Justice for Steve Rogers, Part 1

May 14, 2019, 4:00 a.m.

This article contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”

How dare you call yourself a storyteller if you can’t even deign to care about the story you’re telling

This bout of ire towards shitty writing stems from my building frustration with a lot of modern media — television and popular film particularly — and its recent tendency to sacrifice character for spectacle. And maybe, admittedly, I shouldn’t expect quality storytelling from a political-fantasy television program or a superhero blockbuster, but what, then, is the point of producing any media at all, if you’re just going to trash the heart of it for the sake of impotent plot twists? Why create in the first place?

Steve Rogers — before he was ever christened “Captain America,” and popularized in film by Chris Evans — was born in 1918. The math here means that his childhood was characterized by the Roaring ‘20s and Prohibition; he was a teenager and a young adult during the Great Depression; he was 25 years old when he enlisted in World War II. He was the Irish Catholic son of an immigrant single mother — his father died of mustard gas serving in World War I — in Brooklyn, New York at the height of anti-Irish sentiment in the United States; Irish women were demoted to “unskilled” labor in the workforce, portrayed as prostitutes and alcoholics in anti-Irish propaganda that resulted in outright discrimination, such as “No Irish Need Apply” signs creeping around the city like a mold. 

Sarah Rogers died of tuberculosis in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, when Steve was 18 years old. Steve and his lifelong best friend, James Buchanan Barnes (“Bucky”), upon renting an apartment together after Sarah’s death, as seen in a flashback in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (henceforth referred to as “CA:TWS”), lived in a historically queer neighborhood in Brooklyn. Steve’s canonical list of health conditions— shown onscreen in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (henceforth referred to as “CA:TFA”) and in the Captain America museum exhibit in “CA:TWS” — includes asthma, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, sinusitis, heart palpitations, nervous trouble, bone/joint/other deformity, color blindness, scoliosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, anemia, partial deafness, astigmatism and easy fatiguability. (Christ, Steve.) Steve lied on his army enlistment format least seven times in seven cities, falsifying his health information in the hopes of “fighting the good fight,” which is a felony. 

All of this alone — the very basic background through which Steve is established in his first film — sets up a fascinating character with visceral knowledge of social discrimination on levels of class, race, religion and sexuality (consider the racial dynamics at play in the Brooklyn of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece “Do the Right Thing,” but with first-generation Irish, Italian, German, Russian, Chinese and Scandinavian immigrants in the mix), coming of age during three of the most politically complicated decades in American history. Marvel originators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, two Jewish men, created the character of Steve Rogers in 1941 as a direct contradiction of the Nazi Aryan narrative, and as a call to arms for the United States to combat the burgeoning Third Reich. This was during a decade in which the United States was still self-righteously isolationist, pre-Pearl Harbor; Simon and Kirby knew exactly what they were doing in making their hero a sickly, unpopular artist with a chip on his shoulder. The creation of Steve Rogers was a radical, political act.

While the cinematic Marvel behemoth with which we are familiar is too cowardly to actually address the fact that Steve Rogers is the literal, ideological antithesis of the straight, white male in power or to acknowledge his origins as a disabled, non-“white” character — it remains that that is where his conviction, his indefatigability, his dignity and his selflessness are rooted, whether they like it or not. A popular interpretation of Steve in the wake of the MCU’s unbridled expansion is that arrogance is one of his most blatant character flaws, that he believes himself to be in the right simply because he always has been and refuses to learn from the new world around him, but the Steve with which the text presents us is a Steve who is constantly conflicted, desperate to prove himself and devoted to doing what he can for others when they can’t — a Steve who takes issue with people who don’t, or won’t, prioritize the greater good. As he says to a departing-for-deployment Bucky in “CA:TFA,” “There are men laying down their lives; I got no right to do any less than them.” 

The popular presumption, instead, is that societal progress is linear, and so anything or everyone in the past must have been conservative, unenlightened or uneducated compared to today; Joss Whedon, writer and director of the first “Avengers” movie back in 2012, gleefully flings himself headfirst into this trap. He writes a Steve who is baffled by modern electricity, pitifully pleased when he recognizes a “Wizard of Oz” reference, and the progenitor of the truly cringe-worthy line, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

I have nightmares about that dialogue.

Not only does none of this jive with the character to whom we were introduced in “CA:TFA,” but it also ignores the rich groundwork for character exploration that could have been mined instead — Steve is a soldier fresh off the front lines of one of the most horrific wars in human history; Steve lost not only the little literal family he had, but his entire relationship with the rest of the world; Steve was borderline suicidal when he stormed the Hydra compound at “CA:TFA”’s climax, and intended to die nose-diving a plane stockpiled with weapons of mass destruction into Arctic ice in 1945. Holy emotional issues, Batman. 

Whedon — and thus the mainstream audience meeting Steve for the first time in “The Avengers” — is somehow instead convinced that Steve is an obnoxious, useless old man, more similar to a Kansas-bred 1950s nuclear husband than a 20-something from 1930s New York. This is partially a result of Whedon’s glaring preference for Tony Stark as a protagonist; he attempts to foreshadow their rift in the epic “Civil War” storyline from the comics with a petty competition of hyper-masculinity and unnecessarily paints the two characters as clashing embodiments of modernity and history, selflessness and selfishness, etc., etc.

Sacrificing character integrity for needless, ultimately irrelevant drama? Color me shocked. 

This Lawful Good, “We-have-orders-we-should-follow-them” characterization of Steve Rogers, though, is wildly at odds with the man who went AWOL on a likely suicide mission in Austria in order to rescue not only Bucky, but over 300 POWs who had been dismissed for dead by the military powers that be; with the man who insisted on the first integrated unit in the United States Army (in Marvel canon), sporting a black man (Gabe Jones) and a Japanese American (Jim Morita) in 1943; with the man that “learned to steal a car” in Nazi Germany. 

Steve even muses in “CA:TWS,” “For as long as I can remember, I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in: follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.” It’s not the same because that was never who Steve was, and he hoped, by the time “CA:TWS” rolled around, to secure his footing in the modern world by doing what everyone said he was supposed to be doing when he wasn’t sure himself. Steve Rogers, however, has never been the man that stands still, nor is he a man who allows anyone to abuse their power — sometimes to his personal detriment, as seen in “Captain America: Civil War” (henceforth referred to as “CA:CW”). In fact, his thematic through line in “CA:TFA” is that he is “not a perfect soldier, but a good man,” so picked to receive the super-soldier serum because he “knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.”

It is this complex balance of empathy and tenacity that is so often lost in discussions of Steve’s fundamental character, especially when the MCU franchise wildly swings between writers — and therefore characterization — for each installment. Unfortunately, that leaves later writers with the thankless duty of mopping up messes from previous films and scrambling to create a coherent narrative out of scraps. The Russo brothers — Joe and Anthony, the directors of “CA:TWS,” “CA:CW,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and finally “Avengers: Endgame” — managed, for all my criticisms, to salvage Steve Rogers from the obsolete, self-important caricature Joss Whedon made of him in “The Avengers” when they signed on for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” released in 2014.

Widely regarded as one of the most original and distinguished Marvel films in the franchise, “CA:TWS” married political thriller with superhero show with character drama, addressing Steve’s PTSD and depression while giving him space to tiptoe back into real life. (Natasha — Romanov, that is, the Black Widow — spends 20 percent of her dialogue setting Steve up on blind dates.) It is at this point, as Steve silently struggles to right himself through his trauma, that Bucky, the best friend from “CA:TFA” who was brutally killed in a cliff-side fall in 1945, is resurrected, amnesiac and brainwashed and a product of 70 years of torture and non-consensual body modification, weaponized to the teeth and renamed the “Winter Soldier.”

Comic writer Ed Brubaker, the man who originated the character of the “Winter Soldier,” reflects on the term in an interviewwith Glen Tickle at The Mary Sue:  “I came up with the name in 2004, when I was pitching for [Captain America]. I liked the sound of it for a Russian assassin from the Cold War, and also liked its connections to Thomas Paine, my personal favorite Founding Father.” 

The Paine influence Brubaker mentions is the 1776 paper, “The American Crisis,” in which Paine says of the American Revolution, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”

 “The ‘summer soldier’ quote,” Brubaker explains, “is from ‘The American Crisis,’ and I believe he meant that the summer soldiers are only patriots when it’s easy to be, but the winter soldier is a true soldier for the cause.” The “cause,” then, in the case of Captain America, is the betterment of America, even when that “betterment” means — as it does in “CA:TWS” — tearing down the entire existing system. The Russos have gone on record in saying that in “CA:TWS,” it is Steve Rogers, not Bucky Barnes, who is the true winter soldier.

Furthermore, Brubaker continues, “The first time I heard the specific name was when reading about the Vietnam War and the Winter Soldier hearings [in which U.S. soldiers testified about being complicit in American-ordered war crimes in Vietnam]. I think that sparked something, a name that … tied to atrocities in another war, and that connected all the way back to the American Revolution. It’s a very evocative name for a Captain America villain.”

And evocative it is, not just of brutal winters and cold immorality, but of historical moments in which America was very much morally in the wrong. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, at the Winter Soldier hearings in 1971, stated:

“We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.”

The central thesis of “CA:TWS” is that we cannot be — and that Steve is not— a mindless soldier who merely exists as a machine part. The true patriot, Brubaker and the Russos and Kirby and Simon all insist, holds their country to the standard it should achieve; the pinnacle of civic duty is calling your country out for its crimes. In the Marvel comics, perhaps the most famous Captain America quote — which got a slight rewrite in “CA:CW” and was attributed to Peggy Carter, who we will get to — is, “This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world, ‘No, you move.’”

Steve, for all his faults, takes the duty of a winter soldier seriously. In “CA:CW,” he says, heavy-hearted, to a grieving Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), “In this job, we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody. But if we can’t find a way to live with that, then next time maybe nobody gets saved.” Steve, then, played by Chris Evans with a suppressed rage, a deep-seated loneliness and a tireless commitment, is a character literally created to shoulder the burden of personal guilt for the greater good; he is an aspirational Atlas for the modern age. Steve is constitutionally incapable of sitting back and conforming; he takes it upon himself, when no one else will, to suffer in silence as long as it will serve others. In “CA:CW,” Tony explains his (valid) need to be absolved of the Avengers’ failures, seeing signing the Sokovia Accords as a way to repent. Steve sees doing so as a refusal to own up to and earn redemption for their errors:

Steve:“Tony, if someone dies on your watch, you don’t give up.”

Tony:“Who said we’re giving up?”

Steve:“We are, if we’re not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame.”

His initial hesitation regarding the Sokovia Accords (for which we are not producing a political dissection; catch me in CoHo with seven history textbooks if you wanna throw hands) is that the U.N.’s deeply shady document is attached to their “agendas, and agendas change.” After a solo film in which the whole of the American intelligence community turned out to be secretly infested with Nazis, can you blame him for his caution?

Steve, in “CA:CW,” is doing what he was made to do: He sees the mob and the government and the press doing wrong and flips them the middle finger. He entreats to Tony, “If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could.” He is the person who plunges forward — damaged and in pain and deeply sad, but resolute, stubborn and self-abnegating, anyway — in the face of hardship. That is who the character is, and what he represents: the ability to keep moving forward, and to leave the world better for it.

This article will be continued in an additional installment. 

Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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