Before Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the heroes of the MCU had been of a certain type. They started out flawed, not quite ready for heroics, and over the course of their films, they learned a lesson and developed into very cool, very manly heroes. In Iron Man, Tony Stark needed to come to terms with the consequences of his past actions. Thor was temporarily banished from his own world and kingdom for being headstrong and too willing to rush into war. Hulk was a rage machine, destroying everything in his path. There’s also the issue of the characters themselves, who all had great callings and purposes in their regular lives. Tony Stark was not only born rich but also gifted with extraordinary intelligence and ability. Thor was born to be a king. Bruce Banner was a genius before he ever became the Hulk. Steve Rogers has no such pedigree.
In The Avengers, Tony even makes the point that everything special about Steve came out of a bottle. The other heroes are the special, exceptional men who lead different lives from regular folks. They are badasses and, in a way, their lives are aspirational. People want to be Iron Man. They want Tony’s resources and abilities. They want Thor’s power, and if they don’t want to be the Hulk, then they at least envy the power to do what he can do. So how does Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, one of maybe two of the MCU’s actually earnest characters, fit into this paradigm?
Captain America isn’t cool. He doesn’t drive a red sports car or have awesome lightning skills. His concept is a little on the hokey side, even for superheroes, and he just does what a regular guy can do, but a little better. The First Avenger doesn’t lean into the potential coolness of the character (though his coolness is highlighted in later movies, starting with The Winter Soldier). Instead, the movie goes out of its way to show how uncool and down on his luck he is, portraying him as a regular, slightly awkward man. Things just don’t come easy for him like they do for Bucky Barnes, his handsome, tall and charming best friend. Steve may have his values and plenty of guts, but he also gets the crap kicked out of him all the time.
When Marvel Studios started the MCU, they were reinventing the superhero for a more modern age. It was smart to make these characters cool and just a little bit aggressive. Nobody really wanted to watch a paragon of virtue punching Hitler on the jaw. What was popular in 2011 was gritty movies about characters going up against the overwhelming darkness of the world. It was the year of Hanna and Drive and The Deathly Hallows. Even the poster for The First Avenger made the film seem a little grittier than it actually ended up being, with its desaturated colors and Steve’s ultra-serious expression. By making the majority of their characters fit into this gritty world paradigm, the MCU tapped into this trend and gave these flawed characters somewhere to grow, letting the audience follow their paths as they unfurled into heroes on the screen. It made for good drama and let the audience really connect with characters who maybe weren’t perfect all the time. But it was equally smart to, after establishing this new norm, invert the superhero into something that someone already is, as opposed to something that one stumbles into.
Even before Steve Rogers got his powers, he behaved like a hero. The powers given to him by the super serum only allowed him to fit the paradigm a little more traditionally. He didn’t need to learn to harness his strength or treat people well or stop warmongering. In fact, who he is at the beginning of the movie is why he is chosen to become Captain America. When asked about why Steve wants to go to fight in the war so badly, Steve replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
This is a quintessential Captain America quote, and it happens before Steve gets the serum and officially becomes a “hero.” Steve Rogers isn’t learning how to manage his great power; he’s deserving of it before he gets it. And that’s different from what had come before. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) tells Steve, “Well, there are already so many big men fighting this war. Maybe what we need now is the little guy, huh?” he might be speaking about the MCU at that point in time. As much of a relic as Captain America is, he represents something new in this line of films and the kind of heroism seen on screen over the few years before The First Avenger came out. He wasn’t an antihero fighting through the darkness, trying to hold onto his soul throughout the way. He was just a good guy, so good that he made the dark seem less impossible to overcome.
The reason why Johann Schmidt AKA Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is such a fitting antagonist to Steve Rogers is because Schmidt is Steve’s polar opposite, driven by pure ego. He wants to be powerful for the sake of being powerful, of lording it over everyone else. Because of his ego, Schmidt cannot comprehend why Erskine would choose someone other than him to be a super soldier. When facing Steve towards the end of the film, Schmidt asks, “So, what made you so special?” to which Steve replies that he isn’t special at all. Of course, what makes Steve special is something that Schmidt would not be able to understand. It’s something that Schmidt can’t see.
What makes Steve special is why, when he asks Bucky if he’s “ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death,” Bucky, the guy who knows Steve better than anyone else in the world, replies, “Hell, no. That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight. I’m following him.” It isn’t the super serum (read: strength) or the costume (read: patriotism/nationalism) that makes Captain America inspiring— it’s the compassion and determination that he already had at the beginning of the movie.
It would be impossible to argue that Captain America completely avoids being a symbol of imperialism and nationalism. The film definitely doesn’t raise much of a question around violence and the American military. And even if it did, it’s hard to look at a soldier dressed up like a country’s flag and think of them as anything more than blatant militaristic propaganda, and Captain America stories do function as propaganda in many ways. He was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a direct response to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and he has slipped in and out of the role of representing how America might feel about the world since. But The First Avenger also appeals to a softer heroism. In this early MCU tentpole film, Captain America could have easily been shaped as a symbol of whole-hearted patriotism and masculinity and violence, but instead he is presented as a symbol for restraint, compassion and personal responsibility. Like Steve said, he doesn’t want to go to war to kill some bad guys, he just knows that someone has to stand up against bullies.
Though the MCU has churned out superhero movie after superhero movie, Cap still stands out among the heroes with dark pasts or down-on-their-luck guys just trying to catch a break. He doesn’t need to be convinced to be a hero. If there’s an underdog, if there’s something that just isn’t right, he’s there. He fights against S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier. He fights against superheroes with more resources and the government on their side in Civil War. He stands up again and again against impossible odds in Endgame. It’s so repetitive that it would almost seem trite, except for the fact that no other hero seems to be able to harness the simple righteousness that he carries. The Falcon and Winter Soldier wades into these murky waters and troubling pasts (of the characters and of America) but without the crystal clarity that Steve Rogers brings. In fact, the show is structured around the changing identities of protagonists Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes and who they are without and in relationship to the now elderly Rogers. But Steve Rogers isn’t ever really focused on his own identity, just on what he can do.
There’s been a lot of speculation over what is going to happen next with the MCU post-Endgame. So far, we’ve seen three television shows about confronting the darker parts of the characters and of their history and reality. We’ve seen a film (Black Widow) that touches on the same. The characters that are assumed to take the mantles of Captain America and Iron Man—Black Panther, the new Captain America, Wanda and Captain Marvel may be interesting and inspirational in their own ways, but they don’t add what Steve Rogers added into the mix. Until the MCU finds a character that can and will, they risk becoming one-note with their cadre of gritty characters who have to fight with who they are to become heroes at the end of the movie. And they risk losing the magic of someone who shows regular people who they can be.
Captain America’s superpower isn’t his heightened abilities, it’s the fact that he stands up for what’s right and refuses to back down, and that’s something that anyone can do. And as cheesy and sometimes even simplistic Captain America: The First Avengers can get in its lesser moments, its brightness and consideration shaped the MCU, adding some much-needed inspiration to a lineup of modern heroes who were struggling to find it.
Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art.