Criminal: Captain America, the Rebellious Superhero



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.

skinny steve
Heart of a champion, face of a liar

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.

You want to run that equation again, son?

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.

World’s most uncomfortable board meeting.

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?

fuck shit up
Pictured: All-American shit-disturber

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.

Captain America: The First Avenger

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.

9 thoughts on “Criminal: Captain America, the Rebellious Superhero

  1. Trev

    I am really impressed by how you look at the overall arc of Steve’s actions. I’m probably going to re-read a couple of times and bask in the glory of this post.

    On a smaller scale, there was a moment when Steve was going to compromise and sign the Accords. Bucky had just been turned into the custody of the CIA (I think) and Steve learned he wasn’t going to be given a lawyer, he almost signed in exchange for Bucky being transferred to an American psychiatric institution instead of a Wakandan jail. But then Tony mentioned Wanda and comprise was off the table for Steve because he had two vulnerable people he had to protect.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I always love your in-depth character analyses. So much insight.

    One question, dropping the shield, yes it was walking away from symbols, but wasn’t it more personal between him and Tony? Acknowledging that he betrayed Tony and lost his trust. Protecting Bucky is also a rebellious act, but more than that I think the dropping of shield is between Steve and Tony. He has been rejecting government/Sokovia Accords for days. The dropping of the shield to me is kind of separate.

    1. I think it’s splitting hairs, a little bit. It’s explicitly established earlier that the shield belongs to the US government. Tony invoking his father is certainly personal between them, but Steve dropping the shield is symbolic of all of it. Quitting being Captain America, prioritizing an individual (Bucky) over the collective, and effectively severing his relationship with Tony. You can’t take any one act out of it, because the shield represents so much more than just the connection to the Starks. If anything, in that moment, it’s Tony doing what Natasha earlier accused him of, not being able to see perspectives outside his own ego. He doesn’t see the shield as anything other than Stark property, in that moment. He’s always had trouble with Steve, he admits as much to Steve’s face, and in that moment he lets his anger get the better of him. It’s totally understandable, 100% not arguing his motives, but it’s also an incredibly petty moment from Tony.

      1. It’s interesting contrasting Steve Rogers the soldier, a rebel as you say, with James Rhodes the soldier, a man who is very much trusting of his government.

        And I agree, Tony spouting about the shield was gloriously petty. It was his last attempt to keep the fight going, because he knew he’d lost as soon as he started it. He had nothing left to hold onto. I thought it was cool that Steve dropped it without a second thought.

        Great post

  3. zanebradey

    What about the fact that Cap abandons everyone for Bucky? I’d say that has more personal than moral motivation in my opinion. They jetted on even after War Machine got dropped. I also think he had a brazen lack of remorse for the collateral damage they’ve caused. He had a “meh, break a few eggs…” Attitude about it when taking about the accords and again when giving Scarlet Witch the ‘can’t save everyone’ speech. Also, when he finds out why Zemo did what he did he have him a little emoji “awe…” face. I think Cap has a civilian / not civilian attitude and views the masses as expendable. He and Tony Stark are not that far off from the same person. The difference is what they gain from the loss of life they cause. There is a fine line between lawful good and lawful evil. Sometimes it’s merely relative.

    1. It was certainly personal when he disobeyed Army orders to rescue Bucky, too. Cap has a rebellious streak, regardless of motivation–it’s there.

      Re: Collateral damage. I compare Cap’s attitude to a surgeon. You do everything you can, but you have to be able to accept that you won’t save every patient. Eventually, someone will die on your table. And you still have to be able to get up the next day and operate on the next patient. There is a certain callousness inherent in that, but the alternative is a person who works in life-or-death situations who is incapable of handling the fallout. Which is exactly what Tony is. Tony is driven by grief that he can’t process and just wants to unburden himself without ever actually owning the responsibility of that grief. Cap may be a little callous, but it comes from a place of saying, “We have to be able to make these calls, take the losses, and move on because the next time the stakes will be just as high.” I’m not saying Cap is better than Tony, but he is, emotionally, better equipped to be the leader of the Avengers. He understands the stakes and costs in a way Tony doesn’t. I don’t think he sees people as expendable, but he accepts that people will die on his watch, no matter how hard they try to save everyone (and we’ve seen Cap’s efforts to save people over and over in previous movies–he isn’t just abandoning people to their fates). I think that’s part of his objection to the Accords, because he sees that they don’t really do anything to prevent future collateral damage, they just remove the burden of responsibility from the Avengers for those losses, and he believes they should have to wear that weight themselves.

      1. Nina

        Steve has repeatedly done everything in his power to save people. In Age of Ultron he even says he won’t leave the city until everyone else is off it. And I also think it shows in what are really the very low casualty numbers – all those events Ross flashed on screen for them, fewer than 500 casualties combined. And without them taking action, that number would have changed to tens of millions for the Chitauri Invasion and Hydra’s algorithm alone. And in fact he even said to Wanda about Lagos, that he felt terrible about it, because he didn’t realize Rumlow was about to turn suicide bomber(which actually would hardly seem to be his MO). Also at the time it happened, he looks sickened, tells Sam to call for emergency units and then goes off towards the building to help. So at no point is Steve uncaring about what happened.

        And as Sarah said, that seems to be his point with the Accords, he doesn’t want anyone else bearing that burden. If it’s on their watch then THEY need to bear that weight with no excuses and no attempts to put it on “the panel”, “the UN”, “the orders”. Which is exactly what Tony wants it because he can’t handle the pressure of it and he is thinking if he does this, the responsibility falls on someone else. And bearing the weight doesn’t mean becoming paralyzed to innaction or becoming unstable, it means going forward anyway even with that weight on your shoulders. That is what Steve was talking about to Wanda. He’s not saying don’t feel bad about it, he’s saying “move forward, even though you feel bad, because in the end there are still people who can be helped by your actions.”

        The other thing is Steve KNOWS it doesn’t work like that. No matter who gives the orders, you’ll still it feel the guilt. They’ll give up their autonomy but it won’t relieve Tony the way he thinks it will. Someone else giving the orders won’t stop losses from happening. And to be honest if you can just put the blame on someone else, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it, because that’s dangerous, that’s when it becomes “But I was just following orders”.

        What I think too is that he sees it as keeping that autonomy is what has the best chance of keeping them honest, once the blame shifting starts to nebulous government panels and bureaucracies, it’s a very slippery slope to just doing what is easy rather than what is right.

        And Cap didn’t abandon anyone for Bucky. They all believed they were going after 5 Insane Siberian Super Soldiers, which had to do with Bucky in so much as he knew where they were and what they were capable of. It was a tactical decision and one that wasn’t even Steve’s own suggestion, it was Sam’s if I recall correctly and Steve didn’t want to do it but he knew it was the best decision at the moment. So Steve didn’t even want to leave them behind in the first place, he was convinced by the rest of his team to do so.

        As I recall at the end of the movie Tony had Rhodey and Vision. Steve had Wanda, Clint, Sam, Scott – he got them all out of prison. And possibly Natasha given she seemed to leave Tony’s side when she told him to get over his ego and he told her she was gonna get locked up because T’Challa told them how she’d helped Steve and Bucky get away so I’m pretty sure she went either underground or would decide to try and join up with Steve. Steve also seemed to come to an understanding with T’Challa and T’Challa decided to help Bucky, which for the time being means putting him in cryo. And on top of it Steve wrote a letter apologizing for withholding the info about what he suspected had happened to Tony’s parents AND telling Tony if he ever need him, he’d be there and giving him a way to contact him. All of which actually potentially put Steve at risk, given he’s a wanted man now but he did it anyway, he didn’t let it stop him from doing this as it was that important to him.

        So how did Steve abandon anyone?

  4. Lupe

    Excellent character analysis.

    It saddens me when people say that Steve Rogers was “out of character” in Civil War, but all that reveals is that they’ve never known who Cap really was and what he stood for: the people, not the authority

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