I’ve never liked superhero movies. Regardless, I promised to watch Captain America: The First Avenger with my friend to see if it would change my mind. Unfortunately, it did not.
Young Steve Rogers is scrawny, thin, and short, but it’s his heart of gold that makes him stand out among the rest. As a “man,” the movie makes sure to highlight that he falls short in all of the stereotypical traits – he’s weak, bad at talking to women, and constantly stands about 4 inches shorter than the rest of the men. His dream is to be able to fight in the war to support his nation, but it’s his poorly-dealt hand of his array of genetic problems that’s holding him back. Regardless, the movie goes to show that it’s his endless dedication and his ability to get back up and try again that defines true masculinity and bravery. Rogers doesn’t have the physical strength to be a soldier, but he’s got the brains, the willpower, and that heart of gold that makes him a true hero.
And that’s pretty much the worst thing about him. Captain America, as a character, is utterly perfect – even BEFORE he becomes “Captain America.” CA has no moral flaws presented in this movie; he’s a Mary Sue (which is ironic, given that the movie states on multiple occasions that he should remain his “imperfect self,” but gives no imperfections to dwell on anyways). Presented to the audience, he’s an underdog, someone constantly underestimated and stepped on in society. But that’s a problem not inherent within his character, but one inherent in society itself. Rogers doesn’t need to learn anything in this movie to become a better human being because he’s already the equivalent of a saint. He’s virtuous, endlessly determined, and courageous. The only real issue that Rogers is put through is his scrawniness and his ineligibility to fight for his nation, which, of course, is promptly taken away with a few roids and some bright flashy lights. This is the second worst thing about this movie – the fact that Captain America’s last remaining flaw in physicality is absolved through absolutely no tribulation of his own. Now he’s just become a saint with ripping abs and a razor-edge jawline.
A good counterpoint is Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko, at the beginning of his journey, is deeply indoctrinated with the toxic mindset of his uncaring father. Being so young, Zuko’s identity latches on to what he’s grown up with, and genuinely believes in the aggressive, warlike nature of his environment. Through a bit of help from Uncle Iroh, Zuko eventually undergoes immense change of heart and realizes that his identity is his own to dictate, and chooses to become a virtuous man. However, it’s through great tribulation and failure before Zuko is able to enact his change, which the show communicates through stories like his vignettes in the Earth Kingdom, the manipulation by his psychotic sister, and of course, his ultimatum with Uncle Iroh in Ba Sing Se.
Zuko is likely one of the most well-written characters ever. His change comes realistically and is constantly explored with the golden rule in mind – show, don’t tell. This is how compelling, human characters are created, through purposeful flaws. Captain America, on the other hand, feels like he’s barely even human, and is more of America’s cliched icon of bravery and what it means to be a hero. But if being a hero means not having to work at all to overcome your weaknesses, then what kind of motivational story are we trying to tell? Frankly, if the meaning of the movie is to not underestimate the little guys, why does Captain America need to become a super soldier in order to prove it? Captain America, after becoming jacked, effortlessly dispatches hordes of evil men all throughout the movie. He’s smarter, taller, hotter, and more moral than everyone else. The only hardship he endures is in the “death” of his best friend, Bucky. The movie shows Captain America struck with guilt about “causing” his death. However, his “fault” is immediately exonerated by our other Mary Sue, Peggy, and the plot chugs on, with nobody learning anything. This is more a fault of the movie’s writing than a flaw in Captain America’s conception as a whole – his friendship with Bucky just isn’t developed well in the first half.
Perhaps Captain America’s story wasn’t meant to be centered on Captain America in the first place, because there’s really no story left to be told about this man. He was already born perfect. And that’s just not interesting.