The Tragic Selfishness of Captain America

[This article contains MINOR SPOILERS from Captain America: Civil War]


While watching Captain America: Civil War, I realised that my 3D glasses were fogging up.

I was sitting alone in the cinema watching a superhero film with a tub of popcorn and a Fanta. And I was in tears.

On the surface, there aren’t many reasons for Civil War to be particularly emotional. At the end of the day, it is supposed to be a film about clashing ideologies, or just a film about a bunch of super people beating the crap out of each other to satisfy our inner eight year olds. But there I was, walking out of the cinema a little bit drained, feeling like the film packs more of an emotional punch rather than a physical one.

In Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. in his best turn as the man in the iron suit) is weighted down by guilt from the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. After being confronted by a mother whose innocent son died during those events, he decides to side with the establishment, signing an accord agreeing that the Avengers should operate under the jurisdiction of the world’s governments rather than their own. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans – now comfortable and irreplaceable as Cap) disagrees. After the events of The Winter Soldier, Cap distrusts authority. Although he agrees that The Avengers are “not perfect”, he still believes that the “safest hands are still [their] own.” Matters become even more complicated when The Winter Soldier (brilliantly portrayed by Sebastian Stan) shows up. In this film, some of the old Bucky Barnes resurfaces, but the brainwashed Soviet assassin still flickers through occasionally. When Bucky becomes the target of a worldwide manhunt, Steve ends up on the wrong side of the law in order to save his old best friend.

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In short, Captain America: Civil War is glorious. It is everything Marvel is good at. It is hard not to compare it to Batman V Superman, another blockbuster in which two superheroes clash in an epic showdown. While BvS fails, Civil War shines. Sorry, DC fans, but BvS is one giant muddle of a mess. The characters are not fleshed out, their motivations are never made clear, and it feels like Batman and Superman only fight because they are supposed to, not because there is any emotional depth to anything. At all (#SaveMartha). In Civil War, every character gets their moment. The action is mind-blowing and just plain fun. All the players are incredibly nuanced and layered for a superhero flick. In many ways, it is a deeply personal film, and the most fascinating aspect is that Captain America – yes, Captain America – might be one of the most selfish characters in the story!

Captain America can be a straightforward character – all about being brave, honest and just “doing the right thing”. Fundamentally, however, Steve Rogers is a soldier, and a ruthless one at that. In Civil War, that ruthlessness seeps through in his disregard for the Sokovia Accords. Even though the planet is no longer engaged in a world war, Steve still fights as if it is. Unlike Tony, who is more of a civilian in comparison, Steve kills and protects with the understanding that there will always be casualties. Tony confronts and struggles with this notion. Steve, however, already carries it. He alludes to it briefly in The Winter Soldier (“we compromised…sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well”). In the second Avengers instalment, Ultron sums Cap up as “God’s righteous man, pretending [he] could live without a war.” Although this sentiment is not entirely true, it is undeniable that a lot of Steve’s identity is tied to him being a soldier, even more so than being a superhero. Therefore, it is interesting that Steve’s emotional arc throughout his three films is not him struggling with the consequences of being a serviceman. Rather, Steve’s main emotional arc is more about his sense of belonging, grief and loss.

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If you’ve followed Captain America since The First Avenger (an incredibly underrated gem, in my humble opinion), you will know that Steve Rogers is a man out of time, always grasping for a place or a person he has lost. The Captain America trilogy can even be viewed as an operatic romance between Steve and his lost love Peggy Carter, or Steve and his best friend Bucky. In The First Avenger, he loves and loses Peggy; the film even ends on a mournful note, with the now iconic line, “I had a date.” In Civil War, Peggy is dead, and Bucky remains the only link to Steve’s first “family”. Steve risks almost everything to protect that link. Bucky’s past as The Winter Soldier clouds Steve’s judgement. Although there is a lot of weight to Tony’s argument that a group of super people should not operate without accountability, Steve rejects it partly because of Bucky. He also compromises his friendship with Tony because of Bucky.  “I never really belonged anywhere,” Steve tells Tony, “My faith is in people, I guess – individuals…” Those individuals are Bucky and Peggy, and when it comes to them, his new family does not even compare. Steve becomes even more ruthless, even more uncompromising, which raises the stakes in his last showdown with Iron Man exponentially.

In a way, the Cap trilogy is Steve losing Bucky, then Steve saving Bucky and then Steve losing Bucky again, over and over in some sort of vicious cycle. The world’s most selfless man becomes the most selfish one of all just because he cannot let go. How heartbreakingly human.

We definitely see a much less admirable Steve Rogers in Civil War, but a very intelligent friend of mine raises the point that the film still tries to validate him and that is one of its failings. There is a degree of truth to this argument, although The Russo brothers have mentioned that Steve’s emotional journey in Civil War will be explored further in the next Avengers films. It would be a shame and almost a cop out if it doesn’t, because despite all the political symbolism that comes with Captain America, one of the most fascinating aspects about the character remains his super-ordinary humanity and the way in which it sways his moral conscience.


Follow me on Twitter: @PimKaprao

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