Who’s strong and brave here to save the American Way?
So, my favourite MCU movie is Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s certainly not the most beloved of the MCU movies amongst the general population (often being overshadowed by its sequel The Winter Soldier, and its direct successor in the MCU, The Avengers), but I wanted to look back and admire its successes. In fact, I reckon the successes of the first Captain America film are a microcosm of the successes of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, without further ado, let’s look at Captain America.
The first we see of Steve Rogers as an audience is a slow reveal shot in a recruiting agency. His first line is one of rebellion. The scene very quickly establishes that nobody has faith in Steve’s ability to fight but he’ll fight anyway. He fights a boorish guy for being loud at the cinema. Even if knows he can’t win, he will still fight.
Obviously, this is used within the movie to make us empathise with Steve, and see his plight as being right. How can you see scrappy Steve with blood on his lip, fighting a meaner, tougher guy and not empathise with him? It’s Steve’s Pet the Dog moment. However, it’s something that I think we can all (hopefully) relate to. The desire to look at the bullies of the world and ‘No, you move’. That’s Captain America in a nutshell. The hero Captain America is that idea made manifest and given agency in his world.
To rewind a bit, let’s talk about the perception of Captain America before Captain America: The First Avenger. Before I saw the film, I generally considered Captain America to be a jingoistic fellow who is just a propagandist mouthpiece for the incumbent government, or the writer writing the book. From what little I know of Marvel’s actual comic history (I’m more of a DC guy, which is why BvS offended me so much), Cap has been written like this in the past. Naturally a character who wears a flag on his chest invites the question of what version of America the character is representing.
To show how the film deconstructs this I want to look at a specific sequence from the film. About 45 minutes in, Steve has just got his powers but the Army has lost their ability to make more super soldiers. Steve is told ‘You are not enough’ by his SO. Then he gets approached by a Senator. The Senator suggests a higher purpose for Steve. Steve thinks he’s going off to fight. Instead, he becomes ‘Captain America’.
Steve is transformed into literal propaganda. Uncle Sam 2.0. We see him holding babies; we see him shaking senator’s hands; we see him on posters; we see him on comic books (it’s a stroke of genius to use the actual issue #1 of Captain America as a piece of propaganda in the film as was its original purpose); we see him in propaganda movies; and we see him on stage filled with flags, women in flag costumes, and military apparel. Captain America becomes a propaganda tool. Everything you thought about Captain America before the film is shown as being true in-universe.
Then, we cut to a stark reality. Steve meets some soldiers who see him as nothing but a puppet for the government. This big bombastic montage ends with Steve near the front and disillusioned as to his role in the war. We see him drawing in a notebook (a nod to the character’s early history as having drawn comics as a hobby). He depicts himself as a monkey on a unicycle. He sees himself as a circus act. This duality makes Captain America an interesting character. Steve Rogers is ‘just a kid from Brooklyn’ thrust into the role of Captain America. We see his begrudging smile when being photographed with the Senator. We see his private chuckle at seeing himself in the movies. We see the person behind the persona. It’s masterful character work that serves as a great base to build on in future.
So, in the words of Red Skull himself ‘What made you [Steve Rogers] so special?’. While Steve insists that nothing makes him special (probably just to aggravate Red Skull), I think there is something exceptional to Steve, and it’s something that Dr Erskine saw in Steve from the very start. Dr Erskine, the man who gave Steve the super soldier serum, is an excellent character played wonderfully by Stanley Tucci. If there’s one scene that you need to watch in the current political climate (‘A strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power’), it’s Steve and Erskine meeting before Steve’s surgery. Steve asks why he was chosen, clearly having a bit of a crisis. Erskine begins to tell the story of Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull. He does this to demonstrate to Steve the importance of a good spirit, of the importance of never losing kindness or compassion, of the value of being a good person. Erskine says of Steve ‘Stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.’. I think that’s something we should all strive for in these trying times.
Captain America: The First Avenger is an examination of the character of Captain America. All of Marvel’s Phase One movies have this at their centre: character. It’s way easier to relate to a character than it is to relate to a $200 million CGI fest. Marvel obviously has those CGI fests in their films as well, but they’re all centrally about character. There are a couple other little character moments from earlier in the film that help prop up the audience’s idea of this character. I’ll finish by looking at them now.
The first is one of his first interactions with Peggy Carter. Carter responds to the unwelcome advances of Steve’s comrades by socking one on the jaw. All it takes is a smile from Steve and we get so much insight into his thoughts. There’s an approval of what Peggy has done, as well as a quiet bemusement. Thus, we can establish that his ideas about gender are a bit ahead of the curve compared to his peers (a somewhat necessary change, and one that makes sense). Steve isn’t full of male machismo. Steve is deeply empathetic. All this from one moment.
The second is another little moment. After Steve is transformed, he and Peggy begin their separate pursuits of the German spy who is escaping with the super soldier serum. During this pursuit, Peggy is showing her skill as a marksman and doing the most damage to the spy as possible. At one point, she has her shot and is about to take it, killing the man. Steve barrels into her and knocks her out the way of the oncoming vehicle. So, in this moment we see that Steve is invested in saving people, even if the villain escapes. It gives us a yardstick of where he stands on an alignment chart (Neutral Good I reckon). It’s another brilliant little moment of establishing character.
Now, to my final moment, the moment that vindicated Dr Erskine and set Steve on a course to become Captain America, and even led to his sacrifice at the end of the film. Colonel Phillips (played by Tommy Lee Jones) throws a grenade into the middle of the candidates and then announces it. Everyone other recruit runs and hides. Steve is different. He jumps on the grenade. In that moment, he’s probably thinking that he’s the most expendable. As we see through Steve’s dialogue with Bucky at the Fair, all Steve wants to do is lay his life down in service. He wants the chance to sacrifice himself. However, in that moment he proves himself. He proves to everyone around that he has the right spirit to be a hero.
So, that’s what Captain America does. It uses every second of screen time wisely, often using the front end of its runtime to establish this interpretation of the character. This is what Marvel does best. You really must commend the writers behind these Marvel movies. They know the characters and know how to use them properly in a story. The first Captain America film is a bit like Richard Donner’s Superman. It takes a figure that many people have an idea of and cements the character, combining the mythos into one complete picture. Who’s strong and brave here to save the American Way? Captain Fucking America, that’s who!
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