I remember walking out of Captain America: The First Avenger and thinking that Marvel had finally captured the iconic, patriotic superhero on screen in a way that mattered. While Superman the Movie and Batman were films that DC had hung their hat on, Marvel’s Spiderman series never really captivated me, and I hadn’t been blown away by Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man or whatever they had done with the Hulk. But in Captain America: First Avenger, the story, the tone, and the story came together in away that left me cheering.
Looking back over the development of Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans), it’s clear to me that there’s much more intent in the heart of Rogers than in many other superheroes I admire. Rogers is the puny, underdeveloped kid who wants so badly to defend his country but can’t. He’s not accidentally struck with a gamma ray, spider bite, or blinding chemicals. He chooses to serve.
At the same time, Rogers’ lack of physicality at the beginning of Captain America: First Avenger reminds me of the dialogue between God and Samuel, when the prophet is sent to anoint the first king of Israel. Samuel is concerned because David is the least and the last of Jesse’s sons, but God says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Too often, we measure people by what we see (visually and superficially) versus what we know of their character. Rogers is chosen by Dr. Abraham Erskine because, when asked if he wants to kill Nazis, Rogers says, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
When Rogers makes the decision that sets him back decades, it’s because he knows lots of people will die if he doesn’t. He proves sacrifice more naturally than Tony Stark at the end of the first Avengers film because sacrifice is who he is and what he does, not an affectation he takes on that goes against character. He’s already shown it again and again (the rescue attempt that the government wouldn’t approve, etc.) with the genuine Christ-like behavior to serve and to love the best that he can.
Two years after the events of The Avengers, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends Rogers and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on a questionable mission. His concerns about what truth is and what the motivation is for the mission pours out of his heart into a confrontation with Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who has wrestled control of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Fury. The idealism and transparency of Rogers clashes, crashes really, with “the way the world works.” But it’s not the most interesting thing going on in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Rogers wrestles with the friendship he has with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who he believes is the same person Rogers knew during World War II. Even though he’s been brainwashed and put to use by the enemy as the Winter Soldier, Bucky still has the elements of a good person buried deep… in Rogers’ mind. But he’s in the minority in believing in the goodness that is integral to Bucky’s character. Rogers is arguing that Bucky was good (created good), and that his training (or nurture) made him go bad. The beauty of Rogers’ argument is that he believes that outside factors, what I might call sin, have messed with Bucky’s wiring, but that Bucky has the potential to still be good because it’s his nature.
By the time you get to Avengers: Age of Ultron, we know that Captain America sees the world differently than many of the other heroes, namely Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) He’s concerned about how he represents to the world, even to the point of whether people are cussing or not. He doesn’t believe we should operate in a vacuum but that we should consider the ramifications. He works for the good of all, believing that, ultimately, everyone can be saved.
Again, there’s something to be said for a story that doesn’t believe that the external matters as much as character, even as huge cinematic CGI special effects draw millions to the theater. Maybe it’s the simplicity of Captain America’s character (“I don’t like bullies”) or the way that the plot line depicts Rogers as a man of integrity. Sure, it’s a shame that he must be depicted as a man out of time, like he’s too old-fashioned to fit, but the truth is, we would all be better off if we made sure that our character counted for something.