Not a Perfect Soldier: The Question of Captain America

Even by the more strenuous geeky “but-you’re-not-a-real-fan-unless” credentials, I’ve been a Captain America fan for a while now. I’ve read many of the comics; I’ve watched, re-watched, discussed, and analyzed the three Marvel movies where Cap’s been a key player; I was even planning to write Winter Soldier on my face in Russian with liquid eyeliner to celebrate the new movie premiere, though wiser friends talked me out of the idea.

So when I came across a link on my Twitter feed to an article titled “Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He’s A Prick”, my attention was snagged almost immediately.

The argument that the article’s author is making is one that I’ve heard more than a few times: as a character, Steve Rogers just isn’t that interesting, and he’s uninteresting because he’s good. He’s “fundamentally dull”, says the article, because he’s “kind… moral, and effortlessly charming”, and “with perfection comes blandness.” And, according to the article, this blandness could be fixed so easily— if only Captain America was a terrible person.

But I don’t buy it.

The article’s first argument is that being a jerk “fits perfectly with the Captain America origin story”. For those not in the know: Cap fought in World War II. Before the war ended, however, he died, or so it seemed; in fact, Cap was frozen in ice, and revived in the 1960s (or the 2000s, or in 2011, depending on your timeline).

According to the article, anyone making the leap from 1945 to 2011 would be “high on ’40s social norms”. A more “interesting” Steve would be “uncomfortably macho and out of touch with modern values”. And it’s certainly easy to our modern eyes to imagine a time traveler acting that way—but it’s actually historically inaccurate, especially for Steve.

To mangle a quote from Doctor Who: people tend to think of history as a strict progression of backwards social conservativism to progressive open-mindedness. But from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, political-wolitical stuff.

Take, for example, Steve himself. It’s established that Steve is a Irish Catholic, a minority that was heavily discriminated against in the 1920s and 1930s. (In fact, there’s a comics panel where his father rants about how many jobs have “No Irish Need Apply” signs up.) He went to college for fine arts—probably the City College of New York, given the fact that he was a poor orphan. This was a place where he would have interacted regularly with Communists, queer students, and the 80% Jewish population. He also canonically worked at some of FDR’s New Deal jobs.*

Looking at Steve in this context, he’s an arts student, an oppressed minority, a working-class New Yorker, and a product of the Great Depression and the Harlem Renaissance. The idea that his upbringing would make him a bigot is beyond implausible.

But the author of this article’s point isn’t that it’s more likely for Steve to be a bigot. His point is that it’s more interesting, that having a character who’s a homophobic, sexist, bullying fossil is just more fun. And it’s here that the article’s point of view and mine really begin to diverge.

“[Ultimates] Captain America was a bully,” says the article, describing its ideal Captain America: the pro-authority, conservative Steve Rogers found in Marvel’s Ultimates universe. The Ultimates universe was created in the 2000s, during the Bush administration, and was controversial among fans for its “dark-and-gritty”, cynical approach to characterization. The Steve of the movies would, indeed, think of Ultimates Steve as a bully; this Cap “leaps out of planes without a parachute because… ‘parachutes are for girls'”, shouts homophobic insults at the Hulk, and famously shrieks at an enemy, “Surrender? You think this letter on my head stands for France?” (This Steve, evidently, did not fight with the same French Resistance that his original counterpart admired and respected.)

“That all might be a bit too extreme for some readers and viewers,” the article informs us. “But you can keep Cap’s core decency and still add rough-edged contours”—as long as those “rough-edged contours” are only homophobia and sexism. If Cap’s flaws are historically inaccurate bigotry, after all, his “core decency” remains intact.

But the argument goes even beyond a belief that blind, rabid jingoism makes a character better. The argument is that goodness itself is boring—that for Steve to be “pure-hearted” makes him “threadbare”, that making Captain America engage in morally dubious activities is more “intriguing” than making his heroism unambiguous and genuine.

This, too, is an argument that I’ve heard many times before—from film critics, from family, from friends. Good isn’t fun to watch. Decency is boring. Heroism is dull, and so Cap is dull.

“He makes the story of The Winter Soldier simple by being an endlessly good force that can root out S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nasty impurities,” the article tells us. “He makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy in the gauzy nostalgia of the first Captain America film… But wouldn’t it be nice to challenge viewers with a soldier protagonist who does more than make us feel nice about ourselves and our past?”

The argument, then, is that Cap’s heroism itself is jingoistic. By being a good person from the 1940s, Steve Rogers represents blind nostalgia; he exists to “make us feel nice about ourselves and our past”. What the author seems to want is a hero who is revolutionary— who challenges our assumptions, who makes us think.

But Captain America does make us think. Captain America is explicitly anti-authoritarian and pro-individualism, especially in the latest film, where he outright calls for the destruction of analogues of the NSA, drones, and Obama’s “kill list”**. Steve Rogers is always and fundamentally on the side of the underdog, the oppressed, the people that authority harms. Steve Rogers doesn’t exist to make us feel nice about ourselves. Steve Rogers doesn’t exist to make us feel “warm and fuzzy”. Steve Rogers exists, in fact, to make us uncomfortable.

“This nation was founded on one principle above all else,” he says during Marvel’s Civil War arc, “the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.” Without spoilers: he expresses many similar sentiments in the latest Captain America. In fact, he outright refuses to obey explicit orders in order to do what he believes is right, and encourages others to disobey as well. For him, being a hero doesn’t mean following authority, or giving into nostalgia, or being “a flawlessly nice soldier”. Being a hero means individuality. It means standing up for what you believe in. It means defying orders if those orders are morally wrong.

To Captain America, America isn’t a government, or a people, or anything tangible. America is an ideal— perhaps an unachievable ideal, but an ideal that it is his and every American’s duty to pursue. Captain America’s stories are about the endless, impossible pursuit of goodness, about the difficult choice between what is right and what is easy.

Captain America’s stories rest on a seemingly simple idea: that you don’t become a hero when you gain super strength, or when you put on Spandex, or when you decide to beat up criminals in the middle of the night. You become a hero when you decide to do the right thing. You become a hero when you do good things not because you want praise, or revenge, or glory, but because they are good.

To find heroism dull is, to me, the worst kind of cynicism. It is rejecting not only the idea that goodness for goodness’s sake can exist, but that goodness for goodness’s sake should exist. When you reject Cap’s brand of heroism, you are stating plainly that you would rather see selfishness than selflessness—that you would rather see bigotry than tolerance—that you would rather see pettiness than nobility. You are saying you would rather see the small ways in which humanity can fail than the enormous ways in which we are capable of being extraordinary.

Steve Rogers is more than a “generic, charismatic soldier”, as the article calls him. He is, pointedly, not a perfect soldier. He is a good man.

Anyone could wear the stars and stripes, and anyone could carry the shield. Anyone could be injected with super-soldier serum. But it is only Steve Rogers who is capable of being more. It is only Steve who can see beyond gadgets and glory to see the heart of the superhero genre itself: not some adolescent power fantasy of being big and strong, but the much more human fantasy of being the best that we are capable of being.

The article paints Steve’s heroism as reductive, says that being a good man makes him threadbare. But it has never been heroism that has brought out the smallness in humanity. It has always been bigotry, and close-mindedness, and selfishness. Bullying makes us distorted; it makes us flat; it makes us weak.

Goodness— in fiction and in reality— makes us greater than we can possibly imagine.


*Historical points owe a lot to Steven Attewell’s incredible article “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero”.



6 thoughts on “Not a Perfect Soldier: The Question of Captain America

  1. Steve is a terrible soldier! He disobeys orders, he thinks for himself, he does his own thing. He’s the very antithesis of what the military services wants.

  2. I’m not being sarcastic! He is a terrible soldier. He thinks for himself, he doesn’t follow orders, he doesn’t automatically respect the chain of command.

    As far as I am aware, the training of soldiers is designed in a manner that breaks their individuality and conditions them to work with a unit and to follow orders without question.

    Steve is an excellent fighter, an excellent leader, hero, role model, and many other things. I don’t think you can argue that he is a good soldier.

  3. I saw that Vulture article and totally made the D: face the whole way through because Steve is NOT more interesting as an asshole. There’s a reason I’ve never been able to like Ultimates Steve.

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this quote before, but to me this is basically the quintessential Steve quote:

    Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. 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.” (Amazing Spider-Man #537)

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