There’s no way even Marvel Studios, with their long-range planning, could have purposefully timed Steve Rogers’ debut as an underground resistance leader with the actual resistance movement coalescing in the real world as people push back against 45 and his isolationist, white/nationalist, anti-everything, pro-1952 policies. But that’s how it worked out. In 2016, Steve Rogers stood up to the biggest bully he’s faced yet: authoritarianism. And in 2017, the rest of us followed suit. Suddenly #TeamCap isn’t a cutesy way to identify your favorite Avenger. It’s a rallying cry.
But though they could not have planned the MCU/real world meld, Marvel was always pushing Rogers in this direction. In reimagining Captain America for the 21st century, they cast him not as a symbol of American Exceptionalism but a symbol of American IDEALISM, and that is the difference between a propaganda puppet and a sh*t-disturber of the first order. MCU-Cap is a rebel from way back, and far from a morally superior Boy Scout lecturing everyone on patriotism, Rogers is a man who struggles to fit his black and white moral worldview (“Bullies: Fight Them”) into a world made up of shades of grey.
Throughout his five film appearances Rogers wrestles with his notion of right and wrong versus the modern world’s ideas on the matter, and in Captain America: Civil War the latent friction between Rogers and a sort of permissive authoritarianism—best defined as “you make that decision because it’s hard and I don’t want to”—comes to a head. We’ve seen Rogers push back against compromises of liberty in the name of safety, but this time he takes on friends and teammates over the Avengers’ right to determine their own course and pick their own battles, to face the hard stuff themselves and own their own consequences when they do.
Steve Rogers is not perfect—his ill-timed bout of selfishness cost the Avengers a great deal—but what Rogers represents in the MCU is not blind obedience to American policy but constant and consistent challenge to American leadership. It starts with disobeying Army command in 1943 to rescue Bucky Barnes and the remaining POWs held in a Nazi prison camp and continues into the modern day as Rogers does everything from destroying an intelligence agency to blowing up the Avengers when authoritarianism is instituted in the name of convenience.
The seeds of Rogers’ resistance are sown in 1943 when Abraham Erskine instructs him to be “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” This is Rogers’ guiding principle, his moral north star, and if you extrapolate “perfect soldier” to mean “obedient”, then his moral compass is built on the idea that obedience is antithetical to goodness. And you can make that leap because the MCU conveniently gives us an example of a perfect soldier: The Winter Soldier. Devoid of autonomy, personality, opinion, and thought, the Winter Soldier is a murder machine, a perfect soldier designed for blind obedience. He is exactly what Abraham Erskine did NOT want Steve Rogers to become.
But it is Bucky Barnes’ right to reform that Rogers fights for in Civil War. Likewise, he gives Clint Barton a chance mere minutes removed from mind-control—another kind of authoritarian abuse—and he believes in Natasha Romanov, a former assassin trying to redeem herself through positive action. Ditto for Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, and Scott Lang, an ex-con also seeking to prove his worthiness through action. Rogers draws second-chancers to his side likes moths to a flame because he believes in the goodness of individuals and in the power of people to change. He consistently puts that belief in individuals to change and be forces for good ahead of institutional interest in control.
And it starts with the charge to be “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” It starts with the idea that obedience is not goodness, and that people, not institutions, are worthy of his trust and belief. Take away the title and the shield and the Avengers and Steve Rogers is the same man he’s always been: A scrappy punk from Brooklyn who doesn’t like bullies, no matter where they come from. And he’s never more “Captain America” than when he’s questioning the purpose of control and the very nature of the institutions that wield it. Steve Rogers isn’t here to uphold your apparatus of power. He’s here to resist and bring “we the people” along with him.