A few days ago, my father, patriotic as he is, got upset at me for saying that “America sucks.” He lectured me for a few minutes on my lack of patriotism, and I barely had time to explain I was clearly talking about Captain America (Chris Evans, “Knives Out”). My opinions on the good ol’ US of A aside, I think the First Avenger gets way more credit than he’s due (actually … that sounds quite a lot like America, come to think of it), and I’m here to make the case that Steve Rogers is actually an obstinate asshole.
Across his many Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) appearances, Rogers is given various monikers that allude to his ostensible virtuosity, such as “God’s Righteous Man,” “Living Legend,” and, of course, his comic book nickname, “Sentinel of Liberty.” His moral compass is applauded throughout the films, particularly in “Captain America: Civil War,” a film centered around how best to hold the Avengers superhero team accountable for any death and destruction they may inadvertently cause. In the film, Cap refuses to agree to the Sokovia Accords — a United Nations agreement stating that the Avengers should fall under the jurisdiction and direction of a UN panel, rather than being independently operated, signed by 117 countries — on the basis that the Accords would hamper the Avengers’ agenda of helping people due to the introduction of international bureaucracy. Furthermore, Rogers insinuates that the Avengers shouldn’t be subject to the whims of a third party (that being the UN panel), because the third party will always be self-interested.
However, Cap’s moral rigidity blinds him to the reality of his own power and responsibility and effectively pits him against those who are unlucky enough to be born into a world with individuals with the power to destroy half the universe. The catalyst for the Sokovia Accords was a terrorist attack at the beginning of “Civil War” that resulted in the deaths of over two dozen people. The violent escalation that led to the attack was pinned on the Avengers present at the incident and served as a turning point in the public perception of the superhero team.
Though the culpability of the Avengers in the attack is questionable, the collateral damage caused by each superhuman in their respective fights against evil is indisputable. The Sokovia Accords’ namesake was a city that was leveled in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in which countless people died due to, and in spite of, the actions of the Avengers. Not only was the supervillain of “Ultron” created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., “Doctor Doolittle”), but the scale of the resulting devastation proved too much for the Avengers to fully contain, showing how easily matters could spiral out of control.
Cap seems to ignore all of this. In “Civil War,” he operates by an ethos best illustrated by one of his secret agent allies, who states that “Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, you move.’” And he definitely plants himself like a tree: a dirty, gnarled tree that probably should’ve died sometime in the 20th century. He refuses to understand the concerns of over a hundred countries and turns a blind eye to the countless innocents who have died on his path to save the world. The whole world was literally telling him to move, and he shook his head, crossed his arms, and said “No, I don’t think I will.” He made no concessions, offered no alternatives, and just stated his concerns about how it’d affect the efficacy of the team and refused to engage further — all in the name of freedom.
There is a tacit acknowledgment of this character flaw on Rogers’s part: In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he confesses, “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 and follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.”
And he’s right, it’s not the same. As a soldier, he had the luxury of operating in a world of black and white, kill or be killed, but even though he acknowledges this is no longer the world he lives in, he refuses to adjust his own worldview and values to account for the moral grays of reality.
Cap’s black-and-white sense of morality isn’t the only thing stuck in the 1940s; he also seems to have no conception of mental illness or trauma. It makes sense that America’s poster boy would be neurotypical and conveniently free of much of the trauma that plagues U.S. veterans today, and his attitude toward mental illness reflects that. This is most apparent in his conduct toward his teammate, Tony Stark. One of Stark’s major character arcs across the film franchise is his efforts to cope with the debilitating PTSD he suffered in the wake of the events of the first “Avengers” movie. Though this post-traumatic growth is most prominently explored in “Iron Man 3,” the arc resurfaces in “Civil War,” in which Stark attempts to grapple with the murder of his parents and guilt over the Sokovia disaster. In fact, his entire reason for supporting the Sokovia Accords stems from the PTSD he suffers due to the litany of traumatic events that accompany the life of a hero.
“Civil War” opens with a confrontation between Stark and a bereaved mother who blames him for the death of her son in Sokovia, which he even brings up to Steve Rogers later in the film. Once again, though, Rogers is dismissive and merely pays lip service to Stark’s distress over the fact that Cap’s best friend murdered his parents. Throughout the films (especially in the first “Avengers” film), Cap refers to Stark as selfish and arrogant, without ever recognizing the trauma that underpins many of Stark’s actions. In one memorable confrontation, Rogers asks Stark, “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?” Though this tense confrontation takes place before much of Stark’s trauma occurs, it’s emblematic of Rogers’s broader attitudes toward his teammate and his inability to account for the very human struggles that Stark faces. Though Stark rightly deserves a lot of criticism, Cap doles out said criticism without nuance or regard for the grays of Stark’s failures.
I could go on, but I just don’t think Captain America is worth the effort. Steve Rogers has always rubbed me the wrong way, and not just because he inexplicably morphed into Joe Biden at the end of “Avengers: Endgame.” I just think Rogers lacks the capacity to see beyond his own narrow worldview.
Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.