Why Captain America Is The Most Tragic Avenger

Steve Rogers spends Captain America: The Winter Soldier alienated, lonely, and questioning his place in the contemporary world. It’s great.

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel 2014

Iron Man is the sardonic billionaire genius, Thor is the swashbuckling Norse god, the Hulk is the scientist trying to rein in his inner green rage monster, and Captain America? Captain America is the saddest Avenger. At least, that’s the case that Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes in the tensest, least grandly superheroic, and best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s single character installments yet.

After a first film that established Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) origins as a big-hearted but spindly New Yorker who’s transformed into a World War II super-soldier, Winter Soldier explores the moodier idea of Steve as a man out of time whose habits, tastes, and values don’t line up with the morally murky, faster-paced present day into which he’s been dumped. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Community) and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World) have made Cap a melancholy figure who guides the franchise through a conspiracy thriller-style adventure that has big implications for the other Marvel screen storylines going forward. Here are some of the ways in which Steve Rogers is the most tragic of the Avengers, and why that works so well in the new film, which opens April 4.

2. He’s got a broken heart.

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel 2014

Thor has Jane Foster, Tony Stark has Pepper Potts, and Bruce Banner — OK — doesn’t quite have Betty Ross. But Steve Rogers unwillingly left his love interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), behind in the 1940s at the end of The First Avenger, and, believing him dead, she went on to lead a full life in the decades that for him passed in the blink of an eye. What happened with Peggy isn’t dropped in Winter Soldier, even as Steve is paired with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, who’s yet to get a movie of her own but who at least gets a lot of screen time here.

Despite having a warm rapport and being played by some of the most attractive humans to be regularly gracing the big screen today, the two characters aren’t destined for a relationship (in part because the worldly Natasha seems like she’d devour the traditionalist Steve whole). Instead, she teasingly suggests women she thinks he should ask out, serving as the friend he needs more than the lover he’s not quite ready for. Evans and Johansson deserve some kind of applause for managing to tamp down but not completely stamp out romantic tension in their scenes together — they subvert the expectations that come with a man and woman being teamed up, without stripping the characters of their sexuality.

3. He’s alone.

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel 2014

Steve Rogers has S.H.I.E.L.D., and that’s about all he has when Winter Soldier begins. He’s living in D.C., jogging in super-powered loops around the monuments every morning, and he’s friendly with his neighbor and his co-workers, but the people with whom he had his closest relationships are all seemingly dead or near the end of their lives. The film suggests that Steve is dealing with the kind of alienation and difficultly in adjusting that all soldiers returning from war can face, multiplied by 1,000 thanks to the more than half-century on which he missed out.

There’s a literal museum display commemorating Captain America’s achievements during WWII to which Steve pays a visit — and Evans does a nice job of conveying the character’s conscientious understanding of his importance as an icon to others — but in the meantime he’s scribbling notes to himself about things he needs to catch up on, including Nirvana and Thai food. His isolation is one of Winter Soldier’s driving forces, because the film is about a conspiracy that may have infected S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, suddenly making the organization’s plans to patrol the globe with revamped, all-seeing Helicarriers seem ominous, placing immense power in possibly malicious hands. Being a little out of step with the organization for which he works is another sign of Steve’s difficulty connecting to the contemporary world, but it’s also what ideally makes him the one to save it.

4. He represents an outdated sort of heroism.

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel 2014

Captain America is a relic of a less complicated conflict, warring with Nazis and HYDRA, serving as a patriotic figurehead turned formidable force on the battlefield — and even then he was a little square, reflexively moral, sincere, and selfless. But the present in which Steve Rogers is now living is far less straightforward, even when it comes to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the multiple agendas being harbored by its leaders, among them Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and an enjoyably haughty Robert Redford (who starred in Three Days of the Condor, one of the films cited as a Winter Soldier touchstone) as Alexander Pierce, head of the World Security Council and one of Fury’s old cohorts. Steve cares about country, truth, freedom, but what’s at stake in Winter Soldier is control on a global scale, and no one’s being completely honest about what they’re after.

While Winter Soldier makes plenty of room for fight sequences (including a particularly nifty one in an elevator and several bruising encounters with the baddie of the title, played by Sebastian Stan), its primary conflict isn’t good versus evil — it’s over very different ideas of the greater good, with S.H.I.E.L.D. at the center. As intimidating as the Winter Soldier is when he arrives, a dark figure snapping into focus in the middle of the street, he’s not the movie’s only or even main antagonist — its villains don’t all come as clearly marked with a black mask and bionic arm. Steve still has it in him to make a potentially cornball speech sound moving — “The price of freedom is high, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay!” he says in this one — but the film also raises questions about the nature of superheroes. He’s a trusted, beloved presence participating in missions he’s not always sure he supports; Cap is aware that secrets are being kept from him, and his place as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most public faces means it gets to benefit from his credibility.

Unlike Thor, unlike Tony Stark, Steve Rogers doesn’t have another life to go back to when he’s not on call. As he points out, he’s always wanted to be a soldier, even if he’s ended up becoming a symbol in the process. Winter Soldier serves as a connecting point between the more outsized Marvel characters who’ve already had films of their own and the ones who work for the organization that ties them all together, day to day. Steve doesn’t quite fit in either category (it’s another way in which he stands alone) but by upending him into a present where he’s confronted with nebulous ideas about surveillance, preemptive attacks against potential enemies, and institutions that can’t be trusted, he seems all the more poignant a figure. He’s Captain America, and for now, there’s no place for him in this world other than in a museum.

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