Saying Goodbye to Captain America
I thought a lot about how to start this essay about Captain America. There’s been a lot of starts and stops, a lot of deletions, procrastination, and revisions. For the life of me I just couldn’t into words my thoughts and opinions on Steve Rogers as a character. I kept trying to come up with a thesis, some intellectual argument that would validate why I liked the character. I found that the only thing I wanted to write about were my feelings on the character, but that didn’t feel valid enough to write about. Talking about how much I loved the character of Steve Rogers? How much I’ve enjoyed and appreciated his journey, what the character has grown to represent to me in fiction? I felt a strange sense of embarrassment at the thought of writing and sharing those feelings. In most of my work, I’ve tried to take a stance in sharing facts, research, something that could be quantified as having intelligent value.
So here it is, an essay that is completely self-indulgent, and maybe unnecessary, but something I felt compelled to write all the same.
Following that little guy from Brooklyn…
I’m not sure what Steve Roger’s first line is in Captain America: The First Avenger. I’m not even sure what his first scene was. I believe it was seeing him at the movies, defending a grieving woman from a bully and getting beat up in a dirty back alley in Brooklyn. Admittedly, First Avenger is not one of my favorite superhero films, so my memory on it is a bit fuzzy.
I do, however, remember the line it was those opening scenes that featured skinny, sickly, disabled Steve Rogers that made me fall in love with the character. That first act sets up Steve’s character going forward, as a little guy from Brooklyn who didn’t know when to back down from a fight. Attempting to join the army to fight in WWII, Steve meets Dr. Abraham Erskine, who offers him his one chance at getting that chance to fight by joining the super soldier program.
“Do you want to kill Nazis?” Erskine asks as a test to our hero. Steve sincerely responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.”
This exchange is really important to both the film and the character of Steve Rogers as a whole. Steve’s not naive, he knows if he goes to war he will kill Nazis, he’s fine with that. That’s not the reason he wants to go to war, but rather out of a sense of duty to protect people. No matter where those people are from or who the “bullies” may be. This is important because in the following Captain America films we see Steve’s enemies aren’t overseas, but homegrown. As is all to true with our current situation in America, the propaganda would like to suggest its people on the outside of our borders that are the real enemies when most people from marginalized communities will tell you we’re more likely to face extreme violence from within our borders.
In one of the strongest scenes from The First Avenger, Erksine explains his super soldier serum to Steve. The serum exemplifies everything a person is at their core, “so good becomes great; bad becomes worse”. It’s complete comic book science that makes no logical sense and is extremely flimsy. But we’re watching Captain America: The First Avenger, not Interstellar so the science doesn’t have to be right or true, it just has to serve a purpose to give Steve Rogers superpowers.
It’s what Erksine says next in the scene that matters most in emphasizing who the character of Steve Rogers is:
“Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.”
In these early scenes of The First Avenger, Steve is contrasted with another soldier, Hodges, who is described by Phillips as, “he’s big, he’s fast, he obeys orders, he’s a soldier”. Steve Rogers is neither big, or fast as Hodges, and we learn later in The First Avenger and in his following films Steve isn’t good at blindly obeying orders. Yet Steve Rogers the one who jumps on the grenade.
Later Erskine, who’s chosen Steve for the serum, tells Steve to, “stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man”.
Steve Rogers at his core is a character who’s true superpower is being a good person. Having empathy for others, and wanting to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. In later films we see that this extends to American ideals, SHIELD, the UN, and his own teammates.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve struggles with feeling fulfilled in his work at SHIELD. He struggles with identifying what “is good” in this new world he’s found himself in. Things were “simpler” in WWII when all you have to do was go overseas and punch red-faced Nazis. Now the good guys have guns in the sky pointing down on citizens below. Winter Soldier attempts to dig into what happens when people in power compromise the rights of people they’re charged to protect for a supposed greater good.
(Course things weren’t that simple in WWII and America wasn’t an all heroic savior: there was still racial segregation both in the military and on home soil, and the Japanese internment camps.)
Alexander Pierce is the true villain of Winter Soldier, he is the personification of modern-day HYDRA in the film. He’s not a red-faced cartoon of a villain. He’s not shouting his evil monologue over a chasm of collapsing secret laboratory, he’s quietly giving it towards a tortured and brainwashed Bucky Barnes:
Alexander Pierce: Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped this century, and I need you to do it one more time. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos. Tomorrow morning we’re going to give it a push. But if you don’t do your part, I can’t do mine, and HYDRA can’t give the world the freedom it deserves.
In the original trailer this was a brilliant bit of misdirection, where the audience believes Pierce is speaking to Captain America. Pierce represents HYDRA as it exists in the modern world, not cartoonish evil and cackling, but subtly existing under the surface in our laws, and lawmakers to control economic and social change through fear and violence. It’s done in a comic book-ish way, still ending in a big blow out battle but Steve Rogers isn’t the one to kill the enemy, Nick Fury is. Compromised but still willing to get back up Nick Fury begins anew by helping to tear down the organization he worked to build and grow. While Steve handles a more inter-personal conflict in the form of trying to save his childhood friend Bucky on a crumpling helicarrier. In Winter Soldier Steve understands that the foundations of SHIELD are rotten through; they have to be completely uprooted, there can’t be a compromise.
(The foundations of SHIELD are then rebuilt in Agents of SHIELD, slowly but surely, as the last bits of HYDRA are painstakingly pulled out, but this isn’t something that’s ever been acknowledged in the films. Sad to lose a good bit of world building but is what it is I guess.)
There’s a sense of grounding in Winter Soldier, both in the story and the characters that inhabit Steve’s story. Nick Fury, the pragmatic head of SHIELD shows the strengths and pitfalls of “taking the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”. Natasha Romanoff, the spy with a past who has to learn to trust herself and others again. Bucky Barnes, the fallen soldier turned prisoner in a never-ending war, grafted and fitted to a violent agenda. Sam Wilson, who signs up to fight because it’s the right thing to do, adds a human element to the film and balance to the narrative. And of course Steve Rogers, man out of time trying to refit himself as both a veteran and a person while staying a good man in a different time. These themes and character dynamics is what makes Winter Soldier a strong film, the strongest of the Captain America trilogy.
The end of the Captain America trilogy is messily handled we’ll say. Actually, I’ll flat out admit I do not like Captain America: Civil War. The film is overstuffed with characters making it feel much more like an Avengers film instead of a Captain America film. Along with a slew of other reasons that I won’t get into. It’s a shame to me as a fan of the character that this movie, which has bits of the story that do focus on Steve that are interesting and engaging, remains a story unfinished.
(Sidenote: here’s a good article on the issue of using white abled bodied characters as metaphors for real world discrimination and why we should move past that.)
Steve’s character arc in Civil War can be explained in two scenes, one early in the film where the Avengers are discussing The Accords:
Lt. Col. James Rhodes: Sorry, Steve, that… that is dangerously arrogant. This is the United Nations we’re talking about. It’s not the World Security Council, it’s not S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s not Hydra. Steve Rogers: No, but it’s run by people with agendas and agendas change. Tony Stark: That’s good! That’s why I’m here. When I realized what my weapons were capable of in the wrong hands, I shut it down. Stopped manufacturing. Steve Rogers: Tony, you *chose* to do that. If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.
The argument here boasts itself as complex but fails to bring real meat to the table, such as acknowledging open criticisms the United Nations have faced since their inception seventy years ago. The closest we get is Steve talking about agendas, in this case political agendas that shift and change due to personal interests. Without getting into the deeper flaws of the film itself, we see these sort of agendas in action through Zemo’s convoluted plan where he frames Bucky Barnes for the bombing of the UN with the goal being to disassemble the Avengers. Somehow, Zemo is able to manipulate the United Nations, the U.S. military, and the Avengers into doing exactly what he wants on his personal quest for revenge. Even though The Accords – of which Zemo didn’t have any involvement in – also played a huge part in dissolving the already always bickering team.
Like I said, it’s convoluted and messy, but Civil War does emphasize Captain America’s themes of not compromising oneself in the face of the injustice around you. Steve won’t allow the UN to simply kill Bucky on sight, nor will he stand for Bucky and his teammates to be held without trail. He can’t blindly follow a governing body after his experiences at SHIELD and trust their agendas will always protect others.
Steve Rogers: If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could. Tony Stark: No, you don’t. Steve Rogers: No, I don’t.
(It’s ironic, that Steve should wear the flag of America, a country that has its own history of imperialism. I’ve always found the suit to be a symbol of what America should be, can be, promised to be, but has yet to live up to that promise.)
Ultimately, Steve is arguing that in the face of compromise that comes at the cost of the freedom of other people, people the Avengers are meant to be protecting, than it’s a price too high to pay and isn’t truly freedom at all.
Whatever good or bad takes on Civil War there are on the internet though, the core of Steve’s character remains, he doesn’t compromise in the face of injustice. Against anyone, or anything.
Steve’s core character throughout his trilogy films is the little guy who wouldn’t back down from a fight.
No, You Move…
Steve Rogers was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in March, 1941 featuring the now iconic cover of Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Captain America: The First Avenger pays homage to this famous cover by having Steve, dressed in his classic Captain America costume punch Hitler in the face 200 times.
Captain America, as a concept, was created at the hands of two Jewish war veterans during a time in America when being against the Nazi party and Germany wasn’t particularly popular. Debuting before America joined WWII, and before the Pearl Harbor attack the comic and character while being a best seller, was also seen as controversial.
Captain America #1, by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, property of Marvel Comics
Mark Evanier tells a story about Kirby in his biography Kirby: King of Comics stating, “…Jack took a call. A voice on the other end said, ‘There are three of us down here in the lobby. We want to see the guy who does this disgusting comic book and show him what real Nazis would do to his Captain America’. To the horror of others in the office, Kirby rolled up his sleeves and headed downstairs. The callers, however, were gone by the time he arrived.” Given Kirby’s overall history of fighting fascism you see a lot of him in Steve Rogers. You see where the little guy from Brooklyn got his moral code and his unwillingness to back down from a fight.
In 2003, created by Robert Morales, Kyle Baker, and Alex Alonso, a story was born titled Truth: Red, White, & Black about Isaiah Bradley.
Isaiah Bradley was a black soldier during WWII who, along with other black men, were used as test subjects for Erskine’s super soldier serum that would later create Captain America from Steve Rogers. The story has purposeful connections to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Isaiah’s story ends rather tragically, with his brain-damaged as an after-effect of the serum. Though he’s hailed as an underground hero in the black superhero community. Later his grandson, Elijah Bradley, takes on the identity of Patriot.
The Captain America comics have also dealt with various subjects on homophobia, racism, and sexism. Sam Wilson’s inclusion as Falcon provided many moments and stories about racism against black people in America, while Bucky Barnes touched upon mental illness, and PTSD. While lesser known characters, like Arnie Roth represented the homophobia of America.
Captain America #194 by Jack Kirby, & Frank Giacoia
This isn’t to say Captain America comics have always been socially aware or progressive, they haven’t. In the 70’s under writer Steve Englehart, Sam Wilson’s back story was changed from a social worker, to a gang member whose memories had been effected by the cosmic cube. Luckily the films chose to pursue a modern version of Sam’s original backstory having him be a therapist working with veterans. Thus is the plight of comics, things get retconned, fixed, reworked, fixed again, broken, and sometimes decades of characterization is thrown out for a new monthly event. Like that time Captain America was a member of HYDRA, except that was his evil clone. Or something.
I can’t say that I faithfully followed the Captain America comics since I was a child, I didn’t. I can’t say I’ve read every single Captain America comic that’s been released to date, I haven’t. I can’t say I know Captain America’s history in all it’s exact detail and glory, I don’t. I can’t even say Steve Rogers is my favorite character from Marvel Comics treasure trove, he isn’t.
What I can say is I’ve found the stories I have read a mix of fascinating and inspiring. That I appreciate the design Kirby and Simon had for the character, the influence that those core concepts of progressivism, empathy, and not blindly following patriotic doctrine have had for both movie and comic fans.
Let’s Hear It For Captain America…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out on my twenty-second birthday. As a gift, my best friend took me to a double feature where we got to watch Captain America: The First Avenger, and the premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier back-to-back. If I had the sort of Aries ego I wish I had, I’d confidently say Marvel/Disney released Winter Soldier on my birthday as a gift for my continued financial support on a minimum wage salary. But I don’t and it just happened to be a really lucky coincidence of the universe. Which is also pretty damn cool to think about.
Property of Marvel Studios and Disney
It was a great birthday, I’m a simple woman, I didn’t need a party, I just needed to chill with my best friend and watch what turned out to be a really good Marvel film featuring my favorite character of the jam-packed franchise. Currently Winter Soldier remains my favorite Marvel film – followed by Black Panther and Thor Ragnarok to the surprise of no one – and one of my favorite superhero films.
(As much as I love Winter Soldier, it can’t quite top Batman: Return of the Joker for me.)
Now, five years since the release of Winter Soldier and Avengers Endgame is upon us. With it comes the departure of Chris Evans and thus Steve Rogers. Captain America, as a mantle, an identity, may be given to another. In fact I hope it will, and my choice pick is Sam Wilson who has stuck by Steve Rogers in the films through thick and thin. Subtly building what is my favorite relationship Steve has in the films, while also retaining his own sense of character. Sam Wilson, gentle, snarky, loyal and kind is exactly everything Captain America should be and a perfect modern transition to carry on the mantle in the blockbuster franchise.
It’ll probably be Bucky Barnes, but hey, a girl can dream right? Please don’t come at me Bucky lovers, we’re all excited for the Falcon/Winter Soldier TV show okay?
While the mantle of Captain America will live on, I’ll be mourning the loss of Steve Rogers. Not the perfect soldier, but the good man. A kid from Brooklyn who’s a little broken, a little bruised, but never backs down from a fight.
That’s the power of Steve Rogers. He’s not special, he’s not magical, or a genius, or a billionaire – which lets be honest is a superpower. Steve Rogers origin isn’t one of seeking redemption for past slights, it’s not vengeance, or righteous revenge. Steve Rogers just wants to fight inequality, he wants to fight injustice.
I’ve always found heroes who, at their core, are compassionate or empathetic, to be the most interesting. They don’t need a tragic backstory, or a higher powered quest provided to them to go out and try to make the world better. They’re good for the sake of being good.
This isn’t to say that those stories, those characters, aren’t and can’t be interesting. Batman, when well written, is an interesting character who’s origin for justice is rooted in tragic vengeance. Tony Stark’s path to redemption as a weapon profiteer to hero is one that’s grabbed the hearts of many fans both in the comics and in the films. While neither may be my favorite characters, their stories still serve to be engaging when done well and consistently.
However the conflicts of those characters tend to be rooted in those origins. How does Tony Stark be a hero in the face of his past? How does he make amends for the blood on his hands? He becomes Iron Man, and one battle at a time attempts to be a hero. Ghosts of the past come back to haunt him for what he did before, and guilt rises up. Tony Stark is a hero always seeking redemption and self-betterment.
Captain America in Avengers: Endgame Property of Marvel Studios and Disney
But if you’re already a good person how do you have interesting conflict in a story?
I hear a lot that morally good characters can’t be interesting in the same way morally gray or dark characters can be. It goes somewhat in hand with the assertion that happy endings are dull, weak, and unrealistic.
But stories are stories are stories. They can be good or bad depending on how they’re written. I’ve read, and watched plenty of stories with morally gray characters, or characters seeking redemption on the path of righteous that were boring, dull, or terrible.
What interests me about characters like Steve Rogers is there is a challenge in being good. There is a challenge in being compassionate, having faith in the goodness of people, in not believing the world is bad and will always be bad.
That being empathetic, in the face of a world of apathy, is a challenge in and of itself.
Trusting other people is frightening in a world that is seemingly bombarded with nothing but corruption, hatred, and oppression. So how does a character who believes in the good of people, who has faith in humanity, and whose origin is goodness navigate in such a world?
Those are some of the questions I see in the story of Steve Rogers. As a character, Steve Rogers doesn’t believe he is special, but he does believe in people. That comes with understanding when to and to not compromise.
If there’s one consistent theme with Steve’s character in the MCU franchise, it’s his uncompromising nature in the fact of what he believes to be injustice. From when we first meet Steve Rogers, skinny and sickly, getting beat up in an alley refusing to back down against a bully, to going toe-to-toe with Tony Stark in Civil War to protect Bucky Barnes from being unjustly killed by a former teammate. One thing is for sure, Steve won’t back down in the face of what he believes is wrong.
It’s something often repeated in the face of injustice to compromise with the other side. It’s a frustrating thing to be told when “the other side” features people who believe you and others to be subhuman, diseased, unwanted, or should be eradicated. What compromise is there to have in the face of historical and continued dehumanization?
Certainly there should be compromise within our political spaces, but there needs to also be empathy for compromise to have any hope of happening. If one side wants nothing more than to disenfranchise a specific group through political, economical, and social means, what is there truly, to compromise about? A Nazi doesn’t want to debate a Jewish, Black, or queer person, they just want them removed. Removed by social standing, removed by propaganda, removed by dehumanization, removed by any means necessary.
Nakia in Black Panther property of Marvel Comics
There can be no compromise in the face of unwarranted, unempathetic, blatant bigotry.
That is an interesting dilemma for a character like Steve Rogers, and a concept such as Captain America. We’ve seen how Steve’s uncompromising nature has gotten him into trouble on a small and large-scale. He’s not infallible, he’s not always 100% right, but he is sure of his choices. In the face of a Nazi aligned organization such as HYDRA, he doesn’t hesitate to dismantle the system which it’s rooted in because you can’t compromise with HYDRA. You can’t compromise with The Accords or on a larger scale a collection of government bodies, when their basis is an agenda being used to take away the rights of others.
Similarly, this is why I found Nakia, out of all the engaging characters in Black Panther, the most interesting. She, like Steve Rogers, is good for the sake of being good. She’s not the strongest, smartest, or the chosen one, but Nakia was the most compassionate and the most uncompromising. She saw injustice around her and she sought to fix it however she could. Even in the face of opposition and denial. Nakia’s best scene in the film, for me, is when she’s confronted by Okoye after Erik’s coup:
Okoye: What are you loyal to? Nakia: I loved him. I loved my country, too. Okoye: Then you serve your country. Nakia: No, I save my country.
Nakia sees the greatness in Wakanda, not just the technology they have but also how they could be better for the world around themselves, specifically the black community. She’s willing to do anything to see that the greatness of Wakanda, the potential of how they can help their people, fulfilled even if it means betraying the current monarch of Wakanda.
It’s important, I feel, that we have characters that openly question our government and political structures in fictional media. Not only in the ways of conspiracy driven violence like Rosschach, or privileged snarkiness of Tony Stark, but in speaking for marginalized communities in our country. It is not about simply putting on a V mask and saying “the government can’t be trusted”. Rather, it’s about asking, “who is our country hurting, how can we help? How can we be better? Why are we allowing this to happen? How can we fix it?”
The world isn’t a place without tragedy. If anything, there almost seems to be to much of it every day, at every moment. Children who are abused, forcibly separated from their families, murdered or neglected. Black people who have their churches burnt down for no reason other than violent racism.
Corruption, lies, anger, fear, and frustration smoke up from the fires of these tragedies. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it feels as if the world will never be better.
I want to believe it will be better. I acknowledge such a belief may be naive. But still, I want to believe in the goodness of people. I want to believe people may not be perfect, but we can be good. For no other reason than we want to be good to each other.
Maybe such things only exist within the confines of superheroes and fantasy. Where characters like Steve Rogers, Nakia, or Sam Wilson exist only within the limits of fiction.
And yet, I still want to have faith, in the way Steve Rogers has faith, in people. For while a great many people have let me down, from family to friends to people who have been elected to protect the commonwealth, a great many people have also served as an inspiration to me. From family, to friends, to colleagues, to people who have been elected to protect the commonwealth, there exist those who just want to do good. Who have shown great empathy and compassion for others, while not compromising their own beliefs in the face of adversity.
The world will never be perfect, but I still want to believe it can be better.
Originally the inspiration to write this essay came from a fan made video, Steve Rogers | I’ll Be There, on Youtube by Slyfer2812. Then I found Captain America Faith by Top Screen and it slowly dawned me this was it. Soon I would watch Steve Rogers on-screen for the last time. His story was ending, the actor was moving on, this was truly the end of Steve Rogers. My fingers twitched, and I began writing in the journal I keep next to my bed on and off for the next couple months or so. Trying to sort through the feelings I had, working through the embarrassment, accepting the sincerity, valuing my own emotions.
Whatever happens in Avengers: Endgame, whether Steve Rogers dies, or there’s some time travel junk that will inevitably make me mad, I’m glad. I’m glad that I got to watch Steve Rogers’ journey on film, however imperfect it may have been. Of which there were many imperfect moments – seriously don’t ask me my opinion on Civil War – but the MCU is an imperfect franchise. That’s okay too.
(I mean if Steve dies I’ll probably still throw my chancla at the screen but I’ll be okay after.)
If Avengers: Endgame is the last time I ever get to see Steve Rogers on the big screen, however his story ends, I’ll be grateful for the memories of his character. From the first time I saw The First Avenger at 19, to Winter Soldier at 22, to Civil War at 24, and now Avengers: Endgame at 27.
However sappy, or silly that may sound I’ve found its the truth. I’m giving myself this one self-indulgence, to say goodbye Steve Rogers, to say thanks so much for all the memories. I just hope I don’t cry at his finale scene, the mascara I’ll be wearing isn’t waterproof.