It began in 1942 (or 2011 if you want to go by release date) with a man who just wanted to serve. Steve Rogers, all 5’4” and 94 pounds of him, was desperate to fight for his country in World War II. He saw his peers enlisting and being drafted and wanted to do his part. More importantly, he saw something in the Nazis he had never been able to tolerate: a bully. Unfortunately, Rogers suffered from a myriad of ailments and any one of them would have disqualified him from serving in the Armed Services, individually. Any normal person would have accepted his lot, stayed safe at home, and enjoyed his status as one of the only eligible bachelors in New York City. But Steve Rogers is not normal. Neither his sense of fairness nor his sense of duty allowed him to accept what he viewed as special treatment, and neither the law nor the almost certain death awaiting him in a combat theater could deter him.
Rogers’ persistence and selflessness got him noticed by military scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine, who looked at Rogers and saw immense character and inner strength where everyone else saw only physical frailty. Erskine was leading one of the most ambitious experiments in history, and nothing less than a truly good man was needed for it to succeed. When it comes down to it, that’s who Steve Rogers is: a good man, seeking to counter evil wherever he sees it. Whether it’s the guy who won’t stop talking in a movie theater (one of the gravest mortal sins) or the evil Nazi scientists of HYDRA attempting to rule the world, Rogers’ nature would not to allow him to ignore a bully wherever he saw one. So when Erskine’s experiment gave him outer strength to match his considerable inner strength, Rogers did the only thing he could, he became Captain America, and served wherever he could.
The groundwork laid in Captain America: The First Avenger is vital. It establishes the character of Steve Rogers, and sets the stage for a seven film arc that, according to the actor Chris Evans himself, concludes this weekend with the release of Avengers: Endgame. Captain America is in many ways the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in that if he hadn’t worked on screen, the whole enterprise would have fallen apart.1 however, there is a rather large misconception that Cap lacks an arc throughout his many appearances, and is a static character. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Cap’s character arc shapes and shakes the very foundation of the MCU, so it’s time that we seriously discuss it. There’s a perception that the Cap we see in Winter Soldier or Civil War is the exact same character that we see in The First Avenger. But while his moral core stays mostly the same throughout, Cap himself is challenged and shaped by the events of his films and is in a notably different headspace by Infinity War than he was at the beginning of his story.
So what are these changes exactly, and when did they begin to occur? It actually starts with the first act of his first film. After proving himself against all odds in the trials set up by Dr. Erskine and the US military, Steve is selected for the Super Soldier Program. Erskine, who at this point had become a mentor to Steve, saw in him something truly great. He saw a man with no higher aspiration than service, who wouldn’t hesitate to jump on a grenade and end his own life to protect his fellow soldiers. So Steve is selected and undergoes the experiment that will bless him with the physical gifts that will turn him into Captain America. After the experiment is successful however, the first of many onscreen tragedies strikes the heart of Steve Rogers. His mentor and friend Dr. Erskine is assassinated before his eyes, and the serum that transformed him is destroyed, ensuring that the program would create only one super soldier. For a man who struggles with feelings of inadequacy, this is somewhat of a nightmare scenario for Steve. Now, not only Is he left to shoulder the mantle of being the only success to come from Erskine’s work, the death of the program leaves him sidelined and unable to contribute directly to the war effort that he so desperately wanted to join. So for the first (but certainly not the last) time, he allows himself to be used. Becoming nothing more than a glorified war bond hype man. A veritable dancing monkey. For a time, he convinces himself that this is what service looks like for him. It is only the strong words of his major crush Agent Peggy Carter, and the capture of his best friend Bucky Barnes, that reawakens Steve to the calling he had always felt.
Steve does what he does best; shrugs off rules and orders, and jumps in and serves. And after proving himself with a daring unauthorized POW breakout, Cap is given command of his own commando squad and tasked with taking the war to HYDRA. For a while, this goes exactly as planned, with the super soldier and his diverse international Howling Commandos wreaking havoc and crippling HYDRA’s operations at every turn. However, it is here that yet another tragedy rears its ugly head and shakes Steve Rogers’ world. On their most daring mission so far, Steve’s best friend and second in command Bucky Barnes falls from a train speeding high atop a mountain range, seemingly to his death. For a man who had always struggled with worthiness, the loss of Bucky was a destabilizing moment. Cap’s pain gave way to self-punishment and survivor’s guilt. Add to this the follow up punch that his act of sacrifice at the end of the film (the one that puts him on ice and leads to his revival in the modern day) robbed him of the happy future that he had envisioned for himself and Peggy Carter, and the next time we see Steve he’s not in a good place.
This brings us to The Avengers, the first of two mega crossovers penned and directed by Joss Whedon. While I do have some issues with the way Whedon chooses to write Cap at times, his arc still shines through, and thus merits discussion. At the outset of the film, Steve hasn’t been awake for very long, and he’s fighting a losing battle with his anger towards his lot in life. That, plus an implied case of PTSD means that the Star-Spangled Man With A Plan isn’t exactly doing swell. He’s seemingly isolated himself, and he is clearly looking for someone, anyone, to hit. We see flashes of the old Steve shine through, but the anger that he appears to be struggling with is constantly rearing its ugly head. I don’t think we could have ever expected Steve and Tony Stark to be best friends from the start, but the particular breed of sanctimoniousness that we see from Cap in Avengers, reveals that it’s more than just Tony that is riling him up. Still, he does what he’s always done, and searches for a way to serve. He finds it in the Avengers, and when the world is saved, it is easy to forget that none of Steve’s issues have really gone anywhere, which leads us to perhaps the most important (and easily in the running for Best) film in Cap’s entire saga.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, easily the most important film in Steve’s arc. But it is also arguably one of, if not the best film in the entire MCU. A lot of that is due to the action, but a big part of it is also the character work, which is top notch. Our own Ryan Roch has gone into detail on this before, so I’m not going to belabor the point too much, but any discussion of Steve Rogers as a character is incomplete without this film. Winter Soldier is the film where Steve’s traumas and issues really start to rear their heads. He’s disconnected from most of the world, spending most of his time working, with Black Widow being his only regular contact with the Avengers. He’s thrown himself into service again, but this time he didn’t bother to do his research about who he was signing up to serve. He finds himself, for lack of a better word, an agent of SHIELD; a commando that Nick Fury sends in on wet work missions and to clean up messes. Steve has killed for his country before, but now he is explicitly operating as SHIELD’s gun for hire, and it is something that has clearly become a drain on him. The steadfast moral framework that we expect from him has crashed head-on into a modern world that operates much more in shades of gray than he is used to, and he’s clearly become uncomfortable with the compromises that are being made in the name of security and freedom. Nick Fury’s pragmatism and willingness to operate in the gray areas grates on Cap, and it just adds yet another thing to the heap of issues that he is dealing with. Steve’s estrangement from the world around him is palpable. He’s not engaging with the modern world out of some sense of mourning for the world and life that he lost. Peggy Carter is still alive, but she’s a gravely ill senior citizen suffering from dementia, and every time Cap reaches out he is basically tearing open a wound that had just started to heal. A chance encounter with Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) somewhat improves his situation. Sam is in many ways a bridge between worlds for Steve, as he’s a former military man whose civilian specialty just happens to be helping people reintegrate into civilian life after trauma suffered in the military. He’s leading group therapy at the VA and he even manages to get Steve to come check it out one day, even if Steve isn’t ready to actually engage himself.
So we find Steve in an already less than stable place, and once again, outside factors conspire to further destabilize him. It’s discovered that SHIELD has been infiltrated by the remnants of HYDRA, and that they have been directing both SHIELD and national policy for quite some time. After their initial attempts to capture or kill Steve and Widow fail, they send their top assassin, The Winter Soldier, after them. And when Steve, Sam, and Widow face off against him, it is revealed that this assassin is none other than Bucky Barnes, who has undergone a twisted version of the process that created Steve. The reveal that Bucky is alive is an earth-shattering moment, and it shakes Cap to his foundations, setting the stage for the remainder of his arc. A man that has spent the last film and a half mourning a life he thought completely lost now sees a single tether to this life before him, and the thought of reconnecting to that is all-consuming. What’s more, it is heavily implied that Bucky is responsible for the death of Tony’s parents, a detail that will eventually come into play in devastating fashion. The film ends with HYDRA defeated, SHIELD in ruins, and Cap on the hunt for his friend. He’s now left with a deep mistrust of institutions and a single-minded pursuit of the last vestiges of the life he once knew.
This brings us to Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’ll be honest, in some ways, this film drops the ball with regards to Cap’s arc. It introduces some interesting information and ideas, but it doesn’t necessarily properly dramatize them and the ideas get lost in the mix somewhat. The ideas are still worth getting into, however. Perhaps the most telling moment in Cap’s entire story comes in this film. When Scarlet Witch uses her powers to show each of the Avengers their worst fears. Cap’s vision is perhaps most harrowing. He doesn’t see death or dismemberment, or his friends in pain. Steve sees a life without war, but one marred by clear signs of PTSD. He sees himself at a post-VE Day party, with the love of his life on his arm, but every sound and every image is clearly flashing his brain back to the war, he can’t settle back into a normal life. This is a sobering revelation, and one that should have landed like a hammer. But when the moment comes at the end of the film for Steve to address this revelation, poor framing presents him saying that he’s lost all desire for a normal life, but in such a way as to almost present that as a positive. It’s a rare moment in the character arc where Marvel drop the ball, and more specifically fail to make a powerful statement on trauma and PTSD.
So now we’ve reached the big one, the film that all of this was leading to, Captain America: Civil War. Civil War is the film that takes all that has happened to Steve – all of his trauma and his experiences – and throws gasoline on the fire. From the very jump it is made clear that all is not well when Steve freezes in the middle of a mission at the mere mention of Bucky, and lives are lost because of it. When the Sokovia Accords are introduced in the aftermath to put a leash on superheroes, Steve is already uneasy. He’s seen what can happen when an institution wields too much power, and he hasn’t forgotten what happened to SHIELD. He clearly doesn’t trust the UN panel to be better stewards of peace when they have the might of the Avengers at their fingertips. Still, at this point he is at least listening and discussing, instead of taking action. But then, more trauma; In the middle of the discussion amongst the Avengers about the Accords, Steve receives news that Peggy has died. A man trying to hold onto his past with both hands has just seen another piece of it slip through his fingers, leaving him deeply off-balance. When this is compounded by the (then unknown) framing of Bucky for bombing the UN at the signing of the Accords, something snaps in Steve.
As pointed out multiple times before, Steve is a man that hasn’t figured out how to live in the present, his head and his heart are, in many ways, still in 1945. So when faced with the threat of losing his final connection to that time and the life he lost, he stops thinking rationally. Steve moves from disagreeing with the Accords to operating in full-blown defiance of them as he attempts to bring Bucky in himself, becoming party to quite a bit of collateral damage in the process. Still, as Tony tells him in the aftermath of his arrest, nothing has yet happened that cannot be walked back. All Cap had to do was sign on the dotted line, and he could have legitimized his attempt, and likely protected Bucky in the process. But when he sees (in his view) Tony once again going overboard in his attempts to control the situation, he refuses to cooperate and sets the stage for what will prove to be the fall of the Avengers. When Helmut Zemo, the true mastermind behind the UN bombing, uses Bucky’s embedded brainwashing trigger words to cause him to violently escape custody, things begin to deteriorate rapidly. Steve still has an opportunity (in theory) to diffuse the situation. He simply has to choose to work with the people he has decided not to trust. Instead, he chooses to assemble his own team of Avengers on the opposite side of the law to deal with the problem he sees, insuring that some of his closest friends can now look forward to being fugitives, at best. He leads a pitched battle against the “legitimate” Avengers team, destroying swaths of a major airport, crippling War Machine, and getting almost his entire team captured in the process. His fear, and his desperation to protect Bucky blind him to the fact that he is hurting people he cares for and making everyone’s situations more difficult in the process. Nothing hammers this home more than the shot of his team imprisoned in the Raft (a Supermax Ocean Pokey, as Tony dubs it), being treated not as wayward heroes, but as full on supervillains. When Bucky posits that he may not be worth all that has been sacrificed in the name of protecting him, Steve doesn’t have an answer, but we can see it dawn on him exactly how much he has sacrificed. When the horrifying truth that Bucky killed Tony’s parents is revealed, there’s nobody left on Cap’s side, and it leads to the only thing it could have: a vicious and horrifying fight that causes the crack in the Avengers’ foundation to erupt into a chasm. Steve’s repeated failure to ask for help, or to place his trust in the rest of the team, leaves the Avengers broken. And when the battle is over, he is left with no choice but to leave the Avengers, and Captain America, behind.
There’s a moment at the very end of Civil War (one that will be debated until the end of time) where Steve, realizing the mess that he has made, does the only thing that he can do: he chooses to clean it up the best he can. He sends Tony a letter admitting to being in the wrong, but holding fast to his beliefs, and then he goes to save the friends that are suffering because of the choices that he has made. It is the first time in a long time that the Steve from the first movie begins to shine through, if only for a moment. He commits to helping people wherever he can, even though he knows he must now do so outside the law. That’s where we find him in Infinity War. He’s not okay by any means (note the full on depression-beard), but he’s doing his part. He’s leading a covert team of Avengers, and when faced with the choice of staying safely in hiding, or suiting up to save the world, Steve chooses the latter. He and his team step out of the shadows in order to take on Thanos in a desperate attempt to save the universe. They lose, and Steve loses both Sam and Bucky in the process. Now, as we find ourselves on the precipice of Avengers: Endgame, we see Steve at a decision point once more; He can live in the past and let his trauma and the grief associated with it consume him, or he can suit up, reclaim the man that he used to be, and fight one more time to save his friends and the universe.
Cap is a foundational figure for Marvel Comics (quite literally, he predates the Marvel Comics brand). And in many ways he is for the MCU as well. Cap is, in the canon of the MCU, the first superhero. He is a living legend, but the super soldier isn’t his legacy. The kid from Brooklyn – the one that jumped on the grenade, willing to sacrifice everything just to provide some measure of service – that’s the legacy. Many heroes are called such because they had or gained power, and chose to do something good with it after learning a lesson about the nature of that power. It is the arc of the inward growing to reflect the outward. What makes Steve Rogers rare is that he gained power because of his goodness. The story of Steve Rogers is not the story of a perfect soldier, but of a good man who was given his power so that his outer strength could match his inner strength. The story of Steve Rogers in the MCU is one of how he gained his power, but became disconnected from the innocence and inner strength that caused him to be worthy of it because of the trauma he encountered in its use. It’s the story of his journey to reclaim that. It is the story of a man out of time and out of step with the modern world desperately trying to find his place. It is a journey that we’ve been truly lucky to see unfold across these films, and this weekend, we get to see how it ends.