There’s a moment at the beginning of the latest season of Jessica Jones where she’s confronted with a moral dilemma. She does the legally correct thing, despite her actions potentially being ethically wrong. A young girl yells at her: “Aren’t superheroes supposed to help people? Captain America never would have done this!”
The implication is clear that in the MCU, Captain America is the moral compass, setting the moral bar high as to how superheroes should behave.
It’s an impossible standard, of course; Captain America is human, and makes mistakes. He always tries to do the right thing, but the world isn’t black and white and nothing is ever clear-cut.
There’s been a lot said about the merits – or rather, lack of them – of the MCU’s version of Captain America recently. After all, didn’t Captain America cause a rift in the team in Civil War, and then run away to end his career in the MCU by going back in time to selfishly live out his golden years while sitting on the sidelines… changing nothing for the better?
No, he isn’t. And here’s why.
Let’s start at the end, rolling this latest argument backwards a bit.
There’s a misconception that, at the end of Avengers: Endgame, Captain America chose to live out his life with Peggy Carter and stay out of the way of history by doing nothing helpful… like, for instance, rescuing Bucky before he became the Winter Soldier or saving Tony Stark’s life.
It’s an argument I’m familiar with, since it’s similar to a criticism of my own regarding the end of Wonder Woman: for someone with abilities (plus, in Cap’s case, knowledge of future events) to stand on the sidelines throughout history and do nothing goes against the superhero concept.
The old Spider-Man adage says that with great powers comes great responsibilities, and, in the case of Wonder Woman, sitting on the sidelines letting bad things happen is what she appears to do between the WW and BvS movies (although I hope to be proven wrong, and the DCEU team have been working to correct this impression).
However, in Captain America’s case, it’s different. The time travel aspect throws an added wrinkle in to this concept because in Endgame doesn’t work the way fans are used to it working. Here are two quotes from the directors, the Russo Brothers:
Anthony Russo: “In the movie, the Hulk is very explicit about what our rules are, which is you cannot change the present by altering the past. All you can do by going to the past… is create an alternate future. So this is a world in which alternate timelines exist.”
Joe Russo: “If Cap were to go back in to the past and live there, he would create a branched reality. The question then becomes, how is he back in this reality to give the shield away.”
While the use of time travel in Endgame is a vague pseudo-science way of getting around the paradoxes the story creates, the end result is pretty straightforward. Cap’s life in retirement with Peggy – and all of his actions in the past – will make no change to the current timeline. His actions won’t bring back the primary MCU timeline’s Tony Stark, nor will they help save Bucky earlier or help the world avoid all the real-world pitfalls it’s suffered. Instead, all he’s doing is creating a new alternate reality to live in.
However, that isn’t to say that that Captain America did nothing to affect the new alternate timeline he created. That’s naïve thinking, because everything about him goes against his very nature as a person. If he knows there’s a problem, he’ll try to fix it.
Consider who he is for a moment, and everything that he stands for. Does anybody really believe that he would allow this alternate timeline’s Bucky to suffer hideous tortures, now that he has enough information to stop it? Would he really allow the Winter Soldier to kill Tony’s parents, in turn making Tony suffer, or allow Hydra to take over Peggy Carter’s SHIELD organisation, knowing that he has the ability to change those things and right many heinous wrongs? Steve Rogers lives his life by an ethical code of helping others, and standing on the sidelines is not what he does. It’s more likely that Captain America would make the changes to that alternate reality which, in his opinion, would make things better.
The concept of the Avengers trying to avoid altering the past in their own time travel adventures was because they hoped to create as few ripples as possible in that alternate timeline. The goal was to keep things ticking along smoothly… something that they failed in almost right from the start, in allowing Loki to escape and in Cap fighting himself. They’ve already altered the timeline in ways they can’t even imagine – and it’s likely that Cap did it even more after going back in time and staying in the past.
However, none of their alterations will affect the primary MCU. Instead, this new “branch” of reality where Cap lives out his retirement will be vastly different, and hopefully the upcoming “What If?” show will give us a glimpse of what this other world became through his actions – for right or wrong. But did he do nothing, and sit back quietly while the world fell apart? That’s highly doubtful.
With that sitting-on-the-sidelines concept out of the way, there’s also the issue of Cap’s “jerk” choice to not sign the Sokovia Accords… an action which supposedly caused a schism in the team.
Yes, he didn’t sign – and with good reason. Anyone familiar with the Civil War story from the comics knows the Sokovia Accords by its other name, the Superhero registration Act – and all the baggage that entails. The concept of the Accords/SRA was deliberately intended from a story perspective to be a moral grey area for fans. It’s a dilemma that forces us to evaluate the age-old issue of personal freedom vs. security. In the debate of sacrificing your freedom of choice to a higher authority in order to be safe from threats, there is no right answer. In some ways, the Accords are right, in others they’re wrong.
The MCU’s Captain America’s decision, like the one he made in the comics, was to choose personal freedom. Having been a soldier, the concept of surrendering his self-determination to governmental authority may seem inconsistent; yet the thought of the Avengers becoming little more than a squad of government-sanctioned operatives, taking orders that may conflict with their beliefs, waiting for permission before acting – and being treated as traitors if they refuse to follow orders – is impossible for him to accept. After all, a higher authority obtaining personal data and monitoring people with abilities led to fatal consequences when Hydra (who had infiltrated SHIELD) exploited a similar process, while Bucky’s actions as the Winter Soldier shows the darkest nature of people being controlled.
While the Sokovia Accords did have genuine legal and ethical merit, it should never be forgotten that there are also downsides to such a system. To paraphrase the animated Tony Stark in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, who questioned the finer points of such bureaucratic control himself, would they need government permission to rescue an old lady crossing the road from being hit by a car? If the Chitauri invasion occurred but they didn’t get the proper government clearance to act, should they stand by and do nothing? For superheroes, doing the right thing is sometimes a matter of choice, not rules… bringing up a further debate of why they should have the right to do as they please.
Cap’s choice to not sign the Sokovia Accords didn’t mean that he didn’t believe in the law or was against doing what he believed to be right. Instead, it was about self-determination. But, as stated, technically there’s no right or wrong to this particular choice. He made the choice that aligned with his own beliefs.
Linking it back to the time travel concept, the argument that Cap stands on the sidelines and fails to do the right thing in an alternate reality, while also arguing that he should stand on the sidelines and only act when ordered to in the primary MCU according to the Sokovia Accords, makes little sense. It can’t work both ways, and Cap’s refusal to sign the Accords clearly indicates that he will always take action when he has to.
But back to the Accords themselves, and Cap supposedly being a jerk by not signing them…
Yes, his choice – and those choices of his teammates, who he doesn’t force in to making their decisions – led a rift in the team. However, it’s no more Cap’s fault than the fault of Tony Stark, Rhodey, Wanda or the others. The team falls apart not because of Cap, but because when people disagree that can be the result. To pin the blame for the team’s split on Cap is foolish, just as it would be to pin it on Tony – the primary creator of Ultron, who did it in an ill-advised scheme which ultimately led to the Sokovia Accords being brought in to existence in the first place.
Given that there is no absolute right or wrong with the Sokovia Accords, what this boils down to is the clash of individual ideologies of the individual Avengers – each of whom are entitled to their opinion. As Maria Hill put it, the Sokovia Accords is a pipe-dream, and it would be unlikely that they could get somebody like Thor to sign it, for instance.
In the case of Captain America, it isn’t being a jerk to have an opinion, even if it’s one that Tony Stark disagrees with. In this particular case, it just so happens that the two people defending their arguments are Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
The impression of Captain America being a jerk can also stem from the idea that he is a perfect moral compass. He isn’t, although he tries to his best to live up to those expectations – not because he feels he has to, but because it’s who he is.
On a human level, Cap isn’t perfect no matter what the public may falsely believe. It’s true that Steve Rogers harboured a terrible secret in Civil War – namely, that a brainwashed, controlled Bucky was responsible for the death of Tony’s parents; he kept this secret to protect both, fearing the ramifications. He doesn’t do this to hurt Tony, but to try and protect his friends because the painfully hard truth is too much to face. Making the choice to lie to protect the feelings of a friend may not be the ethically right thing to do, but it’s a very human mistake. While Captain America ultimately owns up to this personal failure and leaves, he still reaches out to Tony afterwards… reminding him that, despite any rift between them, he’s only a phone call away should Tony and the Avengers ever need help.
The impression of Cap’s supposed perfection is one that Tony Stark believes in as much as he doesn’t want to admit it, sometimes mocking him for it. Tony’s attitude towards Captain America at times stems from his own personal issues, a deeply-rooted desperate desire to gain the approval of his late father. He’s a man who has lived in the shadow of the supposedly-great Howard Stark all his life, and later we see signs of his envy of Captain America having known Howard personally, and of the respect that Howard gained for Cap.
Captain America’s origin owes much to Howard Stark, in some ways making him Howard’s son almost as much as Tony is. In Tony’s mind, at times Cap appears to represent the son that Howard wanted. It’s an impossible standard to live up to. After all, how can someone compete with a living legend? None of this, however, is the fault of Steve Rogers and he shouldn’t be judged for it.
Is the MCU’s Captain America a jerk?
That may be how he appears to some.
To some, he’s so irritatingly perfect that he appears condescending, while to others his human flaws make him even more irritating. He doesn’t exude charismatic swagger or brooding angst; he’s the uncool superhero who appears on school PSA videos lecturing on the dangers of peer pressure and endorses eating your vegetables.
It’s easy to want to punch him in his perfect teeth, or call him names. It’s even understandable, because fans are passionate about their likes and dislikes.
Ultimately though, Captain America is just an old-fashioned superhero who symbolises hope… or at least represents somebody who’s always trying to do the right thing. Even if he got it wrong sometimes.