Captain America has a list in The Winter Soldier to keep track of all the things he’s missed in our very modern society. We have the newest technology, decades of great music available at the touch of a button, and the broadest knowledge that the world has ever seen. But Part 1 of this series isn’t about him becoming a modern hero, it’s about the ways in which he already was one.
Because we don’t actually live in a Modern world, we live in a Post-Modern one, philosophically speaking.
In storytelling, the difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism is the difference between Captain America and Iron Man. It is Superman and Batman. It is stalwart heroes who wrestle with external conflict without the burden of internal conflict vs. heroes with so much internal conflict they are their own worst enemy.
The problem is that a Post-Modern audience does not find a Modern hero interesting.
I happen to like Modern heroes. Probably it’s because growing up my favorite stories were filled with Modern heroes. Valiant, brave, unflinching integrity – those things work for me.
Much less for either of my best friends which is the root of our long running Captain America conversations that have become this post series. Even Chris Evans isn’t a fan of a good old Modern hero.
“To be candid, the hurdle with Captain America is that his nature is to put himself last and put everyone else’s conflict on his back. As a result, it’s difficult to find an interesting film, because most complex characters have flaws. He’s a Boy Scout.”
He’s right, of course, about complex characters but Modern heroes aren’t flawless. They have doubts and fears, but in a Modern world there is an absolute right and a clear wrong. The Modern hero struggles with how to do the right thing, not trying to determine what the right thing to do is, or if, in the end, they’re actually the hero or the villain.
The Post-Modern audience, however, doesn’t believe a hero who always knows the right thing to do; who doesn’t grapple with their own weakness in the midst of stopping the bad guy. Tony Stark had to learn to be a good guy. He had to see what happens when he makes the wrong choices to push him into the right choices. And even now his heroics are encumbered by his ego, his doubts and guilt and arrogance.
Superman, perhaps the epitome of Modern heroes, has never wrestled with that type of internal conflict. Which is why writers and directors try to make Modern heroes more interesting.
In Zack Snyder’s hands, Superman took a noticeably darker turn. It wasn’t subtle or artfully woven into Superman’s arc in Man of Steel. The biggest problem with that attempt to explore a hero’s dark corners, however, was that it betrayed who the character is. In trying to explain why Superman chooses not to kill people, by having him kill someone, it was almost an Iron Man arc. Snyder thought Superman has to carry the weight of a bad choice in order to realize he doesn’t want to make bad choices anymore. And once he’s killed, it is within him to do so again which makes the character unpredictable.
(If you want a very interesting take on Superman’s character check out Max Landis’ thoughts on Man of Steel which doesn’t say outright that he’s a Modern character but describes it accurately enough (with a good bit of cursing) and makes some other really interesting points.)
But Superman isn’t Tony Stark and he isn’t Wolverine. When working to give a Modern hero dimension it shouldn’t change the character. It should be specific to their strengths and weaknesses; explore who they are and how they are effected by the external conflicts they face. Or even better take their greatest strength and make it their weakness.
In The Avengers Captain America is a man out of time who has to deal with that while trying to deal with all the things going wrong around him. And it makes him more interesting then in The First Avenger. In both The Winter Soldier and Civil War his loyalty is turned against him. The organization he serves turns against the people and then his friends turn against each other.
You could say he wrestles with his limits instead of his flaws. But the audience doesn’t go on the journey of that struggle with him. Civil War showed us that he can’t save everyone, no matter how hard he tries, but it didn’t show how much that pains him. Instead we see our title hero teaching the lesson he’s already learned to Post-Modern characters like Scarlet Witch.
That’s one of the strengths of Modern heroes, if you can make them believable and dimensional. They are aspirational. They are noble and they make us believe we could be too. They show us the very best of ourselves which is why we still love Modern heroes.
It’s one of the reasons Captain America’s movies continue to make plenty of money, even by Marvel standards. He’s such a fantastic character, constantly at odds with the world around him because he is a Modern hero in a Post-Modern world.