Humanity and Iconicity in the Captain America Trilogy
Iconicity is the relationship of similarity between the two sides of a symbol—its form and its meaning. The closer the form and meaning are to one another, the more memorable the symbol is likely to be. An iconic symbol is one whose form resembles its meaning in some way; the opposite of this iconicity is arbitrariness. The red and white stripes, star, and ‘A’ of Captain America’s costume is pretty clear as to what it represents, but the man is less clear. Part of the difficulty of communication and judgement through language is the physical world’s resistance to being reduced to the same rules. The costume can be evaluated by this standard, but with a man wearing it, humanity will often fail to settle between the lines that are drawn in linguistics.
While his fame may not have spread far from the domain of comic book fandom until mainstream audiences saw him in Captain America: The First Avenger, and to a greater extent The Avengers, Captain America is an iconic character in popular culture. Whether his image, wearing the stripes and stars of the American flag, incites a positive or negative reaction to the uninitiated, it’s an undeniably recognisable one. While a simple idea, the connotations of a human being a symbol of a country and its ideals are complex.
Is Steve Rogers embodying the spirit of a nation that only exists in the imaginations of his creators and audience? Is what we see an idealised version of what we would like to believe is true? And within the pages of the comic, how does he function as a human being when he is representative of something abstract? Steve Rogers didn’t develop his symbolic status intentionally as Batman does, nor is that symbolism one of destiny as with Superman. Steve Rogers’s path to becoming Captain America is one of choice working within and often in opposition to the boundaries set by military, government and other authoritative forces.
He was created in 1940 by two Jewish men who, disgusted by the actions of Nazi Germany, sought to take a stance a full year before the United States entered into World War II. The first issue displayed the hero punching Adolf Hitler in the face, sending a very clear political message. Cap became a prominent figure in the wave of superheroes of the time, and the comic’s outstanding popularity also came with threats sent to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. These threatening letters and menacing groups outside of their offices were so severe that police protection was posted to the area by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s orders.
After the war, Cap hopped from title to title, and after an unsuccessful revival in the 50s as “Captain America, Commie Smasher!”, his title was cancelled. It was only in 1964 that the concept of Cap as a “man out of time” came into play, as he was re-introduced by Stan Lee in The Avengers #4. The First Avenger wisely combined the origin story with the metatextual aspects of the character.
His costume and punch to Hitler’s jaw were part of a performance to sell war bonds and inspire patriotism. His choice was between being “a lab rat or a dancing monkey”, so he chose the hidden third option. Breaking out of the well-meaning but hollow role of the mascot was a decision to embrace what the propaganda films he starred in claimed he was, grasping at what they signified but kept out of reach. He once walked on the spot, actors dressed as soldiers by his side and a projected image of countryside behind him. Once he saves the lives of the captured 107th and is taken seriously as an asset, the image is recreated with the Howling Commandos at his side. And it’s only when Bucky announces “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” that the title truly becomes meaningful to him or to us.
Doctor Erskine, as well as being one of those many overlooked subtle performances by the great Stanley Tucci, is central to the ethos of The First Avenger. His request that Steve promise to remain “not a perfect soldier, but a good man” is one that forms the basis of every major decision Cap makes in the trilogy. He speaks not only as the inventor of the super soldier, but as if he were one of the writers. He sees Steve’s humanity and nurtures it, making sure that the atrocities of fascism he has witnessed are combated with the opposite. And the opposite isn’t someone who wants to kill the enemy, but one who doesn’t like bullies. It’s not about strength and ideology, but the will to refuse to play into the dichotomy that often springs up in times of war and turmoil:
“Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion”
However many times The Red Skull’s plans are foiled, the biggest offence he takes is Steve’s admission that he’s nothing special; “just a kid from Brooklyn”. It’s this link to a life outside of the war that brings out the best in Steve, but also makes him suffer.
While WWII was a time of great desperation and suffering, it was an easy one to be a symbol—he just fought the good fight as best as he could. It was a hard fight but a clear one. Captain America: The Winter Soldier brings him into the morally dubious world of the 21st century. In the Bond-esque opening action sequence, we see Cap in action, wearing a new costume designed by a new world, its dark blue colour and lack of the red and white stripes of the original moving it further into the arbitrary.
It’s thrilling to watch him effectively take down henchmen and best Batroc, but at the moment that he takes him down and brings an end to his mission, he accidentally discovers what the mission is really about. Black Widow is content with the fact that Cap’s heroic goals were merely periphery to the real motivation—retrieving sensitive S.H.I.E.L.D intel. Not only does this undercut Steve’s own relief at being able to continue fighting the good fight, but it leads to the bad guy getting away.
It’s the first of many betrayals and revelations that hit Steve hard because he naively believed that an organisation with a name like S.H.I.E.L.D would be about protecting people first and foremost. The screenwriters have referred to the events of The Winter Soldier as “Cap’s Watergate or Vietnam”—scandals that he missed but the rest of the world lived through, leaving an ever-present cynicism and lack of trust for authority that he has to learn all at once. S.H.I.E.L.D. compartmentalises, bends the law, employs dirty tactics and sacrifices personal freedoms in the name of security… and those are the good guys.
On the other side of things, the forces of evil have adapted too. Gone are the times when a man can march around with a red skull for a face and take over the world by force. Arnim Zola becomes an ally, works from within, then transcends any physical confrontation by becoming code. Hydra grew as “a beautiful parasite inside S.H.I.E.L.D”, keeps its enemies close and plays the long game. And just when Cap thinks he understands who he’s fighting, the unstoppable assassin from whom the movie gets its name reveals himself to be Cap’s closest friend—whose friendship shaped him and whose apparent death gave him his greatest defeat.
The figurative brainwashing of the people to “surrender its freedom willingly” is partnered with the literal brainwashing of a good man to be a blunt instrument of fascism. By the time Captain America: Civil War comes around, the forces of Hydra are gone, but their effects are still felt—Bucky is still unstable and a threat to himself and others, and Zemo perpetuates a cycle of violence even if he puts himself in opposition to those philosophies.
The Winter Soldier tests Steve’s own compassion, and allows him to be the underdog in a world where he can’t trust anyone. Even his allies aren’t necessarily on his side, as he can’t quite understand why everyone can accept moral ambiguity as the norm. His developing friendship with Natasha allows them both to impart knowledge as agents of different eras. She shows him how to act not just as a spy, but someone who can rationally react with nuance and realistic expectations. He imparts lessons of honesty, and demonstrates that separating humanity from their work is not a strength but a weakness. And they succeed, not because he gathers the strong under a vague idea of teamwork, but because he allowed himself to be vulnerable to a woman who doesn’t allow herself friends, and took the time to listen to the grief of a fellow veteran. He continually puts himself on the line, emotionally and physically.
If The Winter Soldier was a film that directly criticised modern attitudes towards security and privacy, Civil War turns that critical eye back to Steve Rogers and the imperfection of his traditional ideals. His decisions are not made with politics in mind, but a straightforward individual moral compulsion to do what’s right in the moment. It’s not smart, or necessarily the most ethical path he takes, but the one that makes sense to him in the moment. He leans further away from those who make compromises as he sees authority repeatedly abusing those it serves, regardless of the source.
After the stability of every structure he knew to be secure is proven groundless, and one of his last two connections to the life that was unfairly taken from him is lost, he acts on emotion rather than a considered moral outlook. He wants to save his friend, who has done no wrong willingly. Following this, his iconicity leans further into the arbitrary rather than the iconic. He was never someone who wanted to make bold claims about what the world should be, but someone who wanted to stop bullies and help the little guy; even when the choice is more complicated than that.
It always struck me as odd that some criticised Steve’s arrogance and unrealistic stance in Civil War, because that’s exactly the point. That’s not to say that one can’t be critical of the script’s skill at communicating this, but the flaws in Cap’s position play directly into the arc of the movie. Because the most devastating revelation isn’t that Bucky killed Tony Stark’s parents, but that Steve knew, and never spoke a word of it.
Tony alternately functions as a critical audience surrogate and his own flawed engine driven by guilt and a fractured egotism. The journey that Tony takes in terms of how he understands and feels about Steve is the same one that many of those watching go on. Early on in Civil War he shows resentment for the years his father spent idolising Captain America, the perfect man who sacrificed himself for the greater good. Tony is all too human, continually screwing up and having to deal with the consequences. Even after saving the day a few times himself, there’s no doubt that people still regard him as irresponsible, indifferent to the world around him. Alfre Woodard’s grieving mother Miriam says to him “But if you’ve got the money…break as many eggs as you like, right?”.
Even after he signs the Sokovia Accords, having the law on his side as his debate with Steve comes to blows, his frustration with his teammate’s refusal to give in doesn’t necessarily conflict with the image his dad built up. But when he learns that the man that Steve has so vehemently defended murdered his mother and father, and kept this information to himself, the perfection attributed to Captain America is stripped away. He even, for a moment, makes an excuse, before admitting it. Tony now sees Steve, not on a morally pure crusade for truth and justice, but someone who made a selfish, hurtful decision. For once Cap is not the most righteous man in the room, and he knows it.
“I’ve thought about nothing else for over a year. I studied you, I followed you, but now that you’re standing here I just realized… there’s a bit of green in the blue of your eyes. How nice to find a flaw.” – Zemo
The ultimate strategy for Zemo is to exploit the fact that, while he never claimed to be so, Captain America is not perfect. It is all the more shocking to Tony and the audience because of the legend that filled the interim between his “death” and his rebirth. The man that Tony has respected, fought with, and desperately sought to get on his side may not exist. Not an icon worthy of veneration, but a mythical ideal. This discovery is foreshadowed in Vision’s mistake, wherein the catastrophe the hyper-logical synthezoid anticipated came from his own emotional instability, crippling his ally in the process. Even he didn’t think he could become distracted from the task at hand, and so the clearest arbiter of the rational course is proven to be flawed too.
There are implications of the choice for Captain America to utilise a shield in battle, just as there are with the organisation started after his departure in WWII to be called S.H.I.E.L.D.
It’s a choice of defence over offence, protection over hostile action. The climactic action of all three of this trilogy’s final set pieces are ones of self-sacrifice and willing surrender. In The First Avenger he crashes to what he believes is his death for the sake of others. The Winter Soldier has him refusing to fight his friend, beaten near to death, even as he shows no sign of being the man he once knew. Civil War, though finding him in an altogether less heroic position as victor of a needless battle, drops his shield under Tony asserting “that shield doesn’t belong to you, you don’t deserve it”. Whatever his convictions are about what has been right and wrong in this situation, he knows that Tony speaks the truth. Co-director Anthony Russo speaks of this scene:
“The choice he made to become Captain America was made in a very specific time, a much more black & white time. Can he fulfill the concept of that character in today’s world? Does he want to? And does he identify with what’s being asked of him? Ultimately in the film [his] dropping the shield is a rejection of Captain America identity and a choice to embrace the Steve Rogers identity.”
Along with the shield, he discards his role as an icon, and sheds himself of the impossible task of being wholly representative of an abstract concept. The Red Skull once told him that he was “afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind”, and Steve can now be certain that he could never do so. He is grounded by his own imperfection, and by those around him.
Civil War is effectively a family dispute, as siblings clash with each other, compelled by their own grief, guilt, and insecurities. People don’t always act rationally, as they bring their own private suffering and experience to a group dynamic. This is best evidenced in the scene between Natasha and Steve after Peggy’s funeral, as we see the more stable surrogate sister comfort a brother in pain, delicately seeking to keep him from moving further away. “You’ll only make it worse, for all of us” she later tells him—a sentiment that may be recognisable to those who have tried to calm down an emotional family member or have been talked down themselves. The internal struggle to be a good person is empowered by the support of others, but the effects our actions can have on others is not always so clear-cut.
“I’ve been on my own since I was 18. I never really fit in anywhere, even in the army. My faith’s in people, I guess. Individuals. And I’m happy to say that, for the most part, they haven’t let me down. Which is why I can’t let them down either”
Steve’s attempts to connect with each of his friends and enemies on a personal, compassionate level is his greatest skill, when he makes himself vulnerable he allows people in to hurt him and be hurt by him. He believes in individuals, the same ones that bring their baggage and personal grief to create volatile situations. Natasha was right when she said that ‘staying together is more important than how we stay together’, challenging one another while also allowing the room to make mistakes.
Civil War may end on an open-ended, tragic note, but Cap’s arc is complete. After spending so long living his life based on moral necessity, defined by a uniform and the age-old decisions from which they came, he can embrace the freedom to live a life of people. Without the shield and what it represents, he no longer has to play the impossible task of balancing his individuality with the threat of making the ideals of those stars and stripes appear to be arbitrary.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures