Steve Rogers has never been a happy go lucky guy. The first time we meet him in Captain America: The First Avenger, he’s a scrappy little guy, determined to join the US Army and fight in World War II to stand up to bullies. Standing up to bullies is practically Rogers’ full-time occupation, and we meet him in the midst of an act of rebellion, rejecting his place on the home front to try and earn one on the battlefield so he can stand up to bullies of the Nazi variety.
From the beginning, Rogers comes off as a serious, moral man with a mile-wide rebellious streak. When he is put into Howard Stark’s superhero machine and emerges Captain America, he’s the same serious, moral rebel. But people get so hung up on the “serious, moral” part that they miss the “rebel” completely. Captain America: Civil War is basically the culmination of seventy-plus years of everyone missing the rebel until they can no longer ignore the fact that Steve Rogers’ moral authority more often than not puts him in direct conflict with the very government he represents.
The first time Rogers sees action in World War II, he is disobeying direct orders. He saw the Army willing to abandon men to die—including his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes—because they didn’t want to risk the resources to rescue them. This measure of practicality, however, does not register with Rogers. There are people to be saved, so you save them. Will it be dangerous? Yes, of course. Could he, or others die? Obviously. But to not try is worse to Rogers than failure. Rogers can’t knowingly leave people to die. We see this demonstrated again and again, with every appearance on screen.
For all that Captain America is a supersoldier, his real superpower exists before the serum that turns him into a superhero. Dr. Erskine recognized it in Rogers when he was that scrappy little guy, and it’s why he chose Rogers as the recipient of his superhuman diesel. Rogers’ real superpower, the thing that makes him Captain America, is his belief that people are the worth the risk, whatever that risk may be. He believes people can change and be agents for good—he keeps giving people chances to live up to his expectations, and most do (Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov, just to name a few). It’s not just his long friendship with Bucky Barnes that leads him to give the Winter Soldier a chance to reform, it’s also his fundamental belief that no one is beyond saving.
He does not have the same faith in the systems people build, however. From the moment he disobeys orders in The First Avenger and with every subsequent appearance, Rogers moves further and further away from centralized, institutional power. His disillusionment with apparatuses of power and control begins long before he discovers that Hydra has compromised SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it begins when he learns that the Army does the math on human life and comes to a different conclusion than him.
We don’t see enough of the Howling Commandos in action in The First Avenger to understand how they functioned within the Army, but it can be assumed that necessity bred acceptance and Rogers and his rebellious ways went largely unnoticed, or more likely, were deliberately ignored for convenience’s sake. And, during the decades in which Captain America turned from hero to national icon to legend, it would seem the disobedience of his actions in World War II was buried under the tales of heroism and feats of strength. People forgot, as people are wont to do, that “hero” is just another term for “rebel”.
Civil War pits Rogers’ inherent rebelliousness against the seeming poster-boy for rebel superheroes, Tony Stark. It’s important to remember, though, that Stark is a creature of corporate culture, born and bred to run boardrooms and dictate orders to others. Not wanting to turn his superweapon over to the government is not the same thing as rejecting governance as a whole. His stance in Civil War, which will be explored more in depth in a separate piece, is essentially paternal, and jives with his status as a former CEO. Stark sees the Sokovia Accords as a kind of boardroom arrangement, with him as the chairman and Captain America as the CEO.
But what Rogers sees is yet another suspect structure meant to control a power better wielded by individual people. Essentially, the Sokovia Accords are akin to the governance once provided to America by England. Far from giving up his patriotic mantle, Steve Rogers is never more of a patriot than when he resists the control of governments removed by degrees from the decisions being made on the ground. Sharon Carter’s eulogy to her great-aunt, Peggy, is lifted verbatim from a speech Captain America gives to Spider-Man in the comics. The most famous portion of the speech (“No, you move”) is included in the film but the preamble is cut. That preamble, though, directly addresses the notion of patriotism in a time of unclear moral accountability.
Comic book Captain America says he is struck by the words of Mark Twain, who wrote: In a republic, who is ‘the country’? Is it the government, who for the moment sits in the saddle? Why, the government is merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong. In the film, Rogers condenses this down to two words: Agendas change.
Rogers does not reject oversight. His only arguments against the Accords are that he does not want a group of potentially agenda-driven politicians dictating who, when, and how the Avengers fight, and he questions where the accountability lands if the Avengers accept such control. Oversight does not prevent collateral damage, and Rogers seems to be questioning where the moral authority lies in a system designed to shift accountability. The Accords are not really about making people safer, they’re about harnessing a power Rogers would prefer to keep in the hands of people. Who, if they sign the Accords, is “the country”?
It may seem backwards that Captain America is the one resisting government oversight in Civil War, but it is in fact wholly in keeping with his established history as a rebellious superhero. The moment a system of control, be it Army command, intelligence agency, or government coalition, assumes to know better for people than the people themselves, Captain America is there, pushing back against it. And isn’t that the most American trait of all?
Captain America’s journey on screen began with an act of rebellion: Picking up a shield to go rescue his friend Bucky Barnes. And it ends with another act of rebellion: Dropping his shield to rescue his friend Bucky Barnes. It would seem that in dropping the shield, Steve Rogers is quitting, perhaps even rejecting, the mantle of Captain America. But it really proves the identities are inseparable. He drops the shield for the same reason he picked it up. The man under the cowl is unchanged. Only the world has changed around him.
In rebellion Steve Rogers finds grace, he finds the moral fortitude that has raised him up as a hero of the people. Rogers is never more “Cap” than when he willingly walks away from the symbols of his power in order to serve the needs of another. Dropping the shield strips of him of his titles—he’s no longer an Avenger, he’s no longer a captain, he will likely not call himself Captain America. He’s not a hero of the people anymore. Instead, he becomes a hero for the people, driven underground because he stood up for the rights of the individual over the determination of a government. Steve Rogers has been called a superhero, an Avenger, a monster, and a criminal. But he remains, as always, a rebel.