Having a favourite superhero used to be so simple. Your favourite superheroes would be the first character you read a comic about, plus a character you read about in a random single issue bought in a seaside newsagent’s on a family holiday, plus Spider-Man (or, if Spider-Man was already one of the first two, plus Batman). Alternatively, you might develop a fervent love for Rogue, Gambit or Wolverine based on exposure to the X-Men animated series, but that would still serve as a pretty good way in to the comics version due to that show’s fidelity to the original printed storylines.
Once you knew who your favourite superhero was, you’d buy any old rubbish that featured them (hello, Clone Saga). You’d know that no creative team’s run on the character was ever as good as the one that was going on when you first got into them (even if that happened to be the Clone Saga). And you’d like it when they got made into a film, but still hold the comics version as the original and the best (at least until the movies do the Clone Saga).
Unfortunately, the Marvel Studios movies have come along and ruined all of that. Suddenly, some of the best superheroes out there aren’t even in comics – but instead come from a consistently clever and entertaining set of films. Sure, they might have their origins in comics – but the Marvel characters who actually appeared in good comics had their rights harvested and locked down long ago. The characters that Marvel themselves were left with haven’t tended to star in very many comics that are anywhere near as good as their recent films.
All of this is my way of getting around to the fact that something has happened recently that’s rather disturbed me. Which is that I’ve found myself utterly loving Captain America.
It’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason – it’s more a series of things that all add up. Captain America has always been a difficult character to like – particularly if you’re not actually American – from the name downwards. No matter what work a new writer on the comic might do to try and re-establish the character to us, he will always have that aspect of being known first and foremost as an icon of flag-waving patriotism. Movie Cap, however, remains patriotic – but before that element is even introduced, we’ve got to know him as simply a good bloke. Scenes like the fight in the alley at the start of The First Avenger are crucial to this – he’s not just a super-powered bully, punching down at those weaker than him. We know he’s willing to stand up for himself and his friend even when he’s small and scrawny.
And because we’ve seen Cap’s journey from little Steve Rogers, to wartime hero, to the tragedy of being pulled from his own time into the present day, we can sympathise with him that bit more – and it makes it all the more rewarding as we see his continued determination just to do right. Often, when watching an action film – of any type, not just a superhero film – the morality of the lead character can come into question. Even within the Marvel films alone, there are occasions when you know the likes of Tony Stark and Thor aren’t actually necessarily doing the right thing. With Cap, you never really feel that. In The Winter Soldier in particular, he navigates a politically and morally murky story, never sure who exactly can be trusted – but the audience knows that they can follow him through that story, as a strong moral compass.
I’m aware that not everybody’s going to see the character in this way – and it’s understandable why a more complex and nuanced character such as Iron Man or Black Widow, or one with the ridiculous levels of charm and appeal of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, are likely to be others’ favourites. But as someone who likes his superheroes to be proper, honest-to-goodness superheroes, the MCU version of Cap appeals to me hugely. That they’ve managed to do this from source material that I have absolutely no predisposition towards liking is what makes this especially surprising.
And naturally, I’m now a bit worried that they might kill him off in the third one. Unless they then replace him with a clone, of course.