Ghosts in the Present

Steve Rogers is a fixed point in a rapidly evolving world. His narrative function is not to change, but to change those around him, especially those who find themselves lost and in search of purpose. That means Natasha Romanoff, the expert former KGB assassin who still gets her hands dirty. That means Sam Wilson, AKA The Falcon, a former soldier trying his best to do good. And that means S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury, a man whose secrets have secrets, and a leader whose inability to surround himself with people he trusts has makes him an unwitting pawn.

Fury believes in prevention. His upbringing involved his grandfather carrying a loaded gun to ward off muggers, a philosophy he magnifies in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new long-range gunships. While he himself would likely not seek to use them on civiliians – he senses something is off with “Insight,” so he begins to investigate – his continued belief in the power structure he sits atop catalyzes his downfall. To him, the problem is likely rogue elements within S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, an organization tasked with deciding who gets to live or die. When faced with what to do next, he hopes to salvage S.H.I.E.L.D. from the individuals who have tarnished it, but Steve Rogers knows better and harshly convinces him otherwise. Steve has seen what happens when power corrupts; just as there were no good Nazis in World War II, S.H.I.E.L.D. itself must go. It’s grown too powerful to be controlled responsibly, even if HYDRA is weeded out.

Like Fury, Natasha believes in S.H.I.E.L.D. – at first. She switched allegiances from the KGB to the White House, believing herself to finally be on the side of right, but this wasn’t a decision she was capable of making. Not when her very identity was flux, moving from cover to cover as she did what needed to be done no matter the cost. Without figuring out who she was outside of these structures and secret identities, and whom she was willing to trust, she had no way of drawing a line when it came to what she was willing to do. Now working as Fury’s personal thief, how far would she go in service of her new badge when she had no compass telling her when enough was enough? She still has red in her ledger, violent acts from her past (also referenced in The Avengers) that weigh her down, and the more recent ones weigh on her further when she realizes she may have done them in service of the wrong side once more.

The truth has been “a matter of circumstance” to her for some time. She sees Steve’s old-world, honest perspective as out of its depth, and tells him he’s in the wrong line of work if he hopes to have friends. She even teaches him to lie and to hide in plain sight. But it’s when Captain America becomes divorced, in a way, from America itself and the two go on the run that she sees a man representing truth and justice when his structures no longer can. He carries her to safety after S.H.I.E.L.D. drops a bomb on them, and it’s here that she learns that trust – something between two people, rather than between a spy and her government – is what’s going to keep her alive. She has a new willingness to be seen, owing to Steve looking beyond her misdeeds and viewing her as a friend despite her lies to him. And it allows her to blow the whistle on S.H.I.E.L.D. without hesitation, dumping all their dirty secrets onto the internet – even the ones involving her ugly past.

Which brings us, of course, to Sam Wilson. A social worker-turned superhero in the comics, this version of Sam is a military veteran who retains the core of his comicbook counterpart. He’s first and foremost a helper, working to counsel other veterans afflicted by guilt, regret and PTSD, while his own guilt over not being able to protect his partner caused him to leave the field. He immediately gets along with Steve, recognizing their common inability to re-adjust to the world, and when Steve comes asking for his help, he doesn’t hesitate. His journey certainly isn’t as complicated as Fury’s or Natasha’s – rather than a solider or spy with shady dealings, he was explicitly a rescue operative – but he serves as an embodiment of the kind of change Steve Rogers inspires at large: the desire to fight for good. Like a kid getting to see his favourite superhero up close, “Dude, Captain America needs my help” is reason enough for him to take to the skies once more.

Fighting the Good Fight

Captain America’s mission during the climax doesn’t involve punching bad guys. Most of the punching is incidental, on his way to replacing the gunships’ trackers so they eventually destroy one another, His first stop is infiltrating a S.H.I.E.L.D control room. Danny Pudi (Community’s Abed), despite being held at gunpoint, guides him towards the control panels. It’s as if he’s inviting him in willingly, having sensed that the fugitive has a good reason to be there. He does. Speaking to all of S.H.I.E.L.D., or those who would listen, he lays the facts out in front of them, even at the cost of attracting HYDRA’s attention.

No more secrets. No more hiding. “The cost of freedom is high,” but it’s a price Captain America is willing to pay, and he’s right to believe he isn’t the only one. Among those willing to resist HYDRA is a low-ranking technician played by Aaron Himelstein, tasked with launching HYDRA’s gunships in order to, much like the World Council’s nuclear launch in The Avengers, kill millions to protect billions. The character has since been given his own name and Marvel Wiki page despite only appearing in one scene here (say hello to Cameron Klien). He then shows up in Avengers: Age of Ultron to rapturous applause, at least at this writer’s opening night screening. He has no superpowers, and no real stature or physical strength with which to fight back, but the reason he struck such a chord with fans is because he fought back anyway.

“I’m not gonna launch those ships. Captain’s orders.”

With one single line, delivered not fearlessly, but cowering at gunpoint, the (then) nameless featured extra embodied everything that makes Captain America matter. Steve Rogers, the little guy from Brooklyn, gives other little guys the strength to stand up. “Captains orders,” repeats Emily VanCamp’s Sharon, a formerly duplicitous agent now choosing a side. Soon, the whole room of technicians draws their guns on HYDRA’s strike team led by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo, career Tough Guy), a room full of ill-equipped heroes doing what little they can to fight back.

Till the End of the Line

Captain America refuses to leave the crashing gunship without first freeing Bucky from debris. This isn’t the only thing that makes him a hero. It’s also the fact that he lingers even longer to remind Bucky of the person he once was. The past is all but lost to Steve Rogers. He’s begun the process of tearing the old world down by destroying S.H.I.E.L.D., but he sticks it out with Bucky as the ship goes down, dropping his guard entirely. Like the room full of technicians, Bucky eventually does the right things too, even though he’s far from the person he once was.

Bucky doesn’t quite remember Steve. He’s been subjected to torture too often and had his mind wiped too many times. But still he saves Steve from another watery grave, having been reminded of something deep within him, as this man, merely his mission, a stranger who ought to have every reason to kill him, treats him in a way he hasn’t been treated in decades: like a friend.

That’s why Captain America works. He isn’t just a hero on his own. Whether it’s Sam, Natasha, Nick Fury, Bucky, or some nameless kid at a desk, Steve Rogers reminds other people of their own intrinsic goodness. He reminds ordinary folks like you and me that we can be heroes too.

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