. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has generally swept me off my feet with how consistently good it is. Nonetheless, I’m still really impressed with the latest Captain America offerings, and everything they’ve done with the character and movies in general.
True to the aforementioned internet wailings, among other things The Winter Soldier successfully makes the viewer form an emotional attachment to a ruthless assassin who has about six spoken lines. The Marvel writers are wily—they make you love a human weapon, the same way they made you love a propaganda tool. Yes, Captain America has his roots in World War II morale-boosting. He is a Nazi-punching, golden-haired, wholesome as farm-baked apple pie sales tool to give people something to enjoy in frightening times. He seems pretty dated now, laughable even, yet Marvel made the decision to bring him back. And it really, really worked.
Not only that, but they made the decision not to shy away from the character’s beginnings. True to Marvel style, they have a bit of fun with it, showing the newly costumed Captain as an entertainment piece promising to sock ol’ Adolf in the jaw while star-spangled showgirls dance around him (and kids eagerly buy Captain America comics, which is getting super meta). That being said, this isn’t just all for laughs—there’s a fantastically awkward and meaningful scene in The First Avenger where Steve is faced with an audience of actual soldiers, who aren’t the least bit impressed by the glorified version of warfare being beamed to the populace. War wears a mask, after all, which is also something our friend the Winter Soldier factors into, but more on Cap first.
Steve, rather—there’s less of a secret identity thing going on in this superhero story, and thus no real distinction between Steve Rogers and Captain America. What’s important is the character himself, whether he’s skinny or serum-ed up, wearing too-tight fitness shirts or the uniform and shield. We fall in love with Steve when he’s a scrawny asthmatic with a strong sense of justice and sharp wit, and watching him morph into a superhero is just a bonus. Thus, we know and connect with what’s under the mask and behind the patriotic shield, and in the minds of MCU viewers Steve’s already successfully become so much more than a representative of a cluster of values.
That being said, it’s still hugely important to acknowledge what Cap represents. He’s still the boy who detests bullies, keeping his heroic essence even if the beloved America he’s intrinsically tied to has slipped in terms of its own values. The world he’s in is very different, yet The Winter Soldier manages not to make him a bumbling ball of muscle and righteousness lost in the future and crying out for better days. In the end, his values are less ‘American’ and more ‘Steve’s’, which he encourages in everyone. The HYDRA-S.H.I.E.L.D. thing debunks the America-vs-the-Nasty-Nazzies ideal Cap was born out of without debunking the value of Cap himself, by pointing out that not only is the whole world screwed but the whole world has the potential to fight for what’s right, led by the beacon of hope that Steve still manages to be.
On the flipside, of course, is the nameless, faceless Winter Soldier, who effectively represents the ugly side of warfare that the Captain America imagery glossed over. Captain America is the hope and the justice and the fighting for freedom, the Winter Soldier is the notably less-shiny means that you actually have to go about that fight with. He’s a knife in the dark, ruthless and wiped of all memory and emotion (and originally, as my limited knowledge of comics has it, tied in with Communist Russia, the effective opposite of Free America in the Cold War era), not afraid of collateral damage or unscrupulous means. He’s a killing machine who only follows orders with no sense of good and bad, a perfect foil for good-guy Cap.
Yet, not only are the both the weapons of their respective warring organisations, fulfilling the same role for HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. respectively, they were once best friends. So are they really that different?
You could easily make this a black and white battle—scary, uncaring assassin vs brave values-fuelled hope machine. But they point out that Cap and the Soldier, HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D., are just two sides of the same coin. Even if you don’t go into all that, you have to admit they do a stellar job of making you feel awful for Bucky. My God, his name is Bucky. He sounds like he should be someone’s pet rabbit, not a one-armed ex-soldier mind-wiped into a killing machine. Again, his identity is only revealed halfway through the movie and he has about seven spoken lines, but they use that short time to humanise him fantastically (without begging for sympathy). Less is more, people. Less and subtext, which again, you will find plenty of internet wailing about (intelligent, analytical internet wailing, I should add. I’d hate to sound degrading to people who talk about fiction a lot, because that would be more than a little hypocritical on a blog called The bloody Afictionado).
Steve’s teamed up with Black Widow for most of the movie too, also interesting considering her roots as a sexy Russian spy to show the dangers of sexy Russians to comic book readers. She and Nick Fury are both developed in TWS, weakened to the point you get to see them build themselves back up and get to know them better as they do. Natasha (again—everyone’s pretty much on first name basis, much less distinction between hero names and the people underneath) is basically a perfect foil for Steve, the golden American soldier and the slinky Russian agent, yet they build a sweet, functional little friendship based on their personalities rather than the stereotypes they came from.
So, Marvel has managed to take one of the flattest, most obviously tooled characters in their canon and develop him into someone three-dimensional. Over many years of comics, of course, but coming to a head in the Cinematic Universe—they’ve deconstructed and put back together a device to sell war bonds and made him into a fleshed-out, loveable, believable heroic character. And, I might add, they’ve managed to weave Captain America into the troubles of today’s world without forcing anyone down the dark and gritty superhero movie road. Because Cap would be such a tempting choice for that. What could be more fun than breaking and disillusioning the goody-two-shoes embodiment of a hopeful America?
Gah, just typing that makes my skin crawl. You leave Steve alone, you angst-obsessed jerks. While they make a point to examine it, Marvel made a deliberate (and by no means immature) decision to keep Captain America’s original message: he remains a figure of hope, of sticking up for the underdog and for each other, not just busting in and saving the day but encouraging others to fight for what’s right as well—as is exemplified in that wonderful scene towards the climax of TWS, and in the wise words of this article: “We all want to be Batman, but we should be Steve Rogers.”
So he still represents something, but as well as that, he’s an interesting character unto himself, and one you get the sense you’d be happy to have a slice of pie with. You’ve come a long way, Cap and Co. I salute you.