The flawed superhero: What the evolution of Chris Evans' Captain America points out
"Before Elvis, there was nothing," John Lennon had once said.
The same analogy holds true for what the 2008 movie Iron Man did for the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU). It was the phenomenal portrayal of Tony Stark by Robert Downey Jr that began the series of Marvel movies which gave us some of the most popular characters in cinema today.
And for the entire Phase 1 of the MCU (which ended with the release of The Avengers in 2012), Downey Jr's Iron Man was probably the most important character in the MCU. The biggest evidence in support of this is that almost all of the most memorable scenes from The Avengers involve Tony Stark in one way or another. Whether it was Stark's "We have a Hulk" response to Loki's "I have an army" remark, his "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" comeback or the fact that it was actually Iron Man who single-handedly destroyed the Chitauri mothership which disabled the Chitauri forces back on earth in the movie, Downey Jr's character was the most significant one.
What has made Downey Jr's Iron Man one of the best superhero characters in movies is not his bravado or his sense of righteousness, but his set of flaws. Downey Jr's Tony Stark is cocky, narcissistic, has some deep daddy issues and does not shy away from flamboyantly enjoying his wealth. Unlike Bruce Wayne, whose lavish lifestyle is actually a disguise to hide his real personality of the dark and brooding Batman, Tony Stark and Iron Man have the same personality.
Compare this to the character of Chris Evan's Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America's character in that movie is what you would call the perfect boy scout.
He is the idealistic, honest, righteous and extremely patriotic soldier who will do anything to stop those evil Hydra Nazis from winning the Second World War. In fact, Captain America was shown to be so unbelievably good in the movie that it was irritating to watch at times.
While Captain America's character in MCU's Phase 1 is an example of what an ideal superhero should be like, Iron Man's character still is who we all would probably become like in real life if we had super powers and wealth, if not worse. And that is what made Iron Man the most popular character in MCU Phase 1.
Today, we live in a world where some of the most popular shows (Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones) and superhero movies (Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool) have flawed or dark protagonists and main characters. The flawed hero, and even the anti-hero in some cases (like the Punisher in Marvel's Daredevil), is becoming more popular than the traditional knight-in-shining-armour hero.
And even though Captain America is still quite far from becoming a grey character, his evolution over the years in MCU into a darker, erring and more complicated protagonist is perhaps the biggest evidence that the flawed or dark superhero has now gained much more relevance than the traditional one.
Before we talk about Captain America: Civil War though, let's take at what happened in MCU's Phase Two. One of the most critically acclaimed movies of this phase was Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Unlike The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier created a scenario in which Steve Rogers realises that his side is actually not full of the good guys. He has to go rogue to save the day and we see the overtly patriotic super-soldier go anti-establishment for the first time on screen in the MCU. We also see some of the emotional weakness he has for an old friend and the tough decisions he has to take because of that.
The Winter Soldier was also the first time that some of the focus was shifted from Iron Man to Captain America. Other characters of The Avengers like The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow were never really strong enough to steal the limelight from Iron Man.
But Captain America in The Winter Soldier definitely managed to do that. "Until Guardians of the Galaxy came along, The Winter Soldier was Marvel Studios’ highest grossing film that didn’t have Iron Man in it," according to this article in Nerdist.
In fact, another article in CinemaBlend written last year, much before the release of Civil War, questioned whether the then upcoming movie would make us hate Iron Man. "The big question that is currently hanging in the air, though, is whether Tony will still come off as likable and reasonable in the story, or if certain events will lead to us hating his guts," the article had said.
Suddenly, Iron Man was no longer the most important character in the MCU. And it was because Captain America had turned a shade darker.
But characters in the MCU have never been more grey than in Civil War, especially Captain America. One of the most important themes in the movie is government control. While Tony Stark's support of government regulation of superheroes on the basis of inevitable collateral damage is controversial, Captain America's desire to have a free hand to do whatever he feels like without any control is also equally controversial.
Then, there is the issue of Bucky Barnes, one of the antagonists in The Winter Soldier. Captain America's weakness for Barnes strongly influences his decisions in the film, even to an extent due to which he harms some of his former allies.
In The Winter Soldier, Captain America was still fighting some truly evil villains in the organisation S.H.I.E.L.D. But in Civil War, his fight is against his allies who are also the good guys. In fact, even the most negative character in the movie is not completely black. And that is what makes Civil War the best Marvel movie since The Avengers.
Even though Captain America still has a long way to go before he sheds his boy scout image, the fact that the halo over his head has become a little less bright shows that superhero movies (at least the good ones) are trying to challenge the traditional definition of a superhero, which is a good sign because that traditional definition has become higly cliched and predictable.