Life Lessons From Captain America: The First Avenger

I spent a ridiculous amount of my youth reading comic books. I like to tell myself this was a beneficial use of my time; that I’d spent all those hours reading something instead of just watching television or playing video games. That I’d expanded my vocabulary and my grasp of social issues and how to handle conflict.  That I’d somehow tapped into a deeper cultural and artistic experience.  In fact, M. Night Shyamalan expressed it so poetically in Unbreakable:

I’ve come to believe that comics are our last link to the ancient way of passing on history. The Egyptians drew pictures on walls about battles, and events. Countries all around the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe that comics, just at their core now… have a truth. They are depicting what someone, somewhere felt or experienced.

I’m old enough now to admit the only “truth” in all of this is that I was simply too lazy to read books without pictures, and that because my parents didn’t want me spending all day watching cartoons, I had to get my mindless superhero fix somewhere else if I wasn’t going to be permitted to zone out in front of the tube watching Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man.

Maybe I should have stuck to more serious literature.  Maybe if I’d spent more time reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I’d have matured quicker, and avoided a few of the disastrous decisions of my youth.

But then maybe I wouldn’t be a 42 year old man with a killer set of Wolverine-inspired muttonchops right now…

Which brings me to the point of this article.  Since around the year 2000 (when the first X-Men film was released), we’ve been living in an era that my childhood self would have killed to enjoy; an era packed with an almost constant stream of really well-made comic book films.

Sure, in the 80’s we had a few decent Superman films.  We even had the Burton Batman movies.  But they were nothing like what Hollywood is giving us today.  High-budget, well-written, brilliantly acted tentpoles with realistic CGI rendering what only existed in my imagination as a child before us in glorious high-definition digital cinema.

It’s a golden era, of sorts, and it reminds me constantly of why I really liked comics as a kid.

Because in the comics, the good guys can win.  The little guy finds a way to become mighty, and he remembers the simple humanity he came from, and with that, he stands for the right thing and helps those in need.  Every major popular comic character employs this formula, to one degree or another.  Superman was just an adopted farm boy who’d survived a global holocaust. The Hulk was just a geek who’d had a bad accident.  Iron Man was a narcissistic screw-up that nearly died before he got his act together.

But none of them appealed to me more than Captain America.  The great patriot.  The little guy who got a shot at being a hero, and was so committed to being a do-gooder, he was still mocked for it even after he’d saved the world countless times.  Cap never wavered.  Not in the face of authority or adversity or death itself.  Cap always did the right thing.  I’m not sure if this really helped sales of his comic series; it seemed like they were always trying to write Steve Rogers out of the picture, or mess him up with some accidental narcotic side effect, or something to make the character more edgy, like the Wolverines and Lobos and Cables of the era that were so popular.  But it never worked.  Captain America isn’t an anti-hero.  He’s a hero.  Period.

So I was a little worried when Marvel finally got around to telling his story on the big screen.  Sure, they’d already done really outstanding Iron Man and Thor adaptations; but each of those characters had a major flaw to overcome; an “edge” for today’s cynical audience to relate to.  Tony Stark was a selfish, womanizing, megalomaniac.  Thor was an egotistical jackass.  They had to get out of their own way to become heroes.  Steve Rogers?  His only flaw was that he was too small.  Maybe too modest.  My biggest fear was that they’d try to darken his backstory a bit.

They didn’t, and we got a Captain America that was true to the character.

So, without further ado, I present to you the first in a series of articles in which I examine some of the not-so-hidden meaning placed in today’s comic book movies with an examination of the life lessons you can find in Captain America: The First Avenger.

“I can do this all day.”

There are times in life when you’re going to take a stand for something, and that’s going to result in you getting your ass kicked.  That’s the essence of courage: Fighting for something that is almost certainly going to result in a great degree of pain.  But, as Steve Rogers shows us, the trick is to not back down.  Because in most cases, the adversity won’t kill you. That doesn’t mean you’ll win; Steve didn’t beat the bully in the alley; he had to get bailed out.  In fact, the second time he uttered this line in the movie to the Red Skull, he also had to get bailed out. That doesn’t diminish the value of taking a stand, or the courage it requires.  There was no way he knew Bucky would come along to save him from the bully before he’d been beaten to a pulp, and there was no way he could be sure the Howling Commandos would break into the Red Skull’s lair before he’d been shot.  Sometimes, the willingness to endure the pain and a little faith that it will all work out is enough.

“Is this a test?”

Twice early in the film, Steve Rogers asks this question.  On the surface, it seems a bit obvious to the viewer; of course it’s a test.  But that’s the point: Steve is openly aware of when life is throwing a significant test of his character at him, and he overtly acknowledges this.  The point here isn’t that Captain America is Captain Obvious; the point is that maybe, we, the audience, need to be a little more obvious about it in our own lives.  How often are we presented with tests of character without taking enough time to even recognize them, let alone respond admirably to them?  Perhaps we’d all be better off if we’d stop and ask ourselves this question once in a while.

“A weak man knows the value of strength.”

Doctor Erskine picked Rogers to be his first Super Soldier based on his character, and because, ultimately, he knew Steve would appreciate the value of his gift more than most.  But this isn’t just about weak vs. strong.  The message applies to all walks of life: We appreciate most the blessings that improve our most desperate situation.  The sick man knows the value of health.  The poor man knows the value of wealth.  The ignorant man knows the value of knowledge.

(I can do this all day…)

More to the point: We tend to take what we have in abundance for granted.  That was Erskine’s fear, I think; giving power to someone that was already mighty.  Don’t take your blessings for granted.  Even if you’ve had to work for them.  It’s easy to forget their value.

“Cut off one head, two more take its place.”

Just as you’ve defeated an enemy, he throws that in your face.  And that’s life, really.  Get used to it.  You overcome one problem, and you’re going to be faced with two more.  Should we despair over this?

“Let’s go find two more!”

Colonel Phillips gets it.  Don’t wait for the two more – load up and go find them.  They’re out there, and they’re not getting any softer while you stand around.

“Write that down.”

You’d think Howard Stark would have a pretty keen memory for this sort of thing.  But that’s not what he’s saying here: In this scene, he’s getting a little full of his own brilliance, remarking that the energy source that Cap brought back from the Hydra base has properties that he couldn’t possibly understand.  And then he’s immediately humbled by his own carelessness.  Stark acknowledges this immediately: No, he’s not going to forget that explosion, but he’s not going to take it, or his own understanding, for granted, either.

Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out.  Don’t assume you’ll remember it.  Don’t assume you can’t screw it up, even if you’re really, really good at what you’re doing.  Respect the process. Write it down.

“There are limits to what even you can do.”

When Captain America assaults the Red Skull’s fortress and is captured, his adversary mocks the arrogance and audacity of his plan.  And that’s what naysayers do; they’ll tell you that you’ve aimed too high, that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.  Because, like the Red Skull, they want you to fail.  Never mind what the Red Skull wants – only you can decide what your limits are.

“What makes you so special?”

Nothing. And this drives the Red Skull nuts.  Surely there must be something special about Captain America, something that gave him an advantage, and made it possible for him to foil his plans all this time.

But there’s really not.  Cap doesn’t have anything the Red Skull doesn’t have.  And the same is true of our heroes, mentors, role models, and especially our rivals.  They don’t have anything special.  In most cases, the only advantage anyone really has over you is the time they’ve spent putting in the work to prepare.

So get out there and get to work.  You’re not special.  Just like Captain America.