Captain America is the best movie superhero, and here's why
Typically, I’m in favor of articles that emphasize the world “favorite” over the word “best.” If you want to have a conversation about who your favorite superhero in any modern superhero movie is, there are dozens of candidates, and I’m sure every single character is someone’s favorite.
However, I’m here today to make a case for one character as standing above every other superhero in modern movies as the best, the ideal, the person who is simply better than anyone else. After all, he’s got his third movie opening this Friday, the fifth he’s appeared in overall, and it’s time we all acknowledge what is abundantly clear by now: Captain America is the best.
All three of the Captain America films are credited to the same screenwriters. Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus managed to do something that no one else has done so far at Marvel, crafting a trilogy of films that tell a complete story of someone’s evolution from normal human into genuine legend. Watching all three of the films in the Captain America trilogy again, I am struck by just how beautifully each of the films plays into the bigger picture, while all having totally different identities as films. Joe Johnston has never done a more complete job as a filmmaker than he did with Captain America: The First Avenger, and Joe and Anthony Russo made a splendid debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with The Winter Soldier before moving on to Civil War. Somehow, though, the films manage to perfectly balance the dual needs of serving as sequels while standing alone, and in each one, Steve Rogers takes a few more steps towards becoming the icon that I feel he has truly become now, and looking at his journey should make it clear why I feel he is the best-realized hero out of any of the comic book heroes currently roadblocking our movie theaters.
First, let’s define some terms here so we’re all on the same page. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be talking about the film versions of these characters. After all, when you’re talking about the comic book characters, you’re talking about something that has been through dozens of interpretations from different writers and artists, with complicated continuities that have changed often over the years. When I wrote about The New Mutants this week, I mentioned how excited I am to see that Josh Boone is taking his cues from the early run of the series, which happens to be my favorite version of the series. It’s clear from responses all over the Internet that not everyone shares that opinion, and many fans are already upset because they’re not going to see the version they want to see. What we’re going to discuss today is simply the film incarnations of these characters, and when judging them based solely on the films, I don’t think there’s even room to debate.
Captain America is the best superhero in modern movies. Bar none.
That surprises me. Before the first film was released, I was skeptical that they’d be able to even make a movie that would get released internationally, much less be a worldwide blockbuster that would make the character beloved. I wouldn’t have called it, and I would have been wrong for many different reasons. I thought Captain America’s time had passed, that he was too blatantly jingoistic, and that any film about him would end up feeling corny or even ridiculous. And when they hired Joe Johnston, who I think is a solid but uninspired filmmaker for the most part, I wasn’t filled with hope that he would break the mold.
However, I’ve gone through a complete reversal on my feelings about the character, and it’s entirely because of the films. The first act of Captain America: The First Avenger does such a terrific job of turning Steve Rogers into a compelling lead that they manage to actually make you stop paying attention to the truly creepy and weird special effect that was used to make graft the head of Chris Evans onto a little skinny body. Instead, I find when I watch that first act that they make it very clear that this is a guy who is outraged by injustice, and who genuinely wants to help people. He is innately good, which is what Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) responds to when he first sees Steve in action. The simple decency and the passion to succeed despite his own limitations are what make Steve heroic, not the science experiment they conduct on him. One of the craziest things about that first film is how long they keep the skinny Steve in play. By the time they actually put him in the chamber and run the experiment, we’re more than used to the skinny Steve. That makes it all the more delightful when they open the chamber and we get our first look at the pumped-up reality of Chris Evans, who bulked up massively from earlier film appearances. He is absurd in comparison with the character we’ve just gotten to know over that previous forty minutes or so, and there’s something great about the way they accomplish the transformation by turning the visual effect off. It makes him all that much more real.
With both Iron Man and Thor, Marvel created reluctant heroes, men who needed to be humbled to some degree to become heroic, and looking at both of those first films, they follow similar arcs. Tony Stark and Thor both think themselves infallible, amazing, and they don’t recognize their own lack of humility as a problem. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, remains humble even once they turn him into a super soldier, and that defining part of his nature makes him enormously appealing. As my buddy Scott pointed out as we were talking yesterday, not since Christopher Reeve played Superman and Clark Kent in 1978’s Superman: The Movie have we seen a movie hero as effortlessly noble as this, and it really drives home that Cap is a man out of time. Steve Rogers doesn’t just accept the mantle of Captain America; he actively chases it, desperate to be able to make a difference. The moment that defines him comes during the boot camp sequence of the film, before he’s been transformed. When Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) throws a fake grenade out onto the course with the recruits, everyone ducks for cover except for Steve, who throws himself onto the grenade without hesitation. No matter what else he does in the film, that’s the moment I come back to, because it’s utterly selfless. Not only does he do it without thinking, but in doing so, since he believes he'll be blown up, he guarantees that he won’t be the candidate for the super-soldier program, which is everything he’s been chasing.
One of the reasons I was never a huge fan of the Captain America comics is because I’ve always found his rogue’s gallery sort of silly. In The First Avenger, the Red Skull is a no-joke comic book villain, complete with a weird head and a plan to rule the world. In The Winter Soldier, we’re still dealing with an unstoppable assassin with a metal arm and a shadowy AI living inside an abandoned Nazi mainframe, but we’re also dealing with a more human face of evil in the film, thanks to the work by Robert Redford. In this film, while there are plenty of great big comic book images, they’ve taken Helmut Zemo and transformed him into a grieving former soldier whose family was killed in Sokovia. He does what he does to punish the Avengers for the collateral damage they caused, which is as small-scale and human a motivation as possible. That’s a long way from being a hooded Nazi who was injured in a tragic adhesive accident, and the movie’s infinitely better for it. In addition to gradually moving things away from big silly comic book bad guys, the changes to canon have helped underline the way Steve Rogers is motivated by his own personal compass of right and wrong. He is no mere tool of America, no matter what his name is.
Going back to watch both The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier and then seeing Civil War a second time makes it clear that this is the best overall trilogy of the modern superhero age because it works as a whole, and because each of the films manages to add another layer to who Steve Rogers is as a hero. By the end of this latest film, when Steve manages to climb to his feet, beaten and bloodied, just barely able to say, “I can do this all day,” it is clear that he has always been a superhero, from the moment he was born as a skinny little sick kid in Brooklyn. His superpower is his decency and his unwillingness to back down from what he believes is right. When I talk about these films with my kids, one of the things I like to do is talk through why the people are fighting and how those conflicts define heroism. Nine times out of ten, I find that you have to also discuss the idea of compromise and moral relativism if you’re going to try to call these characters heroic.
But with Captain America? It’s easy. And when we’re done with this era of filmmaking, I suspect we will look back and recognize that Steve Rogers is the one character who remains uncompromised, untarnished, and unfailingly good.