Growing up I’ve never considered myself overly patriotic.
It wasn’t something hammered into my skull when I was kid, like giving extreme reverence to the flag or singing every time the national anthem came on. This isn’t to say I didn’t love my country or disliked either of those things, but it wasn’t important to me to overtly display the red, white and blue on my chest the way a significant portion of the US does on a daily basis.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being raised on those things of course. You can love what the flag represents to you and be moved to tears when the Star Spangled Banner plays (I know I have, at least a couple times) but it’s always been more important to me what your actions say about yourself in regards to country and not just blind displays of love to the nation without inward reflection.
(It can be charming sometimes of course.)
With the way the country is these days it’s damn near impossible to look at these traditional symbols of patriotism without thinking about the larger context of America today. I’ve become increasingly more cynical over the years (this pre-dates Trump btw for you people already closing this browser) each time Independence Day rolls around and I’m not the only one. Capitalistic greed, a bullish, arrogant, evil president, our continued surveillance state, rise in hate crimes, a generation of kids mired in debt, and oh yeah, fucking concentration camps it makes it pretty hard to feel prideful these days.
(Unless you’re a psychopath of course^^^^^^^^^^)
But since 2011 there has been one symbol that has continued to give me a strong sense of pride and determination in my country that symbols like the flag, the national anthem and Go Army commercials could never do and that symbol or character rather is the MCU’s Captain America.
Before 2011 I was still in the angsty phase of my late teens/early adulthood nerdom. Still high off Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” edge lords like Batman, Constantine, Wolverine dominated my imagination when it came to what my ideal superhero looked like. This isn’t to say I don’t like those characters anymore but upon further reflection these characters are more anti-hero than hero and are actually quite toxic to themselves and other characters in their respective series. Boy scout types like Superman really didn’t appeal to me back then because I saw them as “boring and unrealistic” to the real world.
(I mean in worlds that include mutants, a man who dresses in a cat suit, master sorcerers, and space alien raccoons and talking trees it says a lot about society that thinking a dude who just wants to be a nice guy and do the right thing is “unrealistic.”)
But this is precisely why I eventually came around to characters like Captain America though; because despite being unrealistic, they are an ideal we should all strive for which is being good for the sake of good and adhering to that code no matter what. I didn’t know it at the time when “The First Avenger” came out but I needed a heavy dosage of optimistic idealism and wholesome do-goodeness out of my heroes and the MCU and Chris Evans portrayal did just that for me.
“The First Avenger” isn’t a perfect film by any stretch; its graphics haven’t aged well, the action scenes are sloppy by comparison to later sequels in the series and the story is a bit hokey to say the least. But what it did do, and why it still holds up is that it set the ground work for Cap as a viable character within the MCU, that being a “boy scout” wasn’t boring but should be seen as virtuous and a true symbol of what it should mean to be American.
The thing I love about the MCU’s Cap is that even though he basically wears an American flag as a costume there is nothing overtly nationalistic or “MURICA” about him; he lets his actions speak for himself and those actions embody what America SHOULD be about. The most explicit he probably gets in the series to sounding like some flag humping weirdo is maybe when he says “there’s only one God” in regard to Thor in “Avengers” but overall Cap never actually says a thing about America, his patriotism or any sense of undying loyalty to his country.
In fact, much of the rest of Cap’s arc is spent looking inward at the power structures he is serving, something Americans should think more about in regard to their patriotism. Whether it was SHIELD employing a problematic surveillance state to preemptively dispose of threats before they happen in “Winter Soldier,” or openly defying the questionable governmental oversight of the Sokovia Accords in “Civil War,” when Cap looks at all this and states “This isn’t freedom; this is fear” you believe him because of his strict moral code that he has held himself up on since the beginning.
Cap is principled in that he abides by this strict code of ethics and right and wrong. Much in the way a character like Batman has his “no kill” policy, Cap is ultimately concerned with doing the right thing for others before anything else, most notably those who are closest to him. In “Civil War” for instance, Bucky is a victim of mind control and must be saved regardless of the lives he may have taken in his Winter Soldier state (which leads to climax of the film, of course). Cap isn’t infallible of course but his code isn’t about domination or being right but simply doing right. He’s not doing this for his ego like Batman or any number of other comic book characters, he’s doing it because of his morals and his belief that he must never break them.
(Also are we sure it was JUST about your “code”, Cap? #justsaying)
This is what makes the MCU’s Cap so admirable, because what he does here is difficult but he does it anyways. It’s easier to take the more utilitarian approach signing of the Sokovia Accords as Stark does in that film but Cap is not willing to compromise on these beliefs. The desire to help everyone, and put himself last in any situation especially within the context of a society that feels like it’s growing increasingly more selfish is truly heroic.
This is why he became worthy of the power of Mjolnir in “Endgame” because a man who puts others before himself truly deserves such an honor. To borrow a quote from a DC superhero flick “A king fights for his nation. A hero fights for everyone.”
(Bet you didn’t expect to hear an “Aquaman” quote in this article huh?”)
Perhaps Cap’s most famous quote truly embodies what the character is about though when he says “I can do this all day.” His ridged defiance in front of insurmountable odds often when he’s already been battered and bruised, barely hanging on speaks to his character and again his morality that picks him up each time.
In the first film, when he is asked by Dr. Eskrine if he wants to kill Nazis, which he wouldn’t be begrudged if he stated “yes” here, he says instead that he “doesn’t want to kill anyone” he just “doesn’t like bullies.” His ability to keep getting back up each time he’s beaten down isn’t about some macho need to show how tough he is, a desire for vengeance or some other arrogant display of showing how strong he is; he was defiant well before he got the super soldier serum. It’s about defending what’s right and having the will to do it each time.
(There’s a reason his primary weapon is a shield.)
Too often toughness and grit in this country is characterized as simply being dominant and showing everyone else up. For Captain America that toughness is about standing up for those who can’t, standing up in the face of bullish behavior, hatred and all matter of evil and as Sharon Carter states in “Civil War” saying “No. You move.”
(I can’t be the only one who teared up a little at this scene)
Cap is the embodiment of how society should work; a man who earns great power not by being macho, not by being physically domineering but by being at the end of the day a good person who will do whatever is necessary to do right by others.
He’s more than just a flag or an anthem; he’s truth and justice personified in action.
So yeah, it’s hard to be patriotic for me these days. It’s difficult to look at the red, white and blue without thinking about the larger more cynical context of the country. But with the MCU’s Captain America there is not just some pride left but hope as well; hope that perhaps if we learn more from characters like this in our stories we may begin to view and display our patriotism in a more nuanced light.
We don’t need to dry hump the flag or stand at attention in our living rooms during the anthem singing of football games to show off pride in our country. We should show our pride in our country by abiding by the principled beliefs and morality that we profess that this country is about, by doing good not just for ourselves but for others.
Captain America may not be a perfect superhero but he embodies what we should all strive for as Americans; doing the right thing and that’s what true American patriotism should be in the end.
All hail the Star Spangled Man with a plan