The Marvel Decade: Captain America: The First Avenger

Sy Stiner is just a dude from Greentown who has intense conversations with his dog on Facebook. You may be asking yourself where Greentown is. It’s by Kokomo. People usually at least pretend like they know where Kokomo is. He also did a combat tour in Iraq in 2008 as an Infantry soldier. He didn’t get to do a full tour because of an injury on a mission. But on the bright side, he got to go to college afterward to earn a degree he doesn’t use for his career. He also hates that being born in 1987 makes him considered a millennial. You can find him at @systiner.

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It looks like it’s my turn to give one of these a shot. Get excited: You get to read an entry by a guy who spends his free time making up conversations with his dog, Ridley, on Facebook. When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, I was proud to see it captured so much of what has made me a lifelong fan. If you’ve been following “The Marvel Decade” you’ve already read about how the first four movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008’s Iron Man, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, 2010’s Iron Man 2, and 2011’s Thor) brought something new to the table and expanded the MCU. I want to talk about how Captain America: The First Avenger gave the series its heart — in the form of a perfect soldier — and what that means.

When I think about Captain America, certain moments come to mind: Cap punching Hitler, Cap mourning at Bucky’s grave (and then seeing Bucky come back to life, and then “die” again, and then come back to life again… that might be losing some of its impact, now that I think about it), Cap standing toe-to-toe with Odin’s evil brother, The Serpent, in the comic event Fear Itself. I’d say it’s a safe bet that most people would imagine one powerful image or another of Cap showing physical strength or doing something badass.

The thing is what makes Cap special is Steve Rogers. And Steve Rogers was a super-soldier before he ever had the serum.

Up to this point, the MCU has: a rich, self-centered playboy who built himself some armor after he got knocked down a peg: a brilliant scientist at the top of his field who irradiated himself and found his heroic nature after being knocked down a peg; and a selfish alien with godlike powers who found his heroic nature … after getting knocked down a peg. All of them had to fall from grace to become heroes.

Steve is 5’4″ and 95 pounds wet, just a small kid from Brooklyn. That doesn’t even begin to describe his other health problems; even now a lot of people wouldn’t give him the time of day, and he’d definitely have no place in the military. Before you say, “Look up Audie Murphy,” I know, I know. As an Infantry soldier, you couldn’t get through basic without knowing about him. It’s safe to say the average person doesn’t think about Audie Murphy, though.

The super-soldier serum and Vita Ray mixture injected into Steve erases any doubt of his physical abilities. He becomes the quintessential human specimen, benching 2,000 pounds (up from 30), running 100 yards in 9.38 seconds (old time: probably 2,148 seconds). His newfound abilities make him able to accomplish missions no other soldier ever could. Hell, it even gave him 20/20 vision. (I hate my glasses.)

But those upgrades aren’t what makes Steve a super soldier. Their true success is that they enhance what always made Steve Steve.

“There are men laying down their lives. I have no right to do any less than them. That’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me,” he says when asked why he wants to join up in World War II despite all the odds against him. I mean, come on. The guy just screams “noble.” He just wants to do his part to stop bullies. Steve wants to do this because it’s the right thing to do. Unlike his fellow Avengers, Steve doesn’t have to lose anything to make his choice, and his choice is made before doctors pump him full of chemicals.

“I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they are from.” Another pivotal quote from Steve, who joins the army without a hint of senseless bloodlust and wants only to stop a bunch of bullies on the other side of the world. Does he kill some of them? Yes. But he never straight-up murders anyone, and never wants to kill people. There’s a difference. A soldier should never experience a craving to kill anyone. But if he or she has to, it will happen.

Most importantly, Steve doesn’t take orders blindly. When we look back on the actions of the Nazis during World War II, and their testimonies in the war crime trials that followed the war’s end, we often hear: “I was just following orders.” From our moral and military perspective, we know that doesn’t hold up.

This is something they tell you early and often in your military career. If you’re given an unlawful order and you follow that order, you have nobody to blame but yourself. Soldiers aren’t just mindless drones without individual thoughts; not every soldier has a mindset of following any order they’re given just to get along and then using it as an excuse for bad choices (cough, Doctor Who Series 8, cough). I know many people feel like following the commands given to them constitute all there is to a soldier. It’s not true. Personally, I was lucky enough to never have received an order that made me think, “If I go through with this, can I live with myself?” There are always bad apples who cross that line; it’s one of the reasons we have military prisons like Leavenworth. But the stigma about soldiers still exists in popular culture.

I rarely see soldiers portrayed as following their own moral compass in a movie quite like Captain America does in the MCU, starting with The First Avenger. He’s a super soldier and a good soldier, following what’s right instead of what’s easy.

In this film, the order that Cap chooses to disregard isn’t unlawful per se but it is nonetheless wrong. He’s told to do nothing when Bucky is captured by Hydra. That doesn’t sit right with Cap. He knows he can save Bucky and the rest of the POWs. So he does it, and rescues all of them. This sets up the moral compass that guides him through the rest of the MCU. It even lets him (wait…checking with the editor to see if spoilers are OK… I can? Great!) prevent unlawful orders from being carried out in later movies and eventually drop his shield when it no longer represents what he believes is right.

It is these aspects of Steve Rogers that make Captain America the super soldier and contribute to what makes him such a strong leader, which is what defines his role within, and relationship to, the Avengers. He’s not the sort to sit back at a FOB and bark orders. He’s the kind of leader any soldier would want to have — on the front lines, with his team, in the thick of it, leading by example. In The First Avenger, he’s always the person who responds first, who takes responsibility, who makes the sacrifice. But he also puts faith in his fellow soldiers, counting on those behind him to watch his six, as when Bucky has his back sniping enemy Hydra soldiers or in the train sequence.

As a soldier, Steve Rogers can do no wrong, and that’s true even before he becomes Captain America. He’s not just a super soldier, he’s a perfect soldier. Captain America isn’t just the first Avenger in a chronological sense. His nobility, his compassion for human life, his willingness to make hard choices, his moral compass, and his leadership are all part of why Captain America is the First Avenger.

Even if you didn’t agree with all of this – or any of this – I really appreciate you giving it a read. Now, I just thought of another great dialogue between me and my dog …

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Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.

The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.” 

Join us again next week when guest writer Craig McQuinn looks at the game-changing assembly of The Avengers.

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PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”

 

Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey

The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers

Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer

Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness



Guest Writer


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