The moment that Captain America first appeared on-screen in Avengers: Infinity War, the whole audience around me cheered. No other character got this kind of response — and that is entirely down to the legacy and mythos that Marvel has built over Chris Evans’ eight appearances as this character.
Disclaimer: This article contains no spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.
For me, the moment that defines Steve Rogers is in Captain America: Civil War, where he makes his final stand against Tony Stark. He wants to protect the life of his best friend, Bucky Barnes. And in that singular moment, the scene echoes back to a younger Steve Rogers, standing up to the bully outside the movie theatre in Captain America: The First Avenger. This moment, is about as a definitive as you can get for any superhero.
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, Captain America was created to be the ultimate patriotic superhero, — one who was an explicit condemnation of the Nazi party’s politics seen in Germany. The first issue features Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face (memorably reimagined in Captain America: The First Avenger). And Captain America was a massively popular character during the war, precisely because of its overt political nature.
Once the war was over, however, the character’s popularity declined — that is, until Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the character back into their burgeoning Marvel superhero universe in The Avengers #4. From then on, the character has been a mainstay in the comics, with his own solo series and starring role on the Avengers, despite being overshadowed by the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
The combination of these two things: the importance of the character to the Avengers as a brand, and his inherent jingoistic nature, were however, always going to be problematic when translating Steve Rogers to the big screen.
To date, Captain America: The First Avenger is the second-lowest grossing movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making only $370.6 million at the box office. Just the title alone was a turn off to many. A title like that — for a movie as pro-military, pro-American exceptionalism — is not a film that is going to appeal on a mass international level.
It is a shame, because to me, Captain America: The First Avenger is probably the most underrated movie in the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Joe Johnston, who brings the same nostalgic joy that he brought to 1991’s The Rocketeer, Captain America: The First Avenger manages to improve upon the formula that Iron Man laid out in 2008. While Chris Evans may not initially be quite the magnetic screen presence that Robert Downey Jr. was —that would soon change.
Chris Evans was born to play this role. After a two movie spell as the cocky playboy, Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, he didn’t immediately seem the right fit for the straight-laced Steve Rogers. Then you see him in costume.
What could have been a role that came across as insufferably optimistic, instead comes across as sympathetic, as someone who just wants to prove that they’re the best person for the job. But most importantly, Evans has the uncanny ability to bring the best out of his onscreen partners. Hayley Atwell is tremendous in First Avenger, and that all comes down to the fantastic chemistry between Evans and Atwell. The same can be said for Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Scarlett Johansson, or for any of the other Avengers. There’s one actor in particular, however, who gets the most tangible benefit from this gift…
Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. are quite possibly the only two completely irreplaceable actors within this mega-franchise. The key reason for the success of Captain America: Civil War is the interplay between their two characters that had been allowed to develop over the course of the three Iron Man, two Avengers and two Captain America movies, which all came prior. Civil War may have a lot of involvement from the other Avengers, yet when it comes down to it, the film ends with a brutal, dirty fight between two of MCU’s best actors — entirely based around their different ideals and the secret that has driven them apart. It remains to this day, probably the most emotionally devastating beat across all 19 movies.
And that is something that you probably wouldn’t have guessed coming out of Captain America: The First Avenger. Chris Evans is obviously growing into the role: he has the optimism, but he also that drive to do good — by not only his country, but by his fellow people. Yes, Rogers’ is the embodiment of America. He’s draped in America’s flag for the vast majority of his outings (the less said about his awful costume in The Avengers the better). He is by no means a tool of the government — he has his own perfectly attuned moral compass. At the end of the day, Rogers does not want to let political infighting get in the way of what is right: helping the little person, saving the world — and just generally making it a better place overall. This is a man who was fine-tuned to flawlessly fight the enemy, whether that is an evil Nazi scientist, an Asgardian god of mischief or even the American government itself.
As a character, Captain America holds a unique position among the comic creations, by actually holding up a mirror to U.S. politics. The only comparable character really is that of Superman. Both characters are created by Jewish refugees who moved to America and have gone onto represent the American ideal. However, whilst Superman has had to remain “gooder than good”, there is an element of flexibility with Captain America. By being involved in the American military complex, there are avenues of storytelling that are just fundamentally more open to this character.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Ed Brubaker took over the writing for the character. In 2005 however, the idea of reading about a character called Captain America — especially whilst America was fighting multiple controversial wars — was not a comforting thought for many people. So Brubaker had a tough battle of showing that THIS America, was not the America that Steve Rogers fought for. Brubaker’s influence over the character cannot be overstated.
Marvel titled the second movie in the series after Brubaker’s seminal Winter Soldier storyline, and the espionage-tinged stories were fundamental in both the Russos, and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s decision to move away the 1940s war story seen in the first movie, to a darker, 1970s conspiracy thriller story. The Captain America shown in these movies isn’t afraid to stand up against “the man” (something reinforced by Rogers deciding not to sign the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War or protesting against Nick Fury use of Tesseract powered weaponry in The Avengers) — he fights for what is right, not for what he is told to fight for.
Put simply: Steve Rogers IS Captain America. He is the perfect embodiment of what America should be. He has the moral conviction to fight for what he feels is right, to the bitter end. He is endlessly loyal, but will fight back against his closest friends if he thinks that what they are doing is wrong. Captain America protests injustice and fights against corruption. These are positions and ideals that are so fundamentally important to the world that we live in today.
Steve Rogers may not have been born a superhero, but at the end of the day, these powers were bestowed upon him, because he proved that he was the best person that he could be:
“A 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.”
Captain America is the hero that the world needs right now. We need people in the world who fight for people who are less well off. Who do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and not some altruistic reason. Who wear their hearts on their sleeves and aren’t afraid to show. Since 2011 Marvel have shown us how the best people can make the biggest changes. And that’s something that we should all aspire to.
Ben & Matt have a tonne of MCU content on the site and still to come, including:
- A preview podcast on Avengers: Infinity War with the help of Superhero Pantheon.
- A big list of MCU related lists.
- Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey Episode 18: Black Panther.
- MCU movies (before Infinity War) ranked from 18 – 10 and 9 – 1.
- Matt wrote an obnoxiously long article about Tony Stark and how he has been Marvel’s most developed character.
Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey Episode 19: MCU Ten Year Anniversary drops tomorrow with the final All-Marvel List coming Thursday and finally Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey Episode 20: Avengers: Infinity War on Friday.
If the whole superhero thing isn’t your bag then please check out From Broadcast Depth, a podcast all about the cultural phenomenon that was LOST, presented by Kevin Ford & Ben Lundy. If nothing else, they’re not Ben & Matt.