Examining Cap’s arc in the MCU By M.Schinke
I can do this all day, OpinionNerds
My contemporaries over at ComicBookDebate.Com recently posted an article that takes a look into the arc of the Captain America character as it appears across the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The article makes the point that as a character with a primarily flat arc, Cap’s greatest contribution is to change the world around him, with the article specifically noting it as the franchises greatest arc right in the title! While I have no desire to argue with the fine folks at CBD.Com, I do believe there is some room for an alternate point of view that doesn’t refute their thesis. So I’d like to present this piece as a sort of spiritual cousin to theirs that looks to examine their idea from a different spot in the room.
Character arc is typically linked to story; typically. When applying the term to the complex, narrative driven presentation of a film, I look at story specifically as being about the emotional journey of the character. This keeps the term separate from plot and narrative and allows me to shift my focus and not trip over my feet in the process. A characters arc follows the unfolding of the plot, as the events of the film are what drives the character to have the experiences, face the challenges and make the choices that drive their arcs. So understanding what a characters arc is means developing an understanding of what the films story – the emotional journey of the character – is and how that journey changes them. I’ve already offered my copper combo on the Captain America films, (here, here and here) but I have since watched them all again and it’s never a bad idea to re-evaluate positions you’ve previously held. We all gain experience and knowledge over time, and that in turn allows us to look at material with fresh eyes. So this will be a good opportunity for me to re-assess my stances on those films, as well as to cover the character specific material in some that I previously hadn’t. So let’s set the way back machine for a few years ago, trace Cap’s individual journey’s through his various films and then do some basic math to understand the ultimate journey of Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America.
Captain America: The First Avenger
We’re first introduced to Steven J. Rogers in his initial solo outing where the tale of how he becomes Captain America is revealed to us. In terms of personal journey, Steve is not a person that is looking to become the, “better version” of himself because, as a matter of course, he already is that in regards to his character. The reason he is chosen for the Super Soldier program is due to the inherent qualities he already carries. His goal in the film isn’t to become, “Captain America”; he’s looking for a way to express what he already has inside. The process he undergoes upgrades his physicality to near super-human levels while, possibly, extending those inherent qualities to match. There is an interesting statement that Dr. Erskine, the creator of the process, makes that puts a unique spin on the resulting changes. He says that the process amplifies what is already inside a person, which is why he was so keen on finding just the right individual to undergo it, having unwittingly turned Johann Schmidt in the monstrous Red Skull. The statement in specific is that during the process, “good, becomes great. Bad, becomes worse”. As I’ve said in the past, dialog can be real a bitch because words have a way of sticking to things, for better or for worse. This statement make the case that, in terms of character growth, this is where Steve Rogers internal journey ends because he literally cannot become better as a person than what this process has made him into. This isn’t a subjective assessment; this is what the movie tells us. Steve Rogers is a character who, because of how this process has wired him, may not be capable of change on a fundamental level as it’s very difficult to get better than, “great”.
The basic concept of a flat character arc is that the character experiences no change in themselves of any kind; they begin and end the story in primarily the same state. As a result, their journey is more about how they interact with and change the world around them. However, as defined Cap does not have a flat arc because he does experience a great change even if he didn’t need it to grow internally. But even when a character doesn’t need to transform, or become something significantly different, they can still experience a growth or shift arc. These arcs don’t change the character fundamentally; but they can experience changes in perspective, acquire new skills or find themselves in different circumstances from where they began. Steve doesn’t need to overcome a grand internal conflict, but he does come to understand what has been missing from his life when he meets British special agent Peggy Carter. What Steve has been missing is love; real romantic love with someone who loves him for who he is. The tragedy of this, as told by the ending, is that Steve did not fully realize this before it was too late. So ultimately, The First Avenger, even with all it’s thrilling heroics, ends as a tragic love story.
It’s unclear how long after the end of The First Avenger this film picks up but, suffice it to say, it’s not so long that Cap’s not still haunted by the trauma of the war, the loss of Peggy, going under the ice and, perhaps, a bit of survivors guilt. He seems to be hiding out in, a manner of speaking, an idea supported by his questioning if Nick fury is, “trying to get me back into the world”. His dismay with the modern world is implied by stating no one told him what, “we lost” after WWII, along with a later statement to Phil Coulson wondering if the stars and stripes is a little, “old fashioned”. To be generous, the character storytelling in The Avengers is a bit thin all around; everyone just seems to make choices that allow them to, “get over” whatever is going on with them. In that I think Cap suffers the worst. According to director Joss Whedon, editing the film down removed a narrative that would have placed Cap as the audiences POV character and excised a number of scenes of him adjusting to being in the present, which is what his story arc over The Avengers plot was.
As a matter of examining the characters arc, he does experience a substantial shift in his personal perspective on the world, making his arc in this film another shift or growth arc. Cap doesn’t fundamentally change as a person, as it’s necessary that he be exactly who he is. However he not only finds a new perspective on the world but he also has a new position to fill in it as an Avenger. By definition, that alone would be enough to constitute an arc. By films end, in what is likely a leftover from the original approach, we see him riding his Harley in the daylight, apparently ready to embrace his new life.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I watched this film again fairly recently after picking up the 4K Blu-ray and it’s still my favorite of all the MCU films because of the strength of it’s approach to the material. I do believe I’ve had a change in perspective on the film since I last wrote about it, but not enough to make a substantial impact on my overall assessment of it’s story. I think it’s fair to say Cap isn’t actually being challenged by the films broad examination of governments taking preemptive action against would be aggressors. The whole thrust of the films events is founded in Cap’s categorical rejection of the idea of punishing people for things you think they might do. (He certainly would have had strong words with Bruce Wayne in BvS) If Cap compromises in any way it undermines the point the movie is trying to make. As will be the case in Civil War, the forward action of the film relies on cap being exactly who he is, making the idea of the character experiencing any significant change dead on arrival.
I’ve found it rather difficult to really nail down what I believe Cap’s story is in this film as it seems to exist in a couple of different places at different times. Initially, Cap gives us an idea of what he’s dealing with internally during his conversation with the very geriatric Peggy Carter. He tells her that he doesn’t know what to do with himself, thinking he could jump back into duty and serve, but that it doesn’t have the same sense of purpose it once did. After Steve comments on how well she’s lived her life, Peggy offers up the notion of how Cap missed out on having one of his own, tying back to Black Widow worrying about him getting dates and foreshadowing the blossoming interest between Cap and his then-unknown-to-him S.H.I.E.L.D. agent neighbor. But neither of these storytelling tracks will be truly addressed or resolved in this film. The final bit of storytelling that cap has to deal with concerns the revelation of his old friend Bucky Barnes as the titular Winter Soldier. This revelation comes as part of the films extended mid point shift and presents Cap with a new challenge; how do you handle a friend who doesn’t remember who he is and is now an enemy? As far as emotional challenges go this is as close as the movie comes, but the process of resolving it doesn’t involve a journey or require Cap to change a perspective. In fact, it relies on Cap remaining exactly the loyal friend he’s always been. And while this constitutes an exploration of character, it isn’t exactly a revelation of character, and it certainly doesn’t require Cap to learn or grow. it doesn’t even require him to have a shift in perspective. It would appear this movie does gives Steve a primarily flat arc in that he has a major impact on the world around him by being who he already is and showing people why his perspective is the correct one in this context. The closest he gets to any kind of change is that he has to find a new day-job.
The end of this film sets Cap and new partner Falcon up for the wandering adventurer approach to storytelling as they set out to find Bucky. This was an important personal mission for Steve; to find and save his friend and help bring him back into the light, as well as exploring the world and his new friendship with Sam Wilson. Unfortunately, exploring this line of storytelling on screen was not something that was going to be.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron picks up some of the dropped story threads from The Winter Soldier and tries to explore them. The linked ideas of Steve looking for his place and dealing with the loss of a normal life are both presented through Scarlet Witches vision and some of Tony’s emotional meddling at Hawkeye’s farm. In Steve’s Wanda-induced vision he is faced with the idea that, for him, the war never ended and, as Peggy lamented in Winter Soldier, he’s missed out on the life he could have had; he can’t, “go home”. This is illustrated by his lingering look at Clint’s family from the doorway to their house before turning from it alone, expanded on when he and Tony confront one another and coming to a head during that fantastic moment Cap splits a log with his bare hands. For a long time, when I was frankly being dismissive of the film, or maybe just not paying attention, I thought that moment was all about the ideology – that Cap was merely emphasizing the point he had fought for in The Winter Soldier as a counter to Tony’s idea of pre-emptive protection. But when I started looking at the moment a little deeper I found that, with all the grousing going on between the two men, it wasn’t until Tony talked about ending the fight, “so we get to go home” that Steve finally loses his cool. Even though he rebounds and gets back on topic, there is little doubt in my mind what set him off.
To step back and look at it from a macro perspective, it’s unique that The Winter Soldier set up a character arc that it doesn’t itself pay off. Given that these movies are meant to be a continuous journey for the characters that might seem like dumb or obvious observation, but this isn’t just a matter of Ultron adding to Winter Soldiers arc for Cap. The entire arc seems to have been transplanted to Ultron. Like many of the other characters in Ultron, the emotional challenge to Cap has no bearing on what is actually happening in the movie. Dealing with his situation doesn’t help inform how he approaches dealing with Ultron, despite Ultron’s impotent claim the Avengers are all monsters and killers (something the movie flat out doesn’t seem to deal with) and the process of tackling Ultron doesn’t inform how he deals with his personal issue. Like the others, it seems to be something that exists in the background that really only peaks it head out in a couple of specific scenes. By the end of Ultron, Cap has come to finally accept his place in the world. He has embraced being an Avenger as his purpose but, more importantly, he has made peace with the idea that a normal life is not something he’s likely to have. As Tony is heading off for, “retirement” he suggests Steve could follow Hawkeye’s example and settle down. Cap quite pointedly states, “I don’t know. Family. Stability. Guy who wanted all that went into the ice 75 years ago. I think someone else came out”. And when Tony asks if he’s, “all right”, Steve replies, “I’m home”. In my analysis, this is the culmination and resolution of the storytelling that began with the tragic end of The First Avenger; the man out of time finally finding peace with what was left behind and truly embracing a new life.
Age of Ultron was a major transition point for the MCU; more, I think, than most people give it credit for. Marvel had initially been content to join with directors as creative partners in shaping the direction of the franchise; Jon Favreau during Phase 1 and Joss Whedon with Phase 2. Ultron would mark the end of Whedon’s influence on the franchise, and with it a certain sense of darkness, maturity and character exploration that had been present. Ultron was to mark the transition of RDJ’s Tony Stark out of the franchise with Chris Evans Cap taking center stage and stepping up as the full fledged leader of The Avengers, as Tony himself had dubbed him, “the boss”. The apparatus that had been S.H.I.E.L.D. was now a part of the Avengers operation (an item of storytelling that appeared to simply vanish after Ultron), and we had just started to see what would become the Infinity Saga just beginning to take shape. The implications of Ragnarok for Thor, the disappearance of Hulk alluding to something big for that character, the revelation of Black Widow’s back story to open her up and the introduction of the New Avengers team with the promise that, with the facilities at their disposal, it would continue to expand. The franchise had been tee’d up very specifically to move into the next Phase of it’s existence. However, the undercurrent of disharmony that accompanied the production is likely what led to the studio into courting directors from a television background while Kevin Feige appeared to take on a more executive producer/ show runner approach. I think this is most apparent in the turns the core characters story lines took, particularly Captain America. (It also, unfortunately, led to Marvels new approach to storytelling where major advances take place off screen between films, but that’s a discussion for another time)
Captain America: Civil War
On the surface, Civil War wants to present a major challenge to Caps ideologies after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the Sokovia Accords; an attempt to create a governing body to regulate The Avengers in specific, but also to monitor enhanced human activity in general. As far as character arcs goes, much like Winter Soldier, Cap isn’t being challenged with how to deal with the accords because he starts his engagement with them from a clear perspective which he stands by for the remainder of the film. (See my article here for a look at how I believe a pivotal scene between Cap and Tony fails to create conflict to this as it was designed) This becomes more of a background issue when the Zemo/ Bucky/ Winter Soldiers plot diverts from the issue of the accords, making the films conflicts more emotional and super-heroey than ideological.
What we have for Cap, in accordance with the overall arc of the movie, is a tragic or fall arc. The interest isn’t in watching the character experience growth as a result of the films events, but in watching how the character reacts to them and how they push him; wondering, as with Tony, just how far he’ll be willing to go. Arguably, there is a measure of smart writing inherent in the idea that Cap suffers as a result of his inability to change or compromise his ideals. The question then becomes; how is Cap changed as a result of the films tragedies? While there is a lot that happens in the film that’s very emotional, the ultimate result is a change in the characters status in accordance with the dissolution of the team and the institution of the accords. By films end, Cap has gone from being a hero to a criminal, but this happens because the rules of the world have changed; not as a result of a change to the character. Also, the rules of the world change independent of anything the character does, with the wheels of this change in motion long before the movie has even begun. Cap’s choices have an effect on the plot, but they don’t have an effect on him as a character. And while the films events change the world around Cap, like The Winter Soldier, the entire point of the arc is that it doesn’t change him.
In my opinion, Robert Downey Jr’s decision to continue with Marvel, starting with Civil War, derailed the momentum that had been building under the Captain America character which should have thrust him into the forefront of the franchise. Instead, the inclusion of Tony Stark drew a great measure of focus away from Cap in Civil War, halting his forward momentum as franchise lead and, as we’ll discuss in the next section, almost sidelining his importance to the franchise and its greater narrative.
Avengers: Infinity War
To be clear, Captain America is almost a non-character in Infinity War. It’s not his movie, and the only real function he serves is to get Vision and his team to Wakanda so the finale can take place there. Even the relationship with Bucky that has driven him through the last two films is given the barest minimum of acknowledgement here. This movie has nothing for the character to do. This is a truly flat arc as the character doesn’t even have the benefit of affecting the world around him.
Avengers: Endgame is a much more balanced film in terms of characters, actually bordering on being a Cap led movie. He and Black Widow are undoubtedly the driving forces behind the heroes acts. However because the film has a confused allegory, Cap’s story line is similarly confused. In my analysis, the film is initially presenting a story about acceptance and moving on. However the heroes actions, and the film as a whole, are all predicated on their inability to do that. In fact, this is treated as somewhat of a virtue even though the characters that actually have been able to move on (Tony and Bruce) have been thriving while the others suffer to various degrees. After failing to recover the Infinity Stones from Thanos in the beginning of the film, Cap goes on to lead therapy and support groups during the following five years; helping people process their grief, accept their loss and move on. This makes perfect sense as this is what the characters arc leading up to Age of Ultron had been about. However this is undermined by Cap’s admission that people like he and Nat don’t move on, and by his willingness to go all in on the, frankly, ridiculous time travel plot. Seeing Peggy Carter on his trip to 1970 was written to spark something within the character and support his choice to return to a time just following WWII to be with her.
My recall on the film isn’t perfect at this point so I might be missing some pieces, but from what I can remember there is no real set up for this choice besides Cap seeing Peggy in 1970. There may have been some small moment during his visit with Tony at his house that I’m not recalling, but no matter how it might have been supported it doesn’t change my issue. Cap’s journey to Age of Ultron had been about finding his place in the present and accepting the path he’s chosen. His budding romance with Sharon Carter, set up in Winter Soldier and further expanded upon in Civil War, was meant to support his embracing of his current world and time; a statement that he was living in the present instead of dwelling on the past. But that character doesn’t appear in either Infinity War or Endgame, movies that were conceived at the same time, and I suspect this choice was made so as not to complicate the specific end point the storytellers had determined for Cap. However this choice to move backwards, both literally and figuratively, runs counter to his long running arc. Cap’s arc, like much of the movie, sends a signal that contradicts other aspects of the storytelling to be about recovering what was lost, as the movie itself says, “No matter the cost”. Editorially, I find this a pretty weird allegory to try and build in this context.
As far as character arc goes Cap still doesn’t grow or change as a person because he doesn’t need to. Again the movie relies on Cap being exactly who he has always been in order to function. Once again, Cap’s arc is a shift arc where he experiences a change in perspective, but in this case his change in perspective leads him to abandon the present and his life there to return to the past. This is, apparently, the strange allegory of the movie; that you should try and get back whatever it is you’ve lost no matter what the cost of doing so might be. This arc is not a tragic or fall arc, but it is an arc that, as it appears to me, does a sharp one-eighty on the characters previous storytelling and development.
Adding It All Up
The MCU’s big claim to fame is it’s long form storytelling, so of course the ultimate test of this material is going to be how it’s assessed as a whole. When you add up all of Cap’s seven film appearances over the last ten years; Steve Rogers becomes the best version of himself but misses out on a chance to find love. He finds himself in a new place and time and goes through a journey to understand where it is he belongs and what his purpose is in this new world. However, he is confronted by the consequences of either his inability or unwillingness to compromise what he believes in. He eventually comes to understand that acceptance and moving on isn’t something he’s completely capable of and, when given an opportunity, chooses to return to the past to recover the life and love he left behind.
And you know what; that’s actually a really compelling story, and one that I think would be worthy of telling. Unfortunately, not only do I not feel it is a very well told story, I don’t think it was a story anyone intended to tell until the last two films were being conceived. The steps laid out beginning with The First Avenger and expanded on in the films up to and including Age of Ultron do not, in my opinion, lead the character towards the path it ultimately takes. The biggest contributing factors in how Infinity War and Endgame push the character in this direction is the omission of Sharon Carter and the sudden lack of focus on Cap’s relationship with Bucky, which had driven him through two and a half movies. In my opinion it not only undermines the journey the character had been on and the peace he had found, it undermines the character as a whole as this is a selfish act whose implications are fairly wide reaching, which is likely why they will never be explored on film. This continues a trend that Marvel has of making storytelling choices based on what has the greatest emotional impact, as opposed to what is most dramatically appropriate for either the story or the character. This tendency was compounded by the need to take the character off the board to coincide with Chris Evans departure, which I would guess is their way of avoiding the issues other studios have had re-casting long running franchise characters when a well received run ends.
Bring It Back To Me
Breaking down the minutiae of literary concepts isn’t what most people would consider time well spent, but in this case the subject demands a full understanding of character arcs and how they work. Audiences have become so accustomed to the idea of sweeping, transformative arcs that result in significant changes to a character that we tend to ignore the impact of smaller, more realistic arcs that simply result in a modification to a characters circumstances. Steven Rogers experiences one big change in his character life that sets off a series of events that, while they won’t necessarily challenge who he is at his core, will nevertheless have an effect on how he relates to the world around him. This might not seem significant, but it is significantly human. However there is a difference between a character that isn’t in need of change and a character that can’t change. A character that doesn’t need to change can still find places to grow and become a better version of itself through multiple experiences. A character that can’t change can only react to the world around it, and runs the risk of becoming overwhelmed once the changes around them becomes to great to handle. At that point they can either find themselves in perpetual conflict with the world around them (see John Rambo), or they can retreat from it. As I said, that can be an intriguing and informative story, and I would give Marvel a lot of credit if that was a story they were telling on purpose. I just can’t seem to bring myself to believe it was.
I have been notoriously hard on the films in the MCU not because I dislike them in general, but because they will, unfortunately, come to define how a generation of film goers understand storytelling and the language of cinema. So when it comes to something that’s being treated with as much reverence and attention as the end of the long running story arc of a beloved character, I tend to pay it a measure of attention so I can understand where my evaluation deviates from the consensus. I cannot, and would never, speak on anyone else’s behalf but for me, everything about how this, “story arc” ended just felt wrong. Going back through the movies and attempting to connected the dots all the way through his appearances says to me that at some point a choice was made about where this character was going to end up regardless of the storytelling that had been done to that point. I see that kind of thing done all the time on TV shows where performers are planning on leaving and story arcs have to be wrapped up or transitioned quickly. In my opinion, it rarely ever results in good television – I don’t know why anyone thought they could pull it off here.
But the reality is there is no reason to care about anything that I’ve pointed out. How well a plot or story arc is constructed isn’t necessarily as important as the emotional impact it has. I will admit that, even as I was cursing the completely unsupported and borderline insulting shift in the character at the conclusion of Endgame, even I got a little misty watching Steve and Peg finally get their dance. Despite what some people like to think; I am not a robot. I understand emotional impact and am just as subject to emotional manipulation as anyone else – possibly more so. And if that’s all you, as a unique audience participant, are looking for then nothing I’ve stated should matter. Whether or not the character has been the victim of questionable long-term writing doesn’t mean that joining him on his journey hasn’t been an emotional experience all the same. And the best part about it is you can always go back and do it again.
So; anyone up for one more trip around the dance floor?
Clever endings aren’t my bag.