Captain America Never Should Have Worked — Here’s How They Made Us Love Him

Danielle Radford
Movies Marvel
Movies Marvel MCU

Captain America shouldn’t have worked. He was an outdated hero for many years of his comic book run. He definitely should not have connected with audiences on the big screen. The mainstream perception was that the character was too hokey, too tied into World War II, too old fashioned in the worst ways. It took the faith of a team of talented creators, who ultimately convinced the perfect actor with the perfect teeth to make this happen.

Golden Era Issues

Captain America’s beginnings are far from the MCU lynchpin’s current ideation. His Golden Age era was full of the trappings of 1940s comic books. Nazis bad and punchable? Yes! Japanese stereotypes? NO, THANK YOU, comics! His tie to a specific era meant he was never a hero for a more modern age, until he was discovered under the ice in The Avengers comics. But even then, modern audiences felt like he was a little too corny to be cool. How did the MCU, which made its name on cool, make an anachronism feel like he belongs today?

Cap smacks Adolf Hitler.

“To be honest with you, that Golden Age Captain America never really appealed to us,” said Anthony Russo in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.

Truth, Justice and the American way sounds like the perfect path for a super person, especially a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. Even before his brolic transformation, Rogers is all of those things and none of them. He was born in Brooklyn. The pre-gentrification parts. He’s smaller than most. Ready to defend those who could not defend themselves. And obviously, he went through the Super Soldier Serum tests. But those only tested his brute strength, not his character. How do you make this very olden-time origin story something that modern audiences can relate to?

“I … was meh about Captain America, but some of the best drama came in the Captain America movies.” — Fandom community member Fandyllic

Flesh and Blood

“That’s the kind of thing that can get really melodramatic and overearnest if you’re not careful,” said Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston. “But Chris handled it perfectly, shading it just right, translating the comic character into flesh and blood.”

A savvy audience has zero interest in a version of Captain America who is, as Chris Evans called him “a real piece of cardboard.”

Evans remembers thinking. “How do I make this guy someone you want to watch? I don’t get jokes. I’m not Wolverine. I don’t have dead parents, like Batman. I’m just, like, ‘Hi, I’ll walk your dog. I’ll help you move’.”

To tackle that, the writers and Chris Evans put less emphasis on the patriotism, instead focusing on the core of Steve Rogers. Sure, he’s wearing the flag, but what’s most important are his values. As Evans once said at a roundtable discussion for Captain America: The First Avenger,  “[He] could be called Captain Good, he just happens to be from America.”

We see those values repeated in each movie. Captain America: The First Avenger shows pre-super soldier serum Steve jump on what proved to be a dummy grenade to protect those around him. In The Winter Soldier, when trapped in an elevator, he offers the Hydra agents about to ambush him a chance to leave without being hurt. He doesn’t back down, whether it’s the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War or Thanos’s invading army when he’s briefly the only Avenger left standing in Endgame.

He’s not perfect, though. He causes more harm than good by keeping the truth of Tony’s parents’ death a secret to protect Bucky. And In The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, he comes off a little stiff, especially when it comes to others’ use of bad language. Thankfully, he and Tony repair their relationship, and by the time he sees his past self in Endgame, he seems to have put bad language into perspective. The only “S-word” that bothers him now is the word “Snap”.

“Cap had always had a special place in my heart … To be a man out of time by multiple generations, having to cope with the culture shock, the realization that everyone you knew and cared for is long dead and to still be able to smile and have optimism … I would argue Cap’s real superpower is his ability to always make people want to be better, do more, to rise, to stand, and always push themselves to be greater.” — Fandom Marvel Database community member JWCoombs

Good Casting Call

Under all of that goodness, there has to be someone who can embody it. Evans is more than a pretty face, he’s a gifted actor who is truly gentle and thoughtful. His coworkers aren’t shy when it comes to describing what makes him the perfect fit for Steve Rogers. As Robert Downey Jr. told The Hollywood Reporter, “At the root of it, he has true humility. I think it’s the reason he was able to kind of come to the front and be our team leader in the Avengers.”

Director Joe Russo described him to Esquire as “a very technically gifted actor, and he uses those skills to bring a nuance and subtlety to the role of Captain America. For us, it’s so important in big spectacle movies to also be doing sensitive, smart character work. Chris nails that blend.”

Scarlett Johansson came up with Evans as young actors in Hollywood. Speaking with American Way, she said, “Chris always knew how to hang back and underplay things. It’s a quality that keeps him fresh, unexpectedly so. That unusual quality, plus his perfect looks, make him stand out far from the average ‘leading man’ type.”

It speaks to what Captain America means to audiences that his decision to go back and live a life with Peggy Carter at the end of Endgame was divisive. For some, it felt like he was selfishly abandoning the Avengers. That kind of backlash only happens when fans love a character so much that they feel a sense of ownership over them. But whether you agree or disagree with how his story ended, had it not been for the great work put in by the creative teams and Chris Evans to make Captain America the character he is, no one would have cared either way.

Danielle Radford
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