Now that Avengers: Endgame has destroyed the entire worldwide box office, it’s time to complete an analysis that I’ve been looking forward to for a while.
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, called The Hero’s Journey, is a storytelling pattern that is found all over the world, in all time periods. The story of Captain America follows it with admirable fidelity throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Granted there are a few deviations–the story was handled by numerous writers and directors, as well as the creative director–but the steps are there, some of them more prominent than others. There were also some clever turns where the steps were presented out of order, or with roles reversed, as you’ll see.
In this case the adventure is World War II. More to the point, the call hits Steve head-on when his best friend, Bucky, gets deployed, and Steve can’t follow him.
2: Refusal of the Call
Steve of course didn’t refuse the call, but we can say that it refused him. Physically he couldn’t hack it, no matter how many times he applied. He had too many health issues. His persistence is a demonstration of his inner values, which is what land the attention of a certain scientist…
3: Meeting the Mentor
The mentor in this case was Dr. Abraham Erskine. He cleared Steve for Army training, giving him a 1A status, despite all his previous failures. Erskine later gave Steve his superpowers, but more importantly, he gave him a guiding philosophy: be good, and do good.
4: Crossing the First Threshold
Getting his powers was only one part of this step. He showed he could do the job when he ran down a Hydra agent and tore him out of a submarine with his bare hands. The real challenge was being taken seriously by the Army. The program didn’t go as planned, so the brass immediately discarded him. Steve had to show them why they should let him fight. So he went out to rescue Bucky and the others. He led the Howling Commandos into battle across the world. He fought Red Skull. All of these were stepping stones of increasing difficulty, proving to himself and to others that he could be The Captain.
5: The Woman as Temptress
In Campbell’s monomyth, this step on the journey is often a symbol of the hero being tempted by his baser instincts, instead of holding to a higher moral code. Steve’s responses to temptation are largely played for comic relief, especially in the first movie with this throwaway scene featuring Natalie Dormer–who, by the way, would have made a much better Captain Marvel than Brie Larson.
Despite all the women willing to leap into his arms, we’ll see in the end that Cap is a good man with a loyal heart. Even with Black Widow trying to set him up on a ton of dates, or have him engage in performative PDA for a mission, he’s reluctant.
Steve’s temptation isn’t something as simple as getting hot and bothered over a pretty woman. His real weakness, his real “baser instinct,” is a small shred of selfishness–if you can even call it that–that makes him miss his own time and his own people.
It’s the pending revelations about Bucky that blow that wide open, later on.
6: Meeting with the Goddess
Obviously his one-and-only is Peggy, with the exception of a single kiss to her niece shortly after Steve attends Peggy’s funeral. Later, when he has the chance to take the life that he always wanted with her–to give her that one dance–his loyalty comes full circle.
Just like a compass.
And of course, at this juncture he meets a few more helpers along the way.
7: Belly of the Whale/Death and Rebirth
This is one of the steps that is broken up across a couple of the movies. Obviously he enters the “belly of the whale” when he has to crash Red Skull’s bomber at the end of The First Avenger. Here, he receives a symbolic death.
Likewise he gets a symbolic rebirth in Avengers, but the process isn’t entirely complete. Not yet. Still a few kinks to work out…
8: Road of Trials
In Avengers, the trial is coming to grips with the fact that he is 70 years removed from his own time, and most of the people he has ever known are probably dead. He figures out how to keep fighting evil in the present, and just as soon as he gets a grip on that, the past comes back to attack him with a vengeance. This will factor heavily into future temptations…
That said, he isn’t without sexy new helpers on the way!
9: Atonement/Abyss/Completes the rebirth
It would take too many GIFs to illustrate this phase, but most of the “Abyss/Rebirth” happens in The Winter Soldier, where Steve realizes he is fighting a war on two fronts, against an enemy that is far too close to home. His rebirth is completed when SHIELD is in ruins, the director had to fake his death, and the only people Steve can trust are Falcon, Black Widow, Maria Hill, and Nick Fury. This is the moment when he truly becomes The Captain.
Predictably, leadership isn’t without its burdens, and one of the first signs of a rift between Steve and Tony comes in Age of Ultron, when Steve disagrees with Tony’s plan to protect the whole world. This ends with Ultron dropping a city out of orbit, killing countless people, something Tony will probably have on his conscience for a while. As a result, Tony semi-retires from the Avengers, leaving Steve in charge of it all.
11: Ultimate Boon
What’s the ultimate boon for a man out of time, whose only remaining friend is still out there, and can probably be rescued?
It’s a question that answers itself. But it’s not without a whole boatload of problems, especially when Bucky was just framed for a terrorist attack that killed the king of Wakanda. Yes, Bucky is Steve’s boon, his only remaining link to the era he is truly from. Really, Bucky is Steve’s inspiration for going on this journey to begin with, as Steve pursued it aggressively once Bucky shipped out. He had to go save his friend.
No matter the cost…?
12: Refusal of the Return
Now the small cracks start to widen into fissures. Steve has ascended to the level of Captain America, leader of the Avengers, Earth’s mightiest heroes…and wouldn’t you know it, the governments of the world want to put a leash on him. Reduce him to the status of a simple–albeit effective–soldier like he was back in World War II.
There was a time when he would have wanted that.
But now, with everything that’s on the table–not the least of which is the truth about Bucky–he can’t go back to the way things were.
“The safest hands are still our own.”
13: Magic Flight
Once again, Bucky factors heavily into this step of the Journey, though we get a healthy dose of “fight” with our “flight.” In the end they get some help from another kind of ‘magic,’ this time from T’Challa.
14: Rescue from Without
Hoo boy. How many times does he need help from other people? It does happen plenty. Maria Hill rescues him from Hydra in The Winter Soldier. Agent 13 brings him his gear in Civil War. T’Challa takes him to Wakanda.
And of course, in Endgame, Dr. Strange and Falcon come to his rescue, just as a broken Captain America is facing Thanos and his entire army.
15: Crossing the Return Threshold
The fact that Steve is not a product of our time never truly escapes his attention, or that of the audience. Thus his return can never really be to a physical place, but rather a chronological one. “Old Man Steve” had been drawn a number of times in the comics, and I tell you what, seeing it on screen was a real treat.
Yes. In a way, he goes back.
16: Master of Two Worlds
More important than just returning to his time, he ends up living the life he wanted, the life he fought so long and hard to have. He mastered the role of Captain America, leader of the Avengers, just as surely as he mastered the life of a married man to Peggy Carter.
17: Freedom to Live
He took this one for himself at the very end of Endgame. It was a conscious choice as he time-traveled through the Quantum Realm, deciding not to hit his target mark and instead return as a 100 year-old man. He had the freedom to do so. His mission was complete. His work was done. The most powerful evil in the universe was defeated.
And he could rest.
Post-script: a personal theory about Cap’s worthiness to wield Mjolnir.
We’re not given exact specs on what makes some worthy to pick up Thor’s hammer. I get the impression Thor’s worthiness has a little to do with his bloodline, because he really lets himself go in Endgame and is still able to carry Mjolnir.
And of course, in the comics Cap was able to use it a couple of times, but in the movies they established that he couldn’t.
Here’s my theory, as I posted on Instagram last month:
I don’t expect this was what Marvel/Whedon intended with showing this, it is more my own interpretation of events.
We know Cap has unassailable character. He fought SHIELD and Hydra at the same time in order to stand up for what was right.
So why couldn’t he lift Thor’s hammer? By what metric was he less worthy than Thor? Obviously perfection wasn’t the standard–Cap and Thor both had mistakes in their past to some degree. What was it, then?
Go back to “The Winter Soldier.” Go to the bunker at Camp Lehigh, where Steve and Natasha find the digital consciousness of Dr. Zola, who tells them the long and sordid history of SHIELD and Hydra.
One of the flashing headlines in the newsreel is that Howard Stark was killed. The fact that Zola showed this to Cap is not insignificant. Hydra was taking credit for it.
Later in “Civil War”, Tony would see the video of Bucky executing the Starks. Tony would ask Cap if he knew about it.
Cap’s silence all but confirmed it, along with the asterisk of “I didn’t know it was him.”
But somewhere along the line, I think Steve put it all together.
And he didn’t tell Tony.
Given the events of Civil War and Endgame, which were dripping with themes about atonement, I think it’s safe to say that Steve finally cleared the air with Tony over what he knew about Bucky. Tony forgave him. They moved past it. And once that was done, once he could truly be open and honest with someone he had come to rely on as a friend and comrade-at-arms, he became worthy to use Mjolnir.
And lo, it was awesome to behold.
Thanks for reading to the end, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on this, and tell me if I missed anything.