Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
For 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been consistently one of the strongest cultural powerhouses in the movie industry. You can point out several factors to explain its success, like nearly perfect casting, solidly crafted action and careful attention to world-building and continuity. However, the one that stands out the most is that there’s genuine love and understanding of its characters, and that’s a golden crown where Captain America is the brightest gem at the center. His movies are full of details that become more satisfying with rewatches, a rich group of supporting characters to highlight and contrast his qualities, and a poignant, yet empowering arc that has established him as the heart of the MCU.
Of course, you can’t talk about Captain America without mentioning the commanding presence and earnestness that Chris Evans provides to the role. Regardless of the writers and directors he’s working with, he’s always convincing as a man you’d follow to Hell and back just because he asked nicely. He can sell something as simple as “I don’t like bullies” for a million bucks, and it’s easy to buy because there’s not a single trace of cynicism or indifference in his delivery. When Evans speaks, you listen, but most importantly, you’re encouraged to be better.
The First Avenger: Earning Leadership
The Steve Rogers saga begins in an America of contrasts. A country coming together thanks to technological progress and national pride that also happens to be dripping in toxic masculinity. Many men have a hard time feeling strong without resorting to brute force, and unfortunately, that’s a factor motivating them to go to World War II. Just the thrill of getting to hurt and humiliate; a rather tainting aspect considering that the country is supposed to be a “good guy” in the conflict.
Not Steve Rogers. He wants to fight in WWII because Nazis are a threat to decency. As a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who was regularly bullied, Steve has no idea what it’s like to have physical strength and is tired of people that use their vigor for the wrong reasons. He’s not interested in recognition, He wants to do something that leads to a world where people feel safe to be themselves without repercussions.
Scientist Abraham Erskine needs someone to turn into the ultimate soldier, and as a firsthand witness of power abuse, he can’t afford to pick the wrong person. In an environment that’s so driven by ego and impulses, selflessness and ingenuity make Steve not only the perfect candidate, but a good friend who can sympathize with Erskine’s life experience. Steve’s qualities were also noticed by Agent Peggy Carter, who can relate to being harassed and undervalued in a status quo that rewards toxicity.
But even after Steve gets the Super Soldier serum, he’s still not accepted into society and is relegated to be a war bond selling mascot. He’s serving his country. But not placing his life on the line makes him feel disappointed about his mission. Steve has the motivation. He gained the physicality. But he’s still missing a key component: convincing people that he’s a voice of reason. How can empathy and a healthy contact with your feelings thrive in a society where men measure their worth by how much they denigrate other people?
You stop waiting for things to change by themselves.
Steve thinks following the rules is important, but his desire to help was constantly tempered by a system that didn’t believe in him. If he wanted to get something done, he needed to defy the chain of command. This is foreshadowed in the fact that he often lied in his enlistment forms because of the constant rejection he faced.
The opportunity comes when James “Bucky” Barnes, Steve’s best friend, is captured by the Nazi division Hydra. Steve feels the responsibility to come to Bucky’s aid, especially because the U.S. Army thinks it’s not a risk worth taking. Steve knows what it’s like to be on your own when you’re being abused, so he can’t just stand there while the only person that defended him from bullies is suffering. By rescuing Bucky, and other prisoners of war, he did something nobody else was willing to do and proved that apparently impossible tasks can be completed with the right strategy and a convinced heart pushing you. It was the moment when the world knew that Steve was willing to fight, and even die, for people. No matter how difficult the circumstances. He became a man worth following because he had the courage to set his own terms and make society want to live by them. This particular development is what makes The First Avenger such a beautiful indictment of the “chosen one” trope. Steve was always the logical choice to become Captain America, but being a good man wasn’t enough. He had to make absolutely clear, through his tactical skills and relentless sense of initiative, that his vision could make a difference for the better.
Hydra leader Johann Schmidt (also known as Red Skull) went through a trajectory that can be described as a twisted version of Steve’s. He became drunk with the power granted by the Erskine formula, and as a result, society ostracized him. Instead of realizing the error of his ways, Schmidt assumed that the treatment he received happened because nobody could handle his greatness. He desperately tries to repress his hatred and loneliness by comparing himself to Captain America, since he’s the only person that is familiar with the effects the Super Soldier serum has on the human body. But they’re ultimately separated by the fact that for Schmidt, leadership is the ultimate goal, whereas for Steve, it’s merely a platform in the service of something bigger than himself.
The First Avenger works delightfully as an origin story. Director Joe Johnston nailed the Jack Kirby-esque sense of adventure in the tone and pulpy aesthetics while using economic story beats to inform Steve to great effect. It also ended up being one of the most consequential movies in the MCU, since its events planted the seeds for Steve Rogers’ anxieties and motivations later on. And when it comes to Captain America, his moral clout and agency are factors that determine the stability of the MCU’s political landscape.
The Avengers: Embracing a New Status Quo
Even though Joss Whedon’s take on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is an ensemble piece, Captain America serves as the main point of view character; a decision that makes perfect sense considering the story that’s being told. After staying frozen for several decades, Steve wakes up in a world that’s fundamentally different to the one he knew when it comes to technology, the presence of other superheroes and the secretive way the government tackles conflicts. He’s amazed by the changes, but he hasn’t finished processing them. What Captain America is going through mirrors the audience’s sense of wonder when watching a 100 year old soldier, a norse God, a man in a flying armor, two master assassins and a giant green monster that came from different movies (and artistic sensibilities) sharing a single screen to stop a bunch of aliens from conquering Earth.
Up until its release, The Avengers was a big question mark and an unprecedented movie event. Many people didn’t know exactly what to expect. But after its success, the MCU’s existence became normalized, and audiences were left wanting for more.
Similarly, as the movie moves forward, Captain America acquires a better understanding of all the changes that happened when he was away. He’s initially not sure if he should rely on all these unstable weirdos with dodgy pasts (especially Tony Stark, whose massively overblown ego clashes with Steve’s selflessness). But after discovering that they work well together in chaotic situations, that they ultimately seek the same goal (defending Earth), and that he can be an effective leader for them, he finally feels at home. Ready to face whatever comes next.
The Winter Soldier: Questioning your Allegiance
After the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers finds himself in a rather unusual situation in his life as Captain America. It’s the first time he’s not in a war. Sure, he’s working for S.H.I.E.L.D. in covert missions. But once they end, he becomes more aware of his loneliness and the fact that fighting wars is the only lifestyle he knows now. His friends are no longer with him, and the love of his life can only sustain her memory for a few minutes, reminding Steve of all the happy moments that never happened. Most notably, the America he fought for in WWII is a ghost.
Steve Rogers used to think of his country as a beacon of optimism. He believed in the inherent righteousness of its institutions (he even requested disciplinary action after rescuing Bucky), and that despite its flaws, America’s need to protect people would always be prioritized. What he sees now is an America that took its greatness for granted and never stops to question if the strategies it uses are the correct ones. The government has no ethical boundaries as long as its operations are done in the name of freedom, and tragedies are weaponized to convince the public that human rights need to be exchanged for a fascistic notion of security, where every person that doesn’t fulfill a set of standards is a potential threat. To add insult to the injury, it’s an America that doesn’t trust its oldest soldier entirely and keeps him in the shadows using safety as an excuse.
The country’s politics became so morally murky and overconfident that it allowed Hyrda to infiltrate its institutions and use their resources without anyone noticing. Nazi methods like mass murder and the invasion of privacy are as internalized in the American psyche as apple pie and football. Hydra even succeeded in turning Bucky into everything Steve despises: an emotionally repressed bully unable to feel sympathy and focused only on causing damage, not unlike the Red Skull himself.
Captain America sacrificed his life to stop Nazis from imposing their authoritarian vision on the world, and he wasn’t just going to allow his efforts in WWII to become futile. When he asks for S.H.I.E.L.D. agents’ support, they don’t even hesitate or ask for proof of Hydra’s transgressions because he’s perceived as a representation of where America should ideally be heading to. If something makes him wary, it means the situation is not taking place on a steady ground. His life-saving endeavors in WWII and New York have given him that much goodwill.
Captain America and his allies succeed in stopping the Hydra threat from spreading: a victory that came with a painful price. Steve still wants to see the best in people, but his ability to trust has been affected forever. Being betrayed by the system he worked for and that molded who he is made him realize that danger is found even in the safest places. That you can’t assume a structure works properly because it was founded on something you love. In this case, his country and the values it preaches (but only follows when it’s convenient).
The magic of The Winter Soldier, direction-wise, is that its paranoia-driven and occasionally nightmarish atmosphere serve as a stark contrast for The First Avenger’s pulpy sense of adventure. This drastic tonal change highlights Steve’s struggle to overcome the fact that the America of today doesn’t agree with his “old-fashioned” idealism. Even if said idealism is necessary if the country wants to walk on the correct path.
Civil War: Standing your Ground
Fortunately for Captain America, he still has The Avengers as a family where he can find company and a place to put his skills to good use. He also has the privilege of working with tactical and bureaucratic independence. But the loss of innocent lives that came with The Avengers’ endeavors made the governments of the world doubtful of them, leading to the existence of legal limits for their activities in the Sokovia Accords. The Steve Rogers of the 1940s would have been perfectly comfortable with this, since he trusted the promise of security made by the U.S. government. But the Steve Rogers of the present day is afraid of political institutions, after having been betrayed by them and seeing how they shield their authoritarian motives behind nationalistic lip service. He can’t afford to be controlled by a system that sees him as a ticking bomb, even after all he has sacrificed. Despite his own moral quandaries, Captain America manages to find a way to be the uplifting presence the other Avengers need. He lets them know that the weight of your mistakes shouldn’t stop you from gaining perspective and doing your duty, and that the moment we allow ourselves to be driven by guilt is the moment our enemies will use it to manipulate us into giving away the control of our lives. This solidifies his status as a leader and motivates some Avengers to oppose the Sokovia Accords.
Contrasting Captain America’s cause is Tony Stark, who didn’t have a problem showing the middle finger to the rules. But after seeing all the destruction he’s caused in his years as Iron Man (especially with the creation of Ultron’s army), he has developed the need for imposed boundaries, as he can’t fully rely on his own judgement. This leads him to chase down Captain America and his allies. He’s not only motivated by the importance of bureaucracy as a source of order, but the fact that he doesn’t want to carry this burden alone.
This setting makes Civil War a tricky act to pull off. Even though the movie revolves around Captain America’s perspective and arc, it also makes plenty of room for the audience to sympathize with Stark’s struggle. We’ve been watching these characters grow with each of their movies, and therefore, understand where they’re coming from. And because of this, Civil War doesn’t pick a side to deliver a stance. It wants you, as a viewer, to decide the gravity, or righteousness, of Captain America and Iron Man’s actions.
To complicate things ever further, Bucky is linked to a terrorist attack at the U.N. As far as the world is concerned, there’s no doubt of his involvement. But Steve knows Bucky for who he really is: a soldier that was stripped of his identity by a life of toxic masculinity and fascism. Not to mention that after the death of Peggy Carter, Bucky is now the only link Captain America has to his previous life, which he still misses. A less murky time when there was no doubt who was worthy of your trust and who wasn’t. Failing to stop Bucky from being transformed into a mindless killing machine is Steve’s biggest regret, so he’s taking responsibility by fighting to give his closest friend a sense of justice and closure, even if it costs him his hard-earned goodwill in the eyes of the world.
In The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier we saw Captain America sacrificing his life to save the world, and in Civil War, we get the ultimate payoff of his efforts: his allies doing the same for him. After being cornered by Iron Man’s team, Captain America’s friends realize that the only way for him and Bucky to escape is to offer themselves as distractions to slow down their adversaries. All because they know this is mainly Captain America’s quest and that he deserves a sacrifice in return for all he’s done. It’s the same reason why Sharon Carter risks her job by giving Steve his confiscated gear.
What started as a strictly ideological conflict takes a dark and personal turn when Stark discovers that Bucky was responsible for his parents’ death. Especially because Steve kept the secret hidden from him in order to protect Bucky. Captain America has always had his heart in the right place, but in this occasion, his fear of Bucky being treated as a threat (especially by someone so driven by knee-jerk behavior as Stark) stopped him from being honest. He internalized the paranoia that came after the Hydra’s S.H.I.E.L.D. takeover, and now he’s having a hard time knowing how to compartmentalize it.
The catalyst behind this reveal, Helmut Zemo, works as a cold look at what would happen if Captain America left his morals behind and allowed the pressure of trauma to consume him completely. Like Steve, Zemo is a soldier that no longer has a war to fight and desperately wants one to have a purpose. A strategic mastermind trying to hold on to a life that is long gone, which he treats as the fuel powering his decisions. After losing his family, he uses his abilities to destroy another. And once he’s done, he finds himself depressed without a mission to accomplish. Thanks to Daniel Bruhl’s unsettling, but dignified performance, you can tell that Zemo used to be a man motivated by heroism who was pushed to do horrible things in the name of his country. He broke his moral compass and stopped differentiating between the interests of an agenda and the wellbeing of society. Captain America, being a man of solid moral standards that’s constantly pushed into breaking the rules, has to fight every day to avoid falling into the same thirst for revenge that pushes Zemo.
Civil War’s outcome (and by extension, Captain America’s) comes across as an amalgam of the heroic drive and the existential drain Steve Rogers has been feeling throughout his saga. Captain America and Iron Man beating each other up because diplomacy is no longer considered an option is a striking, but logical tipping point. Especially because it could be seen coming since The Avengers, where it became clear that even though both of them want to save people, the ways they engage with the world are motivated by very different forces. Fear of betrayal for Steve, and fear of making mistakes for Stark. However, Civil War is ultimately about what Captain America signifies; which is to persist in a world that constantly seduces you into becoming a cynic and giving up. Steve is in a sour mood where he could leave Stark out of his life because the tension between the two was too much to handle. And still, Steve has the maturity and love to try to solve their conflict in a conciliatory fashion, regardless of Stark’s potential reaction. Steve wants Stark to know that he’s sorry for not measuring the magnitude of his consequences. Nevertheless, Stark is not ready to forgive at the moment. The fact that the disappointment came from a legendary figure he was taught to admire since he was a child makes it all the more difficult.
Steve Rogers’ story is about survival. Establishing a series of beliefs for ourselves helps us to navigate through life and understand where people come from. However, that mindset can’t stay the same in a world that constantly morphs according to its necessities, or worse, its fears and rancors. A world that’s always ready to disappoint you, and may even try to break you for listening to your own voice. No matter how much you believe in your own mindset and how resilient you are, you’ll eventually have to adjust the way you engage with the world. It’s a process that hurts, because the confidence to face challenges relying on an ethos is gone.
The U.S. government’s arrogance, questionable motives, and lack of transparency motivate Steve to stop being Captain America. That identity was for a person who was convinced that America is driven by heroism rather than fear of the people it’s supposed to serve. Captain America was a symbol of hope, yes, but it was also a government-created identity designed to convince the U.S. of its own moral high ground, which Steve knows to be a fallacy after seeing how easily the country’s values can be twisted for the benefit of dodgy agendas. He couldn’t keep working for a chain of command that demanded his trust, but didn’t trust him in return. But at the end of the day, he’s still that scrawny kid from Brooklyn that won’t back away from hopeless fights and is willing to give away his life for the safety of others, keeping the promise he made to Abraham Erskine before becoming Captain America. He just doesn’t have the need to feel accountable to an establishment anymore. He’s a rebel, but a rebel you can count on.
When Steve leaves the Captain America costume and the vibranium shield behind and rescues the rebel Avengers from The Raft in civilian clothes, Civil War synthesizes the saga’s mission statement. That Steve Rogers is not defined by what the U.S. wants him to do and be, but by his resistance to a system that sees people as assets rather than human beings.
Without Steve Rogers, this world would be lost. Whenever there’s hesitation about how to proceed with a complicated circumstance, he’s the standard to look up to. A common trait among the villains in the Captain America saga is that they like operating behind the scenes by subtly manipulating people into doing what they want. In contrast, Steve Rogers prefers to take center stage and display his actions so everyone can see them, leaving no doubt about where he stands. Even if he’s constantly facing an internal battle where he questions everything he believes in. It doesn’t matter if Steve Rogers is skinny or strong. Celebrated in the Smithsonian Museum or hunted down by Special Forces. Dressed as Captain America or in civilian clothes. Armed with a shield or his bare fists, he sets the bar for the MCU, and that alone makes the enterprise’s existence a treasure to behold.