Agent Carter: What TV Should Be

As a bonus follow-up to the Captain America Series I’d be remiss not to mention the ABC TV Series Agent Carter.

I don’t really watch TV, but there are certain shows worth watching even if it means buying them in physical format or to stream.  This turned out to be one definitely worth it.

TV has a certain feel to it that is usually vastly different from films.  The other “big” network Marvel show, Agents of SHIELD, is a perfect example of this.  Agents is a good enough show.  Kind of fun and with likable characters and a world that ties in well with the movies.  The actors are all quite good, and some of the plot threads really pan out.  But it still has that “TV” sense to it.  It’s not a bad thing and it’s hard to explain without using the word “Cinematic” but it’s definitely palpable in most TV shows.

Agent Carter is actually quite different in that it doesn’t have that feel.  It does feel cinematic and, quite possibly due to the fact that the creators and cast felt they were always kind of “on the bubble” from the beginning, it has the production value, attention to detail, and treatment of a mini-series rather than a seasonal TV show.  Especially in Season 1.

The show follows Peggy Carter’s career in the SSR after WWII.  Her struggles with the boys club that is the rest of the office, her close friend accused of being a traitor, and still coming to grips with Steve’s death.  And it does all of these things remarkably well.  Her character, still magnificently played by Hayley Atwell, retains all of the progress from her previous incarnations and is believably grown through her character arc in the first season.  Atwell’s Carter is everything she should be, tough but vulnerable; clever but not always right; sensible but can be irrational.  Shes a great character because she’s not perfect, but she is without a doubt doing the best she can.  She’s smart, charming, and can absolutely wreck you if she needs to.  Just a great lead.

The supporting characters are all interestingly fleshed out with backgrounds and personalities that aren’t all overly explained, they just are who they are.  Dominic Cooper reprises his role as Howard Stark and he’s as terrific here as he was in First Avenger.  Peggy’s diner waitress friend, Angie Martinelli (Lyndsy Fonseca), is a wonderful addition (I love the story arc of their relationship, and Martinelli is gives a delightful performance); as are Agents Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), and Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) as the progressive guy and the chauvinist/typical guy respectively; with Chief Dooley (Shea Whigham) rounding out the main SSR office characters as the tough, but surprisingly and refreshingly fair as the season progresses.  The villains are mostly cloak and dagger but hyper-assassin Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) is truly a standout.  A great cast and each one is pitch perfect.

Carter and Jarvis meet in a Automat diner like proper spies.

The best relationship, however, is the chemistry between Atwell’s Carter and James D’Arcy’s Edwin Jarvis as the tough-as-nails agent brings Howard Stark’s buttoned-up butler on her adventures.  He’s uptight, but not a foppish fool as he could have easily been.  He is a very believable old-fashioned English butler out of his comfort zone but enjoying the adventure.

Most importantly you can actually feel how much everyone working on the show believes in the show and enjoys it.  Everyone is completely ensconced in the story and its characters, and the passion behind the show is apparent on screen.

Of course it’s hard for Atwell herself not to steal the show and its Agent Carter more than the atrocious new Ghostbusters movie that should have been the rallying cry for gender parity in media portrayals.  As mentioned above Peggy is tough but not cliché tough.  She hasn’t buried her sense of femininity under over-the-top masculine stereotyping.  She can shoot, she can fight (I’ve done enough punching to know when she’s hitting the heavy bag in Season 2 she knows what she’s doing), she doesn’t take shit from the sexist agents, and calls their chauvinism out to them to their faces (her “because I’m invisible” monologue toward the end of the first season is terrific), and she’s still all about getting the job done.

Just look at the above video.  It’s a woman in a fight completely devoid of cliches without any reference at all to her being a woman.  She doesn’t “fight like a girl” nor does she go the other way and fight in a hyper masculine style.  There are no goofy moments, no punches to the groin, or quips about kicking in heels.  She doesn’t have a man save her, nor does she have to save a useless man.  She just straight up kicks their asses like a badass Bourne character.  And Jarvis, in keeping with his role as an uptight butler, does what he can but serves a purpose and still packs a punch when he can.  It’s everything I think gender parity should be.  It’s not an in-your-face total “girl power” for the sake of it scene while completely missing the point of gender parity to begin with.  It’s all within the characters and every movement Atwell makes here is 100% believable.  So much that I wouldn’t want to get into a fight with her…  And that music queue…maybe one of the best I’ve seen on a TV show ever.

To be honest I can’t understand why a bigger audience didn’t latch onto such a great character in such unique and interesting storylines.  Maybe it was the “Marvel” tag on it as casual fans may have expected more superhero-ing and were then disappointed not to get lots of the “hey I know that character!” fanservice that SHIELD provides.  Fans of espionage or police shows may have seen Marvel and conversely thought it’d just be small-scale superhero antics the more elitist in that crowd feel are “beneath” them.

Season 2 wasn’t quite as powerful as the first, but it was still better than any other TV drama show I’ve seen in years.  I think Agent Carter does better with more spy-action than sci-fi action, but that could just be down to personal taste.

Cooper, Atwell, and D’Arcy looking very 1940s

It was terrible but not unexpected to hear the show had been cancelled.  It truly shines a spotlight on how outmoded the “ratings” system is now that shows with devoted fan followings can be cancelled for “low ratings.”  Fans like me who don’t watch TV find shows on Amazon or bought physical copies.  We purchased it later.  I feel this kind of show attracts these kinds of fans who aren’t likely to be tied to a date and time for broadcast, but will still religiously watch a show via streaming service or season collections.  To prove this it has been impressive to see fans rally around it and beg for Netflix to pick it up.  Even more impressive is Atwell’s love of and commitment to the character.  She already has a new show planned, but has repeatedly posted and commented that she will do anything at all to get Peggy Carter back on TVs somewhere and somehow.

And I truly hope she does make a return.

It’s rare to find a show that is so good at storytelling, handling characters, and politics without having any of those elements overshadow the others or “be the thing the show is about”.  Agent Carter did this masterfully, and even provided the audience with a unique look at the early days in the chronology of the MCU.  Hopefully it won’t be the end of Peggy Carter and fans will be able to continue her adventures somewhere in the near future!

Call it Cap: Civil War

The MCU’s journey of Steve Rogers thus far has taken audiences from the streets of Brooklyn; the battlefields of World War II; and into fights with gods, monsters, and even old friends.  So could his latest installment possibly bring his story arc together?

The answer turns out to be a rousing “yes” and is perhaps the pinnacle of how Marvel studios has orchestrated its universe.

The plot is well-known by now.  The Avengers’ heroism has caused considerable collateral damage and the governments of the world would like to exercise some control over them.

Current, past, and future team members become divided on their opinions of these controls; with those supporting the so-called “Sokovia Accords” lining up behind Tony Stark and those opposed to them lining up behind Steve Rogers.  It turns out a very creative and subtle villain is orchestrating additional animosity between the sides and this leads to a clash of the two opposing ideologies.

As usual in Marvel films, especially when directed by the Russo Brothers, there is a lot more going on than just one level, or even two.  Let’s look at some motivations.

Tony Stark: Then came Ultron…again my fault…

To a lot of the audience’s surprise Tony Stark lines up to be regulated by the government.  Mr Rebel himself putting his powers in the hands of someone other than him.  But there are very good reasons for why he does, beyond even what Civil War provides.

Stark’s motivations in the film are given to him by a grieving mother whose son died in Sokovia during the events of Age of Ultron.  Stark’s mental state was already a bit of a mess we learn due to the absence of Pepper Potts, but also as he says later, the entire Ultron problem was more his creation than anyone’s since he created Ultron.  So while many can easily argue that the Avengers saved far more people than they accidentally killed, the Ultron escapade was without a doubt resting of the shoulders of Iron Man.  So maybe he feels he needs some “adult supervision” as it were to keep things in check.

Add to that the events of Iron Man 3, which he mentions in Civil War, left him not using his superpowers anymore and…maybe looking for a reason to come out of retirement, with some oversight if needed.

And if Iron Man’s motivations seem complex…wait until we look at Captain America…

Steve Rogers: The best hands are still our own

Again to a lot of audience surprise the guy literally dressed as a national flag is opposed to government oversight.  This is because, as was mentioned previously, Rogers’ isn’t a symbol of the US government but the ideals of the country.  He represents its people not its leaders.

Rogers is diametrically opposed to some governing body controlling where and when the Avengers can go.  As he says, they could be sent to handle a problem they don’t believe in, or told to stay out of one they do.  Especially after his experiences with Nick Fury in Winter Soldier he’s very wary of other people’s agendas for him.

And then there are his personal feelings. What did we learn about Rogers’ worst fear in Ultron?  During his nightmare sequence we see the times he missed and the empty Stork Club with the dance he never got to have and the people who have left him long ago.  In Winter Soldier he found connections to his old life in the now aging Peggy Carter and again when his best friend Bucky Barnes is revealed to be the Winter Soldier himself.  The two most important people in his life were still in his life, even if it wasn’t in the same way.

Then…

Right in the middle of the first debate about signing the accords amongst the Avengers Steve gets word that Peggy has died.  One more link is gone.  Compounded by Peggy’s niece, Sharon, providing some profound words from her Aunt that helps bolster his decision to stand firm on not signing the accords.

During the summit to approve the accord his MIA best friend is blamed for the bombing that disrupted the entire process.  And Steve sets out to find him, with his entire goal being to bring him back alive.

Because this one person is his only link, his last connection to his previous life.  The loss of Barnes would be his nightmare, which he lives a version of every day, to come starkly and cruelly true.

So while Captain America opposes the Accords on moral grounds…Steve Rogers will do anything to save his friend and last connection to the world he left behind.  And this leads one bad choice…

Cap Calls it Wrong

No I don’t mean his decision not to back the accords.  While it could be debated, I feel Cap is 100% right to not give control over super heroes to the friggin’ United Nations to use as their own person hammer.  A hammer that would either be locked in a drawer never to be used or swung with an arm heavy with personal agendas.  Cap knows people’s politics and knows what it would mean to be a branch of an operating government.

What call did the Captain get wrong?  He should have told Tony about the Winter Soldier’s role in his parents’ deaths.  It is the discovery of Barnes’ assassination of his parents that causes Stark, who had arrived humble and contrite after his crusade was proven to be based on lies, to go ballistic on the two of them, perhaps ending the Avengers as we know them.  Would the result have been different if Rogers had told Stark what he knew ahead of time?  It’s hard to say.  But keeping it secret made things worse.  But Barnes is Rogers’ weakness for the reasons mentioned above.  And his weaknesses compromise his judgment.  Even he acknowledges he made a mistake handling this in his letter to Stark.

Civil War is more like WWI to me.  The motivations of the protagonists and antagonists are so varied and complicated that none of them are wholly right and none are wholly wrong.  The result is a catastrophe…that could potentially lead to a bigger disaster should it be allowed to escalate.  Even in the grand scope of ideology the conflict can still be brought down to personal, almost petty disagreement.  Tony and Steve have been fighting since the first Avengers hammered home again by Tony’s statements of how much he hated Rogers just from hearing his dad talk affectionately about Captain America endlessly.  Which is even more powerful as in Iron Man 2 he says his father “never said he loved me he never even said he liked me.”  The titular civil war is about Sokovia Accords and long-kept secrets but it’s as personal as a fight could be, built up over years of movie narrative.

But mixed into all of the weighty storyline and intricate subplots are characters who are true to themselves, it’s still very funny when it needs to be, very moving when it needs to be, it’s fun and tragic (Winter Soldier is remarkable tragic, his line, “I remember all of them” is downright heartbreaking) and just a terrific film.  So the villain’s intricate plot is left in the background (appropriately as that’s how he played it) to let Iron Man and his group become quasi-antagonists through most of the film.

Whether or not it’s a better movie than Winter Soldier is a hard one for me, since Soldier is so wonderfully constructed and tightly built.  Civil War is certainly right up there, though as one of the best films in the MCU and a fitting end to this chapter of Steve Rogers’ journey.

I personally am looking forward to seeing what is in store for the character next!

Call it Cap: The Avengers Movies

The Avengers films both contain a full crossover’s worth of characters and motivations but it’s worth mentioning Steve Rogers’ place in them.

The Avengers – Call it, Captain

He’s the superhero Agent Coulson gushes over, as he’s the classic hero and the one most likely to be admired by straight up Level 8 SHIELD operative Phil Coulson.  He’s also the only “adult” of the bunch of superheroes; Tony Stark still maintains his comic narcissism and penchant for Chaos; Thor is still a bit of a mighty, mighty man child; Bruce Banner hides his Hulkiness but you get the impression he really can’t wait to break it out; and Widow and Hawkeye are so mired in SHIELD agent-ing they are typically held in supporting roles.  Rogers has to come down and break up the fight between Iron Man and Thor because he’s the only one who really could.  And despite the tough fight goign on between them, when the Captain says, “That’s enough!” they both stop to listen.

Even after being called out for being too much of a boy scout, Rogers does some looking into Fury’s potentially nefarious dealings on his own and finds the root of the secretive “phase two.”  Not only that but with Stark, Thor, and Fury in the room Captain America is the only character who has the authority and presence of mind to tell Banner to put down the scepter when the doctor picks it up unconsciously.

And then there’s the sequence that gave this series its title.  After the beautifully iconic “assemble” shot Tony Stark, with whom Rogers has had the most interpersonal conflict and the one who clearly has the biggest problem with authority, gives profoundly subtle respect to Rogers and grants him the role of leader with the line, “Call it, Captain.”  After which Rogers gives the group direct orders on how to contain the threat and best use their abilities.  It’s an important moment for the character and the team as a whole.

Age of Ultron – Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.

The second Avengers film is a different kind of movie as the characters are already established and we’re now living with their personality conflicts.  It also spends more time establishing the villain (a bit of an underwhelming villain really…) than it does with the heroes, but it still has some important moments for Captain America’s character.

The first is a funny one, at the party following the defeat of Strucker and the capture of the scepter all of the characters attempt to lift Mjolnir.  It’s a great piece of character development, but reaches its climax when, after every hero has had his turn (Natasha defers) without so much as the hammer budging, Rogers gives it a go and it moves ever so slightly.  Even Thor sits up in minor concern.

The second important moment comes when Scarlett Witch attempts to put the greatest fears into the minds of each of the Avengers; all of them seeing fantasies of terror or traumatic moments from their past to such an extent that it fundamentally changes many of their characters for the second act.  All except Rogers.  He doesn’t see alien invasions or horrors from his past.  He sees the Victory in Europe party he never got to attend and the dance he never got to have with Peggy Carter.  Then he sees that dance hall empty.  Tony Stark later says he “doesn’t trust a guy without a dark side” after seeing how little Rogers seems to have been effected by the experience.  But it’s clear why he seemed to recover so quickly and why he didn’t suffer as profoundly from the visions as his team mates.  His greatest fear is something he lives with every day.  His fear of being alone and in a world that’s passed him by.  His fear of having missed everything he should have experienced and being stuck in time.

It makes his actions in the third installment of his franchise all the more clear.  We’ll wrap up with Civil War next week.

Call it Cap: The Winter Soldier

The First Avenger was a great period piece about America’s first superhero in the Second World War.  The problem is you can really only tell that story once.  The big question hovering over the franchise after Cap’s unexpectedly terrific introduction was: where does the character go from here?

The answer, to the surprise of many, was a tight political espionage thriller.  With some shield-throwing tossed in for fun.

This isn’t freedom…this is fear

The most important aspect of the film is the character arc of Steve Rogers.  Typically seen as the biggest flag wavers in all of comic books, Captain America is profoundly misunderstood.  Something the Russo Brothers tackled in The Winter Soldier.  Captain America doesn’t represent the American government but the traditionally accepted values of its people.  Freedom being the most important.  And freedom gained through fear is not his idea of a perfect society; a concept that puts his philosophy directly in contrast to that of Hydra, who hope to co-opt the fear their plan will create into a new world order.  Their concept is freedom through fear and pain.

“If you want to stay ahead of me, Mr. Secretary, you better keep both eyes open…”

It looks like you’re giving the orders now, Cap

Once Hydra is revealed to be a parasite inside SHIELD it’s easy to make Captain America the hero standing up to the evil bullies the way he always has.  What’s interesting about his character, and what makes him possibly the most interesting Marvel film character, is his willingness to stand up toward “good guys” he thinks are being bullies too.  You see this in the conversation with Fury quoted in the first section.  You see it again when he advocates tearing the entire SHIELD infrastructure down; a scene in which he’s so convincing all of those present, including Maria Hill and Nick Fury, agree with him.  It’s the transportation of the skinny kid he was in 1941 to the present and the continuation of Dr Erskine’s last request that he always remain a good man.  He’s virtually incorruptible; but he does have weaknesses…

I’m with you til the end of the line…

In case you’ve been in cryo-sleep yourself for the last couple of years there is a spoiler here.  The Winter Soldier is Steve Roger’s best friend, Bucky Barnes.  In my comments on the first film I discussed how I thought Bucky’s character arc would go.  That he would become envious of the new Steve and this would lead him to villainy.  It turns out he was led to villainy but rather than be turned to the dark side by a selfishness it is against his will…and it is Steve’s unflinching loyalty to his friend is just another example of who he is, refusing to really fight back against him once he knows who he is.  Throwing himself on another grenade, figuratively this time, as he drops his shield against a super-powered version of Bucky who could very well literally beat him to death.  He’s the only link Steve has to his original life, but more than that it’s Cap’s best friend who never gave up on him so he certainly wasn’t going to give up Bucky.  Sebastian Stan’s performance also needs to be commended here.  Not only is the Winter Soldier menacing (he’s become my favorite antagonist of the MCU so far) but also sympathetic as you see what Hydra puts him through to maintain control of him.  Something expanded on in the next movie.

Before we get started…anyone want to get out?

Character work aside, this film has some of the best sequences in the entire MCU, standing up easily (though on a more personal scale, which works remarkable well) with the now-famous “Avengers Assemble” scene in the first Avengers film.  The opening battle on board the Lemurian Star (“Was he wearing a parachute?” “No he wasn’t…”); the ferocious close quarters combat in the elevator; and one of the best car chase sequences that isn’t in Mad Max Fury Road (though ironically containing another “Fury”) as Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury races his way through a massive assassination attempt.  Couple all that action with more terrific character sequences; the “On your left” scene introducing Anthony Mackie as The Falcon (a breakout character for sure); Steve meeting with a 90 year old Peggy Carter and seeing all the emotion he still has for her; Cap and Widow on the run a segment filled with multiple peeks into their characters and bolstered by the fact that the two actors know each other well and have actual chemistry; and the marvelous scene with Arnim Zola (“First correction, I am Swiss.”) all add up to one of the best action thrillers in recent memory, out-Bourne-ing Bourne movies at every turn.

“It kind of feels personal…”

Winter Solder still may be my favorite MCU film (though the third installment of te franchise is a close race).  It’s a perfect continuation of the original, an advancement of the characters and concepts, a major movement in the entire narrative, and just a great film on its own.

Next week a pair of mini reviews as we look at the Captain in the Avengers films.

Call it Cap: The First Avenger

In the hands of lesser creators Captain America: The First Avenger could be a cheesy, jingoist, propaganda film about a true-blue hero who goes through the motions of gallant cliché and beats up bad guys while draped in national colors.  Because it was made by people who not only understood the character but seem to love what he is, it turned out to be not only a great superhero movie, but a great period movie, a great war movie, and a great character piece.  The last point is really what made this film shine.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers

Many of us first met Chris Evans in the original Fantastic Four movie but we didn’t really appreciate what he could do until his terrific performance as skater Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  I won’t go too far into Steve Rogers’ character, as last week’s post pretty much covered it, but Evans’ performance as Steve Rogers is pitch perfect, maybe even out-shining Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark due to the nuanced complexity of the Captain’s persona.  He has to be tough but gentle, ferocious but innocent, and passionate but not obsessive.  You catch just how impressive Evans is during a scene where he’s watching his own propaganda movies, his sheepish smile insinuating both pride and embarrassment, without a word of dialogue or broad action.  I can’t see anyone else as Cap now, and I can’t imagine the MCU without him.

Hayley Atwell as Margaret “Peggy” Carter

Peggy Carter could have been a cop-out character.  I actually expected her to be.  Met during his early training (while he was still a 95 pound recruit), I assumed she would be either a hard-bitten, no-nonsense, tough girl…OR…she would be a virtually useless, damsel in distress love interest.  In most difficult fashion Peggy Carter is neither, is a bit of both, and is one of the best characters I’ve seen in a while.  For some reason (I’ll go with laziness) writers tend to write “tough” female characters in a certain way, giving them the dull traits of toughness and stoicism.  Peggy Carter markedly does not do this.  She’s a woman, she’s tough as can be, but she’s also still feminine and doesn’t mind putting on her red dress any more than she minds donning combat gear.  She’s not a master sniper (for some reason a lot of tough female soldiers are master snipers…I have no idea why) but she’s a whiz with her pistol and doesn’t mind rushing in to the raids herself, Tommy Gun in hand, to blast some Hydra super-soldiers.  She’s no-nonsense in her job, but it’s insinuated she does know how to have fun, and her persona is one of someone who is damn good because she’s worked to be damn good.

The writers had a narrow path to walk with her and I’m amazed they pulled it off.  The problem is that you don’t want Agent Carter to suddenly warm to Steve only after he becomes the 6’2” 240 pound Chris Evans.  It would make her seem shallow and quite unlikable.  Instead the filmmakers worked in subtle hints that Peggy Carter actually fell for Steve at the same time her fell for her, when he was still a frail, good-hearted kid just wanting to change the world.  You see this in her final moment of the film, where she finds a photo of little Steve in his training dossier.  In the later Agent Carter One Shot you see she has that picture in a frame she keeps with her.  NOT any of the macho news reel pictures of Captain America, but the little, noble kid who just wanted to stop the bullies.

Atwell’s performance (even if I hadn’t developed a major league thing for her during the course of this movie) is stunningly impressive.  A personal favorite piece is during a moment of levity; Howard Stark asks Peggy if she’d like to get a “late night fondue.”  The now enhanced but still socially awkward and painfully innocent Captain America asks, “So do you two…fondue?”  And her response, again just in her expression, communicates bemusement, confusion, and flattery (she can tell he’s a bit jealous or disappointed) all at once.  It’s great stuff.

Sebastian Stan as James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes

Bucky Barnes is another character who could have easily fallen into the worst chasm of film cliché.  When he was introduced I arrogantly mapped his entire arc: he is Steve’s friend and protector but once Rogers becomes Captain America he’ll become jealous and resentful, eventually turning on him in the end and becoming some kind of villain.  I think the fact that none of that happened the way I thought it would is a most impressive part of the movie.  Barnes, at first, represents everything Rogers wants to be, good-natured but strong in his convictions and has the physique to do something about it.  Once Rogers becomes the Cap, Barnes at no point expresses any resentment of anger toward Steve.  This is, in part, because of how Rogers is portrayed; as described last week, he’s just a good guy and Bucky knows it.  So when Rogers comes to rescue Barnes and his fellow captured soldiers it’s Barnes who genuinely leads the “let’s hear it for Captain America” cheer.  The banter he and Steve share during his rescue is wonderfully genuine and he joins the Howling Commandos because he’s following “that kid from Brooklyn too dumb to back down from a fight.”  The only moments where Barnes shows a tiny bit of (and I hesitate to even use the word) “envy” is when Rogers’ gets the girls’ attention instead of him (though he makes a genuine joke about it, clearly holding no ill-will toward his friend) and when he tries to use the Captain’s shield, the latter more a sign of self-determination (“I can do this!”) than actively trying to show Steve up.  Barnes is a great character and the next film just reinforces how great he is…

Hugo Weaving as Red Skull

A great good guy needs a great bad guy.  Unlike Loki, Ultron, or Maleketh Red Skull is not a misunderstood or seemingly and justifiably bitter.  He’s just bad. He’s bad bad.  He’s “too evil for the Nazis” bad.  He is perfectly created in this story as Captain America’s antithesis.  The serum brought out his worst qualities turning him into an even bigger monster, yet he still fervently insists that he has “left humanity behind.”  Weaving has a talent for making characters hidden behind masks express far more than they could have.  There isn’t any over-complicated depth to the Red Skull; he has no ambitions beyond using his power to dominate the world.  And only wishes to do so because he is a selfish bully, exactly the kind Rogers wants to stop.  In what could have been a one-dimensional character, Weaving makes the Red Skull a fully formed being, driven by the base cruelty, but three dimensional.  It’s just that all three dimensions are, well…BAD.

The supporting cast also helps establish the world, Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, and even a nice cameo by Natalie Dormer.  And this colorful cast is what makes the world of First Avenger feel authentic.  Yes the costumes, surroundings, and set dressing help keep you invested but it’s the characters that make you believe you’re in the 1940s.  And also almost make you forget this is a Marvel Comics movie about the hero with the biggest Boy Scout reputation this side of Superman.

It’s a testament to the character, the actors, and the franchise that the next installment of Captain America would be drastically different but still maintain its heart and stay true to the character while catapulting the narrative into exciting new places.

Call it Cap: Why Captain America is My Favorite MCU Character

Cap

I recently enjoyed an MCU marathon this weekend just to prep for Civil War and it occurred to me that not only, and completely surprisingly, are the two previous Captain America films my favorite sub-franchise in the MCU, but that Cap himself is also my favorite character as well.  Something wholly surprising.  I thought I’d take a look at why both he and his movies have become my favorites.

I’m….Captain America…

What makes the Captain and Steve Rogers almost unique in his films is his personality is entirely heroic.  In the first film Rogers is physically frail but has a hero’s heart.  He’s genuinely a good person, something that most superheroes and superhero movies lost sometime in the 90s.  I can remember in the original Men in Black Will Smith’s character mocking the rigid, goody-two-shoes soldier as “Captain America.”  A term that has been largely pejorative as angry, anti-heroes started to co-opt the protagonist landscape.  The idea of the “truth and justice” hero was passé and viewed as simplistic.  Heroes needed to be dark and laconic; almost as bad as the villains to be “cool.”  There was a movement in all of entertainment to shift from the classic “babyface and heel” dynamic (god help all of us who remember the “Attitude Era” of pro wrestling…) to ALL heels, just some are fighting with us and some against us.

It’s a mood that has both carried forward and evolved as films have.  Look how dire and cheerless the Christopher Nolan Batman movies were compared to even the abstract mind of Tim Burton’s.  Even Marvel’s character, who are by-and-large a lot more dynamic (meaning capable of more than two emotions often displayed in DC movies, those being misery and rage) tend to have these traits.  Let’s just look at Rogers’ fellow Avengers at the end of Phase 1.

  • Tony Stark is a chaotic, self-obsessed narcissist who, while lovable, is also capable of profoundly selfish and bad decisions.
  • Thor is literally a god who did some growing up in his first outing but managed to remain a bit of a bull in a China shop man-child for a lot of his story lines.
  • Bruce Banner is simmering with mass-destructive rage, so much that he can be used by villains as effectively by heroes depending on the circumstance.
  • Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton both filling in as socially mal-adjusted killer agents trying to juggle regular human life with decidedly non-regular daily activities.

Essentially they’re all deeply flawed people, “good guys” but the kind of good guys we’re used to seeing nowadays with mixed motivations and lurking dark sides.  Even the Guardians of the Galaxy, who I adore, are all maladjusted outcasts ranging from thieves to murderers, whose negative personalities are mitigated through the humor of the storytelling and their charming personality quirks.

Then there’s Steve Rogers.  We know from the first film he selflessly wants to volunteer for combat in WWII, specifically in the unit in which his father served and died in during WWI.  His motivations are clearly stated as “men are fighting and dying, I got no right to give any less.”  He’s beaten up for his early attempt to stand up for what’s right, even if it’s just to shout down a movie heckler, and throws himself on a grenade during training.  You get the impression that there is a sadness lurking in Rogers and that maybe he’s eager to die heroically after losing his parents and being the little guy in a big mean world.  His obsession with inadvisably joining the army and even volunteering for an experiment with potentially catastrophic consequences shows he has kind of a “nothing to lose” attitude.  And that could have been the “dark side” motivation assigned to him by a lesser team of filmmakers.  There is, however, one statement that proves this aspect of Rogers’ character to not be his main impetus.  So what does drive the First Avenger?

I don’t like bullies…I don’t care where they’re from.

When poignantly asked by Dr. Erskine if he wants to go kill Nazis this is Steve Rogers’ response.  He’s been a victim of bullies.  He doesn’t have a desire to kill them, or even to fight them, he just doesn’t want anyone to get pushed around.  That sentimentality doesn’t change from when he’s a scrawny fellow being punched in an alley to when he’s a super-soldier going toe-to-toe with an entire rogue Nazi Science Division.  And what a sentiment to have.  Having been the little guy he’s always just wanted to be the one standing up for the little guys and through the narrative gains the ability to do so.

Dr Erskine reminding Rogers that no matter how powerful he may get he HAS to remember to be a good man. A message as powerful as “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Rogers is an optimistic hero.  Not one born to be a hero or who goes through a startling 180 degree revelation that provides his heroic compass, like many of the other Marvel characters.  He starts with the moral compass and finally gains the power to act on it.  This isn’t saying he doesn’t deal with tragedy.  He’s an orphan, his mentor and the first person to really believe in him dies.  His best friend becomes a casualty of war.  He never gets his dance with Peggy Carter.  And yet…none of this tarnishes his beliefs or changes his motivation.  It would have been easy for him to chase down and ruthlessly kill the Hydra spy who kills Erskine, if it weren’t for the latter’s last request being a reminder to Rogers to stay a good man.  It would have been simple for his drive against the Red Skull to be motivated by vengeance for his fallen friend, instead he acts completely selflessly again to save the world not seek revenge on the bad guy.  Even though he misses out on perhaps the love of his life, it doesn’t stop him visiting her decades later and still call her “his best girl.”

The look on his face says it all. 70 years later she’s still his “best girl.”

In a world of miserable, po-faced anti-heroes I find Captain America breathes life into the classic concept of the hero.  Not because he’s “good at everything” because he’s clearly not (becoming a super soldier didn’t make him any less socially awkward and he plays in a certain league; Asgardians can still knock him for a loop) but because despite everything he goes through he still tries to be as good as he can and to do what’s right.  And that’s ok.  We need that to offset the number of heroes who have been made brooding and dark.  We need Leonardo to offset Raphael.  Too many heroes suffer from deep emotional issues and have been turned into shadowy, twisted versions of themselves in a desperate effort to be “edgy” in the perverse belief that it makes them more “complex.”  It’s refreshing to see good guys can still be good.  Hell even, Superman, the cultural icon of truth and justice, is a wretched, blue-tinted, humorless bastard in his latest incarnation.  It’s a palpable relief to see Captain America be, well Captain America.

So we know why it’s refreshing to have an old-fashioned hero on film, but why are his movies so good?  We’ll take a look at that next time.