American Hustle: A Purer Patriotism From the Captain America Trilogy

Captain America | Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

I was 9 when the biggest snowfall of my life buried my rural Nebraska home. Harsh January winds swept the flurry up against the line of firs, packed tight as centurions, that bordered my front yard, resulting in fine white drifts that were twice my own height, taller even than my dad. The following morning was cloudless, bright and cold. My little brother and I, bundled up in snow pants, big boots and pom-pommed hats, pulled the sleds out of the garage and took the drifts with relish. They worked beautifully, sending us skittering over the fresh slurry, snow flying into our screaming mouths and pinked cheeks, all under the shadow of a thawing American flag hung limp and iced-over from a flagpole in the front yard.

Our sleds were shaped like saucers with handles on either end. Even at 9, I was getting a little big for them and had to hunch cross-legged, looking like a large spider. But I found a better use for my sled that day, lying on my back in the crunch of the snow. The saucer was Pert Plus-green instead of red, white, and blue, and the handles didn’t easily lend themselves to my needs, but kids have made cruder instruments work. To my eyes, it was as close as I’d ever gotten to a Captain America shield.

I have no clue where that sled is now. I wish I did. But I do have the MCU’s Captain America trilogy, which has stood as three markers in my life, and three different ways of showing how a guy who dresses up in the American flag can still stand for something, even when the flag itself doesn’t seem to stand for much at all.

Captain America was a character of the Golden Age of comics, born amidst a rush of attempts to capitalize off the explosive popularity of Superman. Joe Simon sketched the character, came up with the name, and handed it off to artist Jack Kirby to draw the story. Kirby was not yet the superhero comics legend he would become, but he still turned in a briskly paced story of scrawny young Steve Rogers, too feeble to enlist in the War but too noble to stand by and do nothing. In the story, Rogers undergoes a secret government experiment to become the ludicrously muscled Captain America. The plot is strong enough to have endured more or less as is for nearly 80 years now, but nearly as iconic is the cover itself, which features Cap popping Hitler in the jaw. The U.S. had not yet entered the war when the cover hit shelves and the offices of Timely Comics got death threats from Nazi sympathizers in America, but broadly speaking, Captain America was a success. His appeal wasn’t complicated. There were tons of Americans who wanted to go punch Hitler in the mouth, and none of Cap’s fans questioned the wisdom of subjecting yourself to a shadowy military experiment. America was the good guy, after all.

Liking Captain America wasn’t cool in the ‘90s, even by the standards of the superhero nerds I knew. My dad let me read his old collections of ‘60s and ‘70s Marvel comics, and I inhaled them all—Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the rest. I can attribute some of my fandom to growing up deep in a red state, where the American flag carried an almost religious connotation; there was one hanging in the pulpit of our church, right between the baptismal and the cross.

The rest of it probably came from relatability. Steve Rogers was just a guy who lucked into a shortcut for being really strong. Everything else that made him a superhero were simple traits: courage, decency, iron-clad principles and a refusal to surrender. Mark Waid, who’s written some of the best Captain America comics there are, once wrote that “If Cap was a god, he’d be the god of winning.” I loved that. And since I considered myself brave, decent, and principled enough, it was easy to think of myself as a low-level Captain America. I had blonde hair too, after all. I had a brash patriotic streak in me. Hell, I even had a shield.

Marvel would probably rather we just forget that there were earlier attempts at bringing Captain America to the screen, including a film serial in 1944 and two made-for-TV movies in 1979. All were titled Captain America, but none bore much resemblance to the comics from which they were adapted. A 1990 movie, also called Captain America, hewed more closely to the character’s source material, though that’s about the only decent thing that can be said about it. Directed by a sci-fi aficionado named Albert Pyun (and starring Matt Salinger, son of J.D.), the woefully stupid misfire mercifully never saw theatrical release in the United States. But it did make it to VHS in 1992 and—in short order—to my parents’ VCR. I was only 8 at the time, but old enough to know I was watching an extraordinarily bad movie. Still, there was the cover, which depicted Salinger in full Captain America regalia holding a shield out towards the camera as if presenting it with a pizza. I loved it. The costume, the shield; I loved it.

I was much older by the time Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger was released, but I felt like a kid watching it. It was 2011 and though the Bush years had doused that patriotic streak into a furious shame, President Obama had rekindled it some. I had been living in Chicago during the 2008 election and helpless to resist his allure, hypnotized by his unflappable conviction that this country’s heart was a pure one. It made me feel patriotic again. Walking back to my apartment that election night, my heart swelled with possibility. The “yes we can” we’d all clung to like a mantra for the last year had become “yes we did.” It was a beautiful night, and I treasured its memory even as my starry eyed visions of hope and change slowly came to terms with a less glamorous reality.

When First Avenger came out, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s prospects remained uncertain. Iron Man 2 was a mess, and Thor was serviceable but slight. But Johnston was a keen hire whose old school, meat and potatoes sensibilities lent themselves to Cap’s red-blooded ethos. In fact, the affair is served with so much sincerity it’s not entirely clear that Johnston was totally aware of just how much of a throwback it was.

Today, many fans and critics rank First Avenger somewhere near the middle of the MCU pack, but they have no idea what they’re missing. Delights abound, with Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hayley Atwell all swimming in a glowing saturation that lends the adventure a fairy tale charm. And a fairy tale it is: the story of a young nobody plucked by fate to be his nation’s champion when it needed one most, embodying its highest ideals. It’s the same story many of us were given about America, and like any myth, it has a lot of power if you believe it. “Yes we did.”

And Steve Rogers believes it with all his heart. Chris Evans’ performance strikes all the right notes, convincingly channeling the spirit of the best kind of patriot: the one who believes, in the words of Tocqueville, that “America is great because America is good.” When asked if he wants to kill Nazis, Rogers says “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.” This is no chest-thumping war dog who can’t wait to take out his personal issues on anyone unlucky enough to be on the business end of the U.S. of A. Steve’s just a man who believes that his country is as moral as he is. Pointedly, Rogers’ involvement in World War II comes to an end before the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have put those beliefs to the test in nightmarish fashion.

I called the notion of America as a moral nation a myth earlier, but maybe that’s not quite right. Or, at least, maybe it’s not quite how Cap sees it. In 1986, comic book creator Frank Miller wrote a scene in which Captain America is asked by a general to stop poking around in some of the Army’s dirty laundry. “We’ve always valued your commitment—and your loyalty,” the general purrs.

“I am loyal to nothing, General,” Cap corrects, tenderly taking a nearby flag into his meaty fist. “Except the dream.”

Captain America doesn’t have to clarify to which dream he’s referring here, but maybe there’s something truer than we know in the very fact that we call it the American Dream and not the American Reality. In an interview with io9, current Captain America comics writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said “when I think about Steve I think about Barack Obama…He believes that, ultimately, America’s true and that the dream can be real.”

That’s what makes the dream so beguiling, whether you’re Captain America or the 44th President of the United States. Myths aren’t real and never can be. But dreams are a dangling carrot. The American dream is that wealth and success is always just a little hard work and self-determination away. The twin realities of unfettered capitalism and systemic racism render this dream a lie, but it can still feel as if it’s almost true, the same way my 9-year-old self with a green sled felt like being Captain America was almost possible. Almost.

By the time Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released in 2014, almost seemed very distant indeed, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo knew it. This was the Russos’ first time at the helm of a Marvel movie, and it’s not exactly a hot take to call it my favorite of the entire franchise. First Avenger’s dewy nostalgia is replaced with a silvery grimness—concrete, asphalt, and cool, grey skies. Dreams don’t hold much sway in this world of double crossing politicians and tenuous allies waxing about “lesser evils.” It’s a world Steve Rogers’ high-minded idealism doesn’t fit into very well, and the filmmakers milk a lot of drama from this premise. When confronted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) with the government’s new plan to start anticipating and cracking down on threats before they even rear their heads, Rogers lapses into some Greatest Generation hagiography. “We compromised, sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well,” Rogers admits of his own so-called Greatest Generation. “But we did it so people could be free.”

Maybe so, but Winter Soldier was released two years after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and just a few months before police brought tear gas and riot gear into Ferguson, Missouri as people protested the police shooting of Michael Brown. The unrest in Ferguson would lead to an iconic photo of a young man named Eric Crawford, a bag of chips in one hand, lobbing a lit tear gas canister in the other. He was wearing an American flag t-shirt in the photo. This was a new kind of American hero—one with far fewer reasons to look back to the Truman days through rose-colored glasses. (Crawford tragically took his life in 2017). And with all the millions of marginalized people in America making it clear that xenophobia and racism meant they’d felt particularly free here, I suddenly wasn’t sure where I or Captain America got off.

But in The Winter Soldier, Cap would sooner jump out of an elevator than tolerate his country becoming something he can’t get behind. Time hasn’t changed Cap at all. He’s the same steel-hearted, flag-waving patriot he was back in the Big One. But the Russos’ masterstroke is in how deftly they make the case that the country itself had changed. And Captain America, being the guy that he is, doesn’t care one star-spangled whit. Captain America knows his country has lost its way,

That’s fine when it comes to government surveillance and unseemly compromises, but out here in the real world, holding up America’s past as its true north has led to a good deal of agony in recent years. I’d thought my own sense of American disillusionment had peaked in 2014. A lot of us did.

Captain America: Civil War came out in May of 2016—well into the election cycle, but months before the shoe actually dropped. In that sense, I wouldn’t call Civil War “prescient” exactly, as it didn’t anticipate Trump in any meaningful way. But there is something about Steve’s slow realization that his country had moved on without him that felt at least symbolic of what was to come.

At the time, Civil War was the biggest, most clearly “comic book-y” thing Marvel had brought to the screen. While the Russos’ previous outing with Captain America mostly stuck to a smaller, more intimate clash of ideals, Civil War is all globe-trotting, whiz-bang, pew pew super opera. There are very few opportunities for any of our heroes to slow down and question whether or not they’re doing the right thing, which may be by design, since none of them are.

The central conflict finds Cap butting heads with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) over a sort of superhero registration the government wants to enforce on the Avengers, essentially making them a state-run Black Ops team in splashy costumes. Iron Man, ever the pragmatist, agrees that “we need to be put in check.” But Cap’s still stinging from the events of The Winter Soldier, and isn’t all that keen on this idea. Their rift comes to blows, and those blows lead to the titular war.

It’s an interesting evolution for a man who subjected his body to government experimentation before dutifully marching off in whatever direction he was pointed. You could be forgiven for calling it out of character, as plenty have. But I get it.

In First Avenger, all Cap had for a compass was the dream. In Winter Soldier, he had the past. By Civil War, he’d seen both of these totems fall apart in the harsh face of an America certain that it knew better than he did.

In Civil War, Steve attends the funeral of Peggy, his former flame. Her niece Sharon (Emily VanCamp) delivers the eulogy, and she quotes her aunt’s words: “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it’s your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say ‘No, you move.’”

These words, adapted from an Amazing Spider-Man comic by J. Michael Straczynski, give Captain America a firmer anchor than a dream or a rosy folk tale of bygone days. They put the weight of conviction in the present. By this measure, Captain America isn’t being unpatriotic by refusing to abide by his country’s demands. America is being unpatriotic by refusing to abide by his. He’s even shrugged off the shield by the end.

It’s hard not to admire a person of such rock solid determination, with steely principles that stand fast against the tides of time. The trouble is, there’s nothing admirable about unchanging principles if the principles weren’t all that good to begin with. That’s the risk of conviction. Maybe it’s why so few people have it. It’s only human to hedge your bets, and make sure there’s always a way to back out of the things you say you believe. Very few important beliefs are convenient, and government leaders are not ones to run their decisions by your own personal moral code. If you have a conviction, you will at some point be forced to determine just how much it means to you. You will be forced to either stand your ground and tell the whole world to move, or just admit that it never meant all that much to you anyway.

For Christmas this year, my sister-in-law got me a Captain America water bottle. It’s a bold, gaudy bauble: bright blue base, candy-red top, with the shield on the side. I feel a little self-conscious about carrying it around. Repping the American flag is complicated business in 2019. Patriotism is so easily mistaken for endorsement.

But these movies have helped me understand what patriotism needs in order to be something pure. It doesn’t mean loving your country. It means taking ownership of it, holding it to the highest possible standard and refusing to settle or to compromise. It means taking honest measure of the distance between the Dream and the reality, and dedicating yourself to closing the gap, no matter how “unpatriotic” this dedication may look. There’s a cost. By the end of the Captain America trilogy, it’s cost Cap friendships, his shield, and even his country. But those are the sort of things the God of Winning can stand to lose.