Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Captain America Is Not an Anti-Hero, Nor Should He Be.

So, I was having a lot of trouble distilling my many and gleeful feelings about Captain America: The Winter Soldier into a coherent review. I was having trouble, that is, until I read a horrific, insulting, stupid-pants article from Vulture about how Captain America is only interesting if he's a dickIn it, the writer, who I assume volunteers at the Home for Missing Points, claims that Captain America/Steve Rogers is a boring character precisely because he is so moral and good and upstanding. If he were a dickwagon more often, then it would be easier to like him.

I'm sorry, what?

No, seriously, what? Since when did a character being a jackass make them more likable? And while I understand the desire for your character to have flaws, and I've written about that a lot, needing a character to have flaws and maintaining that only anti-heroes are interesting are two very different things. And one of them is stupid.

Needless to say, this guy did not make me happy. At all. Even a little bit. I love Captain America: The Winter Soldier, from the bottom of my bleak, cynical heart. It has quickly shot up to the head of a shortlist of movies that I adore unreservedly (alongside Pacific Rim, Bend It Like Beckham, and Chariots of Fire), and I am super pumped to be seeing it again tomorrow. Plus, this is a movie that had not just one, not just two, but three interesting, named, engaging female characters, two main African-American characters, loads more characters of color, a fantastic plot, great acting, and, oh, right, Captain America.

Congratulations, I'm pretty sure that's a list of everything I want in a movie. Did I mention that the theme is culturally relevant and philosophically complex, that the villain is truly menacing and yet has a relatable and understandable motivation, and that it's following the storyline from one of my all-time favorite Cap comic arcs? Because those things are all true.

But I actually want to dig a little more into what Mr. I-Pretend-To-Get-The-Wire-But-Actually-I-Just-Read-The-Summaries-Online had to say about why Steve should be a more gritty, politically conservative, macho man. Because he is deeply and meaningfully wrong about that. Most specifically about this quote, right here: 
Imagine someone frozen in the 1940s being dropped into the 2010s with no experience of the intervening decades. Someone still high on '40s social norms, righteous wartime adrenaline, and super-serum. Would he be the gentle, sensitive man we see in Marvel's films and comics? It's certainly possible. But isn't it more likely — and more interesting to imagine — that we would find him difficult and reactionary? That he'd be uncomfortably macho and out of touch with modern values? In other words: Wouldn't he be more John McCain than Barack Obama? [Source]
No. No he wouldn't actually, which is something that you would know if you had bothered to actually contemplate Steve's backstory. [As a sidenote, this is a rant, not a review. If you just want a straight up review, read this.]

So, dear readers, let me tell you a story, the story of Steven Rogers, born in 1918 in Brooklyn, the son of Irish immigrants. His father dies when he was young, after which, Steve was raised by his mother, Sarah, who was a nurse. Steve was a sickly child, and he grew up in a single-parent household in Brooklyn in the Great Depression. 

So, odds are that his family was probably deeply and meaningfully poor, that they never had enough food to eat, and that they faced a lot of discrimination looking for work because, remember, this was still on the tail end of the No Irish Need Apply era.

Steve grows up, his mother passes away, and he ends up sharing his apartment with his best friend, the able-bodied James "Bucky" Barnes. Bucky is the one who makes most of the money, and at some point they manage to scrape together enough cash for Steve to take a couple of art lessons.

Also during this time, Steve is watching America slowly come out of the Great Depression, thanks in large part to FDR's New Deal and social welfare. As a kid who probably knew exactly what it was like to stand in a breadline or wait for a tiny bowl of soup, there is almost no way that Steve "I Hate Bullies" Rogers didn't have a framed picture of FDR above the freaking mantelpiece.

Also take some other stuff into account here. When our "friend" up there talks about 1940s traditional American values, I think he's getting confused. While the late 40s and 50s were a time of "family values" and traditionalism, they were also complete flukes, culture-wise. Steve grew up in a time before the Hayes Morality Code tried to assert a moral code on the film industry. He went to art school. In New York. In the 30s. Um, pretty sure that Steve Rogers is neither traditional nor sheltered.

And as for that whole thing where he volunteered for the Army and then ended up in a weird science experiment that exacerbated all of his qualities, physical, mental, and emotional, well then it's easy to see what happened.

Steve Rogers went from being a big-hearted, liberal, kind man who wanted to save people to being a bleeding-heart, ultra-left wing, hyper-compassionate superhero who will save people or die trying. I mean, if the serum amplified his muscles, what the hell must it have done to his heart?

The real problem I have with that article is that the writer totally misses the point of why we like Captain America in the first place. It's not because he makes us feel better about ourselves (I mean, let's be real, don't you feel a little grubby when you compare yourself to him?), and it's not because we want a feel-good movie. This was anything but a feel-good movie. No, people like Captain America because they respect him. Because he sends an incredibly important message: that being a good person is worth the cost.

Because it is. It definitely is.

I think it's nowhere near accidental that this movie pairs Steve up with Natasha for most of its running time. Not just because Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson are searingly attractive people, and not only because it kinda makes sense. It's there because Natasha is the exact opposite of Steve. She's so morally ambiguous that she has no idea who she is, while Steve is so morally upright that he has no idea how to fit into a world that isn't.

The key is that neither of these characters is perfect, but they do blend each other's flaws. Steve might be the kind of guy who never makes a bad call, but imagine the hell it would be to be so good and see so much bad all around you. Cap doesn't live in shades of gray, and that's his flaw. And it's a good flaw. It makes for awesome stories, like this one.

Ultimately, it probably doesn't matter that one internet writer thought Captain America should be more dickish, and I, another internet writer, vehemently disagree. But I would contend that we don't need another dick of a superhero. We don't need more anti-heroes. We need someone who can remind us how and why to be good.

That is what we have Captain America for.


  1. I'm right there with you on this one. I have yet to see "Winter Soldier" because I spent last weekend losing a part of my soul to a job. But I think this applies equally to "The Avengers" when Steve is placed in the midst of a group of characters that are all morally clouded and then he has to LEAD THEM. His position as the head of The Avengers is sort of honorary I guess, but when shit gets real in the third act, the entire team turns to him for guidance. Yes that may be because he actually holds a military rank amongst a (I guess pseudo) military organization.

    The thing about the film The Avengers is that the entire premise of the plot is that this is a group of deeply flawed individuals dealing with their own demons and vices and whether or not they'll rally to save the world. The only person who is dealing with a crisis that is totally out of their control is Cap. There is no way he can go back and get Peggy. Tony is a snide asshole, Thor has daddy issues, Hulk is...Hulk, Black Widow is totally morally gray and Hawkeye is brainwashed. Cap is literally the only one dealing with something that he couldn't change even if he wanted to. That's what makes him interesting, he's stuck in a situation with no easy out and he still does his job because he is a loyal and morally strong person.

    With Superman, he is often regarded as the ideal we should strive for, and I think a similar case could be made for Steve. His serum enhancements make him the ideal soldier and an ideal citizen: tolerant and kind and always willing to put other people before himself. We shouldn't strive to be Tony Stark, no matter how badass his armor may be.

    1. What I love about Steve is that you can change anything about his outsides, but he is still exactly the same on the inside. His moral rectitude and his unflinching goodness is precisely what makes him such an interesting character. If he were more morally flexible, he'd actually be quite dull.

      And yes, I don't think anyone should ever aspire to be Tony Stark. Especially not Tony Stark.

  2. I lost any respect for the writer's opinion when he said you could expect to see plain-speaking from Thor, of all people.

    Then again, "plain" seemed to be shorthand for "sexist and homophobic, and probably racist too but that's less relevant to the quote at hand" - and it's true, you wouldn't expect that from the MCU's Thor.

    But seriously, sometimes people are just... good.

    1. What I love about MCU's Thor is that he's actually really open-minded and progressive. He's not sexist or homophobic, he's pretty much just down with whatever makes you happy. And that makes him, again, a more interesting character. He's just this nice guy who has to learn that sometimes, while he is nice, his jokes hit people the wrong way or he's actually being unintentionally offensive, or he's kind of hotheaded. Thor is an adorable baby because he wants to know when he's being a jerk so that he can change.

      I love him.

  3. I really liked this movie. Thought it was a very timely blast, and liked it more than I expected (the Avengers movies tend to do that for me; I'm a bit burned out on Supes in general but these do such a good job creating complex moral problems and character dynamics that I still give a damn by the end).

    I was sold when Nick Fury said in the Avengers movie, regarding heroes: "It was an old-fashioned notion." Exactly the issue(s) at hand, still very relevant (and interesting) thanks to CA.

    1. I will agree that we are reaching a superhero burnout point, but I kind of want to just power through it, and then it'll all be awesome again/still. Because for me, superheroes (especially Marvel heroes) help me to process what happens in the world. They're like mythic heroes. I can understand my world better when it's put in the form of a story. So this movie worked perfectly for me.