Captain America: The First Avenger: Being Good for the Sake of Good
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we discuss Captain America: The First Avenger, and how to introduce a character who needs no character arc; he's just a good man right away.
If I'd asked you ten years ago whether Captain America or Superman would have better films, you would be forgiven for dismissing them both. After all, both characters have a reputation for being "boring, goody-two-shoes, boy scouts;" not just among audiences, but among their fellow teammates (and presumably, their writers).
This stigma can hinder filmmakers, as it did for Zach Snyder's Man of Steel, which works extremely hard to make Superman "cool" and "edgy" without making him likable. When asked why Superman snaps Zod's neck, the writers argued that Superman had to learn the value of life by taking one, which means they pretty clearly missed the point of the character. (Yes, I'm still bothered by a bad Superman film from eight years ago.)
Thankfully, the team behind Captain America understood that Cap doesn't need a tragic lesson in order to understand write and wrong. He's not Spider-Man, whose selfishness costs him a beloved family member. He's not Batman, who vowed to prevent crime because of a tragedy. Instead, he's somebody who wants to help people and make the world better... because that's who he is.
The film uses multiple examples to show us that Steve is a good man. The best example is the grenade, but since that doesn't happen until 23 minutes into the film, let's examine how the character of Steve is established.
When we meet Steve, he's the smallest man in the enlistment line, and a big, burly dude asks if the war's fatalities makes him think twice about enlisting. Steve says, "Nope." Not only is he not intimidated by the possibility of death but he's casual about the question. Of course, he doesn't get selected due to numerous physical ailments, which makes us as an audience sympathetic toward him. We feel bad that the thing he clearly wants most, to be a soldier and help fight, is outside of his grasp.
But let's get to know him better. He goes to the movies, and when a bully mouths off, he stands up to him. The two fight in an alley, and Steve gets back up over and over, insisting he can "do this all day." At this point, we like Steve a lot. So it's time to give him a friend, someone he can bounce off of.
Enter Bucky Barnes, sticking up for Steve... and preparing to go fight the war like Steve wishes he could. But Bucky gets Steve a date for the night! Of course, his date wants nothing to do with him, which just makes us like Steve more. And so then he tries to enlist again, and meets the lovable Professor Erskine, played by the lovable Stanley Tucci.
And he asks why Steve wants to fight in the war. And Steve simply answers, "I don't like bullies."
By this point, we love Steve Rogers.
He goes on a training montage, where we see that he's a terrible soldier, but he's smart. He's the only one reading manuals and strategy while the other men party. He figures out a creative solution to getting the flag down off the pole. And he's determined; no matter how hard it is, he keeps pushing through.
And then we get to the grenade scene. The scene that demonstrates exactly how well the writers understand the character. General Phillips (the lovable Tommy Lee Jones; god, the cast for this film is so good) wants to prove a point about how unqualified Steve is to be a super-soldier, so he tosses a dummy grenade into a crowd of soldiers. And everybody runs away.
Except for Steve Rogers. 98-pound, asthmatic Steve Rogers. Who flings himself on top of the grenade in order to save the others.
If there's anyone in the audience who was on the fence, I think it's clear to everyone at this point that Steve Rogers isn't just a good man; he's selfless.
And guess what? He doesn't really change at this point. Sure, he goes through a physical transformation, he falls in love, he loses his best friend and his love and everyone he knew... but he doesn't learn any major lessons about life that change his worldview. What he goes through doesn't teach him how to be good.
He's just a good man. As Chris Evans said in an interview, "he's good for the sake of good."
Not all main characters need character arcs; those who don't usually fit into two categories. Either they are so positive and optimistic that the people around them are changed by their sheer positivity (such as in Harvey or Paddington), or they have an oath or a drive that propels them through the story, and their minds cannot be changed (such as in the Hunger Games series). Steve Rogers is both. He inspires the other characters - and the audience - to do the right thing.
When a main character doesn't have a character arc, they usually end up causing other people around them to change instead. This idea is nearly spoken verbatim in the comics, and in Captain America: Civil War, with the "You move" speech. And that's true about how Captain America operates. He doesn't toe the line with American policy, which is why he defies orders or goes on the run in all three of his films. Instead, he represents what America aspires to be.
When a Captain America film was announced, we were still reeling from the events of the Bush Administration, which included everything from false reports about WMDs to "freedom fries." And I'm sure the studio struggled with the question of how they could put a film called "Captain America" into theaters outside of the Bible Belt, let alone in foreign countries.
The writers' solution was simple: Just make Captain America the best human being they could. The rest would take care of itself.