Time for the third entry in this ongoing series! We’re examining the character writing of Marvel’s The Avengers, one of the best elements of a movie with a lot going for it. We started with Bruce Banner and continued with Tony Stark. To continue with the logical progression, this month we talk about the man who was Stark’s foil for most of the movie – Captain Steve Rogers.
The greatest soldier in the world began life in New York during the Great Depression and volunteered to fight in the Second World War. He was turned down for being too small and weak – many times. So great was his desire to serve that he hit every recruiting station he could find and eventually drew the attention of the supersoldier program that would make him superhuman.
Rogers would eventually see service in Europe fighting the rogue Nazi superscience group HYDRA, defeating their leader Red Skull in a battle that left Steve trapped under a glacier until he was discovered by SHIELD and revived in the modern era.
Oh, he also possesses an indestructible shield that he throws at people. It’s pretty cool.
Steve Rogers embodies character vs. the world, a dramatic shift from the last two characters who were both at odds with themselves.
Seventy years ago, American society at least paid lipservice to the ideals of courtesy, integrity, duty and honor. While the number of people who actually lived by those virtues were probably no higher than the number of people who live by their personal principles today, what matters for the purposes of this story was that the Captain was one of those people who not only believed in those things but put everything he had into practicing them. Unfortunately, those ideals are not particularly valued today.
But Steve’s conflict runs even deeper than just a difference between his ideals and those of the world around him.
Defeating HYDRA was not the literal the death of Steve Rogers but it came close enough. When his life stopped the world kept marching and it hasn’t looked back. It seems almost impossible for him to have any relevance in the world he finds himself in. The skills he honed as a young man are obsolete, the enemy he fought has been defeated and the friends he knew are gone. What’s a hero to do?
We Meet Captain America
“I’ve been asleep for seventy years. I think I’ve had enough rest.” – Captain Steve Rogers
Cap’s introduction is every bit as well thought out as Stark’s. We see him in a boxing gym. An oldschool boxing gym, it looks like it’s been dragged straight out of the Depression era and it immediately tells us a few things about Steve.
First, it immediately gives us the impression that we’re looking at an old fashioned place with an old fashioned guy. There’s no modern exercise equipment in there. Just a ring, a punching bag and some room for warmups. The man there fits in seamlessly, feels entirely at home. He’s just as old as this place, perhaps.
Second, the gym is empty. Gyms are communal places, social centers as much as places to refine and train yourself. Most people don’t go there alone, those that do usually meet with some sort of trainer. But this man is alone.
Third, this guy is good. He hits fast, hard and continuously. And he tears his target to pieces. But never for a moment does he look happy about it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Steve Rogers.
Steve Starts Off
“There’s a lot we’ll have to bring you up to speed on if you’re in. The world has gotten even stranger than you know.” – Nick Fury
It may sound weird for Nick Fury to try and tempt Captain America out of seclusion by promising him weirdness, given that most of his woes have come about thanks in no small part to weirdness, but that’s exactly what Nick does. Their meeting, although brief, tells us a great deal about Steve and for the most part it does so without using words. I admire that.
First, we notice that Cap respects authority. He never takes Fury to task for the way SHIELD tried to hide the era he’d woken up in. He doesn’t baselessly question whether Fury and SHIELD deserve the position they hold as the world’s defenders. He assumes Fury has earned his position.
At the same time, he expects Fury to act like the things he claims to be. Steve’s questions about what Fury is telling him are exactly what we would expect from a fairly average guy who’s life experiences are seen almost entirely through the lens of global warfare. He has natural doubts about using the power source Red Skull did but seems to acknowledge it’s potential as well.
Most of all, the Captain is curious. He asks questions constantly, trying to drive into the heart of the matter. He clearly isn’t comfortable with anything around him, nor with the role he’s being asked to take or even with the guy who’s asking him to do it. But his sense of responsibility won’t let him turn away and it does sound kind of interesting…
But the real moment that starts Cap on his journey is his conversation with Phil Coulson, when he asks if his old uniform isn’t a little old fashioned. Phil replies that may be exactly what people need.
Confrontation With Loki
“You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.” – Captain Steve Rogers
Steve’s story moves pretty quickly. After paying off a bet with Fury, Steve is dispatched to Stuttgart, Germany where Loki has turned up. This makes Steve the first of the superhuman lineup to confront Loki and the first character in the movie to deal him a setback.
The first, most interesting thing to notice about Cap’s confrontation with Loki is that it happens in Germany, the country where Steve made his reputation and found his greatest enemy.
The second actually happens before Steve shows up. When Loki calls for the people of Earth to kneel before him they all do. But one man, old and looking a little weary with life, thinks about it and pulls himself back to his feet. He challenges Loki by telling him that, no matter how powerful or special the so-called god thinks he is, there have always been people like him.
This man, nameless though he is, has every reason to know. Old as he is, there can be little doubt that he knew the German who made such boasts – not personally, but still. Whether this man was a child or a soldier (and some were certainly both), a member of the resistance or complicit in his silence (and some were one and then the other), this is one man who has seen the horrors of another man who thinks he is a god and come to accept that nothing short of total opposition can be the right answer. This man of Stuttgart defies Loki, even though there is nothing he can conceivably do to stop him.
This man, quite possibly the only man in Stuttgart who could understand Steve Rogers, who has seen the things Steve has and the only one who might be able to argue that men like Captain America are now irrelevant in the world that is, chose to show the exact same spirit and the exact same resolve that Steve himself carries. The man of Stuttgart is not strong enough to do more than defy Loki – but Steve is there to fight for them both.
When Captain America fights Loki it’s a powerful statement about the relevance of heroes in the modern world. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Steve is that he doesn’t realize he’s made it but in many ways, it’s one of the most important moments in the movie, if not in the development of Steve’s character.
For all his skill, strength and courage, Captain America is not able to defeat Loki himself. In fact, he doesn’t even really get him to sweat. While it looks like both fighters could go for several dozen more rounds, Iron Man arrives and tips the odds in Steve’s favor, prompting Loki to surrender. It may not look like Steve’s win and Tony certainly doesn’t seem to think so but it’s an important first step towards Captain America’s ultimate goal.
Battles Within and Without
“Everything special about you came out of a bottle!” – Tony Stark
Ironically, Steve’s personal conflict is against the world he’s in and Loki is a thing of another world. We can’t really see Cap’s personal conflict in battles with Loki but rather in battles with the people who are helping him fight the larger fight. Add to this the fact that Steve is essentially the leader of the team and we wind up with him playing a part in many of the minor conflicts that build the individual characters into a single team.
But after his inconclusive encounter with Loki Steve’s rep isn’t quite what it could be. In fact, the very next thing that happens is a three way brawl between Cap, Thor and Iron Man. It opens with Stark’s impetuous nature clashing with Steve’s more reserved style and doesn’t come to a stop until Steve steps between the two and takes everything they can throw out. But while the fight is over that doesn’t mean the other two are behind Steve yet. In fact, in Tony’s case in particular it seems to be very much the opposite.
The struggle between the two is kind of a microcosm of Steve’s struggle as a whole. Tony values his own opinion, doesn’t want to give up anything and doesn’t take other people seriously at all. At the same time he provides Cap a push to look into what SHIELD has been doing with its borrowed technology.
It’s interesting the degree to which Steve rejects the paradigm of SHIELD. He doesn’t show much warmth to anyone but Coulson and, while the regimented behavior clearly puts him in mind of his army days, the deep secrets SHIELD hides behind doesn’t sit well with him.
Steve values the members of his team, something that puts him at odds with Fury’s seemingly colder disposition, which seems content to sacrifice the few for the many. Romanov embodies SHIELD’s philosophy and seems to be trying to handle Steve, a man who gave up being handled and set his own course long before she was born. Getting a read on her and how to best work with her is a task that will occupy an entire different movie but for now he just needs her to follow and she’s sticking with Fury.
Thor wants his brother punished, hopefully leading to his reform. That’s not something Steve disagrees with, in fact it’s very much in line with the moral code Rogers espouses, but Thor’s loyalties are elsewhere and this may be why Cap keeps him at arm’s length for most of the film. Of all the people on the team, Banner is probably the most like the Captain but the scientist’s volatility puts a layer of caution between the two that neither one really wants to cross.
In all, Steve’s biggest problem is that everyone has an agenda and none of them are his. But as a man who spent most of his life (his conscious life, anyway) as a little guy who wanted to fight for the other little guys, Steve is the one with the closest connection both to what a hero needs to do and what it will cost them.
Steve’s Tipping Point
“Phase 2 is SHIELD uses the Cube to make weapons.” – Captain Steve Rogers
Captain America is the only hero who’s entire character development basically comes in a single lump and if any one character was going to get that kind of concentrated character development it should be him. Steve is the heart of the team, it’s moral core and driving force. Yes, the Avengers were gathered by SHIELD and Fury obviously intended to be their leader. But only Steve has the integrity and the single-minded purpose to keep all the personalities around him focused on a single task. That was why he lead the team in the comics and it’s why he leads them in this film, he’s a hero that even other heroes must respect. After all, he’s lost almost his entire life to heroism once and doesn’t even hesitate to risk it again.
But even as the rest of the team slowly falls into orbit around him Steve is remaining passive, letting Fury call the shots and take the lead. Right up until Stark, Rogers’ gadfly, implies that SHIELD may be up to something underhanded. When Steve finds the weapons project they’ve been running he’s upset.
Not so much at the fact that SHIELD is building weapons. Steve was and is a soldier, he understands the necessities of war. But he also knows that the power weapons give their wielders demands accountability, just as he needs to be accountable to his superiors in his function as a living weapon. And building weapons in secret? That’s not accountability. It smacks of HYDRA.
Captain Rogers is not above setting his own goals and working towards them when his superiors are obviously neglecting what’s important – he did it during WWII and he’s up to the challenge now. SHIELD is not handling this crisis with integrity and if they won’t, then Steve Rogers will. The world may not always want his kind of heroism but it’s going to get it anyway.
“You need men in these buildings. There are people inside and they’re going to be running right into the line of fire. You take them to the basements, or through the subway. You keep them off the streets. I need a perimeter as far back as 39th.” – Captain Steve Rogers
After the attack on the Helicarrier Steve is the one to shake Tony out of his stupor and he immediately brings Barton back into the fold, no questions asked. This may seem naïve but it’s all he needs to do to get both Barton and Romanov on his side. The same pragmatic attitude was shown earlier with Bruce, when Steve showed no interest in his Hulk problem and only cared about Banner’s ability to find the Tesseract. As an accomplished soldier and leader of men, Rogers knows that sometimes it’s what a person can contribute right now that matters more than history, ideology or attitude.
The unification of the team around Steve is the end of the character’s conflict – he’s proved his own relevance in the world at large and is now free to act in it and join the battle. The growing ease with which he handles first his own team and then the emergency responders during the Battle of New York cements his place as a hero of the modern age and set the stage for him to entirely leave the shadow of Fury and SHIELD in Winter Soldier – all in all, a very satisfying character arc, if not as dramatic as Tony’s or as deft as Banners.
That only leaves one superhero left in the movie’s line up and I’d like to say I saved the best for last… but the fact is Thor is a bit of an enigma in this film. It’s not to say he doesn’t show character development, it’s just not as pronounced as any of the other characters – come back next month and we’ll take a look at what I mean.