Joss Whedon doesn’t understand Steve Rogers. That’s not news. Lots of people think Steve Rogers — and as an extension of Steve Rogers, Captain America — is boring. That’s also not news, though it continues to boggle me. Captain America is not self-righteous nor a goody-goody nor incapable of fun nor does he take himself too seriously, though it’s easy (and lazy) to interpret him that way. I get it. I do. I just don’t agree.
Captain America is important to me. Not just Steve (though I love him) or Bucky (whose face I might tattoo on my own face at some point, if they can ever get his character design consistent) or Sam (who is an inspired choice for the mantle, frankly). It’s not just America Chavez or Eli Bradley, though I adore them both. Captain America as a legacy, as a concept, as an aspiration is important to me. And so Joss Whedon’s total lack of understanding, and the fandom’s occasional dismissal of him, cuts me to the quick.
The thing about taking a man who “died” in WWII and putting him on a modern screen is that it’s hard to parse exactly what kind of trauma he’s been through, especially in a rotating and ever-increasing cast of characters. Something will always be lacking. That’s understandable, and in most cases it is what it is. But I think the most egregious thing lacking from Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Steve Rogers is that trauma, that vital and horrible thing that turned Steve from a kid who threw himself at a war to a man who doesn’t know how to do anything else.
The story of Captain America (any Captain America, not just Steve), more than any other superhero legacy mantle, is the story of a person who has taken a trauma and decided how it will define them. There is no argument in the lives of various Captains America that trauma is something that can be shucked off like a husk; instead, they’re about control. This is what happened to me. This is what I am doing with it. That’s the magic. That’s the sparkle. That is the thing I needed to read as a teenager muddling at being an adult in college, coping with the trauma of abuse and the remnants an eating disorder and one monster of an anxiety disorder. I needed reminding that trauma does not unmake a hero; rather, trauma is and can be the thing that creates one.
I think a lot about Bucky Barnes when I think about this. I think about how Bucky is beloved by women in particular, especially since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I wonder if it has to do with feeling silenced; with feeling a lack of agency, even if and as we fight; with feeling puppeted around by what we should or must be in order to be the version of ourselves someone else is insisting on.
There are sometimes arguments about whether Bucky’s a hero or a villain, whether he’s a victim or so far from himself that the only thing left of him is a weapon. These arguments really only happen around the MCU Bucky, tbh. And they’re halfhearted at best, because no one truly believes that Bucky Barnes deserves any fate other than redemption, though he’s committed atrocities that would infuriate and horrify us if we were to list them.
I read the arc where Bucky becomes Captain America in the comics with my heart thumping heavily in places it didn’t normally thump — the joint of my thumb, the base of my spine, the inner parts of my wrists. Because Bucky could only have become Captain America through the facts of his trauma: what they made of him, and what he made of them.
Anyone can be him. Rather, anyone who is willing to be the best version of themselves – or to try, even if they fail – can be Captain America. It’s not the best version of yourself that makes you worthy of the mantle, because the best version of yourself is always temporary. It’s the trying.