“Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” – Dr. Abraham Erskine Captain America: The First Avenger
Steve’s fight to keep this promise runs through all three of Cap’s solo films like a heartbeat. He battles–some days battles to the edge of his life–to stay a good man, despite the pressure to be the perfect soldier, the perfect Avenger, the perfect weapon in someone else’s war.
A good man is one who chooses compassion and human dignity even if that opposes the rule of law. A good man is one who acts in a way that benefits the greater good. A good man is one who protects the weak against the strong. A very good man is one who acts this way consistently. I didn’t say a good man was perfect or never made mistakes. I didn’t say a good man wasn’t human. It doesn’t take long for anyone with a brain to see that Steve Rogers is, and continues to be, a good man.
The creative team at Marvel recognized, when launching a hero like Cap, starting with a buff, shiny, smiling, know-it-all who can do it all would fall flat with audiences. So, the first 37 minutes of Captain America: The First Avenger dedicates itself solely to revealing the heart and moral compass of one Steven Grant Rogers. Lowly, weak, asthmatic, and sickly, Steve Rogers is no one’s ideal soldier, never mind anyone’s ideal man. Three early scenes reveal Steve’s core characteristics, ultimately engaging the audience and endearing him to them.
Steve Rogers has been denied admittance into the US Army at least five other times due to medical issues. Why does he keep trying to enlist? There were other ways, truly respectable ways, to be of service in wartime. Even Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes, is baffled. Why doesn’t Steve ever give up? Whether continuing to enlist when he knows he won’t make the cut, to getting into fights with jerks in alleys, Steve keeps going despite terrible odds. “I can do this all day,” Steve famously says to the Biff look-alike as he dishes out his most current beating. Why does Steve keep putting himself in situations where he’s going to get knocked down? His tenacity, despite getting him in all kinds of scrapes, fuels him to keep trying to do the right thing, to do good.
Steve, having attempted to enlist for the sixth time, meets Dr. Erskine, who sees something deeper in the big eyes and skinny shoulders of the pale kid sitting in front of him. “So, you want to kill Nazis?” Erskine asks with a sharp eye. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.” In that moment, in sixteen words, we see the moral compass and heart of a good man. He doesn’t want to kill, though he knows it’s possible. He wants to protect the defenseless, those who have somehow survived the bully, people like him. The heart of his statement, however, isn’t that he wants to stand up to bullies but that it doesn’t matter where they are from. Brooklyn, Nazi Germany, Hydra, it doesn’t matter. He protects the innocent, regardless of where they are from. This is a man who will put himself between a bully and the victim–a protector.
The final and most ominous element of Steve’s character is revealed during his time at Camp Lehigh. Over and over we see Steve struggle to meet the physical requirements of basic training. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s ugly. Good intentions don’t add up to much when you can’t physically perform well. His weaknesses do not endear him to his fellow soldiers, and we never see him connect with them. His commanding officer is less than impressed, and only Peggy Carter seems to find good in Steve’s efforts. In the middle of a mundane training exercise, doing push-ups while Agent Carter supervises, Colonel Phillips tosses a grenade into the group of men. Every single one, save Steve, runs away. What does Steve do? He curls his scrawny, spindly body over the grenade (it was fake but no one knew that) and implores everyone else to stay back. Steve Rogers is no one. He’s made no friends at Camp Lehigh save Agent Carter. Yet, in a heartbeat, he is the one willing to sacrifice himself so the others may live. This sacrificial streak is one Steve will never shake, for good or ill.
The night before his procedure, Steve asks Dr. Erskine, “Why me?” While Steve cannot see why he’s the perfect candidate to be Captain America, we can. We see his tenacity, his protective nature, and his willingness to sacrifice. Skinny Steve–poor, overlooked, weak, and broke–has faced down adversity his entire life. His low beginnings taught him tenacity; let’s face it, the poor don’t have the luxury of giving up. His physical weaknesses too often made him a victim, but in turn, he learned to protect others. His broken body taught him that life is short, and if you can give your life so others may life, that’s the right thing to do. Underneath the weight of all this adversity, the heart of a good man grew–a tenacious, protective man, willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
It’s that human compassion, the good man at the core of his character, that drives Cap’s choices in all three of his solo films. More often than not, those choices fly in the face of what his superiors demand or expect.
Up next… In Defense of a Good Man: Not the Perfect Soldier, Captain America: The First Avenger
I’m a curious, creative, comic(al) woman. I am unapologetically Team Cap, but not HydraCap because there is a line in the moral sands of the universe and that whole thing is on the other side of it. I teach high school students all about the joys of mythology through comic books, graphic novels, and films. I wandered into the comic book world in 2015 and is a proud member of the #DoYouEvenComicBook gang.