Last week I watched Knives Out with the DreadWife. Fun movie, gets a little bogged down in overthinking itself, and the lefty stuff was way heavy-handed, but the acting was great and the mystery was well-done.
A few days later I dug into the cast on iMDB and realized that it meets the threshold for a Secondhand Superhero flick. Most times I prefer a movie to have four actors in it that played in superhero movies. Other times I make exceptions.
The best example is Stardust, which has Superman, Catwoman, Daredevil, and Sinestro in it. An example of a reach is Star Trek: First Contact which features Professor X, Dum Dum Doogan, a minor character from Captain America: Civil War, and a nameless scientist from Thor: The Dark World.
Knives Out isn’t as much of a reach, but it’s not so clear-cut either. Here’s what we’ve got:
Chris Evans as Ransom Drysdale (Captain America)
While the movie doesn’t have an obvious main character, he’s one of the top three.
Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey (General Zod)
Walt is in the second tier of characters for this ensemble film.
Katherine Langford as Meg Thrombey (Morgan Stark)
This is where we start to reach, because Langford’s only appearance in the MCU comes from a deleted scene in Avengers: Endgame right after Tony snaps Thanos. She plays an older version of his then-young daughter.
K Callan as Wanetta Thrombey (Martha Kent)
And the biggest reach of them all is K Callan, who plays a woman of indeterminate age (though she would have to be in excess of 100 years old.) Callan played Martha Kent on Lois & Clark, the Superman TV show in the 90s.
Bonus points for having Martha Kent be General Zod’s grandmother.
Anyway, we’re just getting deeper into the rabbit hole, proving that everyone in Hollywood is attached to a superhero project in one way or another. This game is more fun than the Kevin Bacon one.
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.
Based on charisma, motivation, impact on the protagonist, and impact on the overall story.
Batroc the Leaper, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Nothing against MMA legend Georges St. Pierre, but he had a throwaway role. His only job was to get his butt kicked by Cap. Never heard from again.
Malekith, Thor: The Dark World. Easily the weakest Marvel film, in part due to its bland and forgettable plot, driven by a bland and forgettable villain. Still, he helped our heroes find the Reality Stone.
Yellow Jacket, Ant-Man. Marvel loves to introduce heroes by having them fight a bad guy who has the exact same powers, and it’s a lousy mechanism. By 2015, seven years into the MCU, even the writers seemed tired of it when they put Darren Cross into the story. He did nothing but die.
Whiplash, Iron Man 2. Cool visuals? Sure. Absolutely nonsensical? Even more so. At least he had history with Iron Man, even if it was one-sided. His motivation centered purely on fighting Tony Stark because their dads disagreed once.
Abomination, The Incredible Hulk. What started out as an intriguing story devolved quickly into a smasher, with the main villain getting dumber as he got stronger. Two-dimensional, but not as bad as some others.
Mandarin, Iron Man 3. As HISHE points out, this movie is basically The Incredibles, and the Mandarin is Syndrome. Plus there was some sleight of hand that was funny, but still sorta meh in the end. Nevertheless, this advanced Tony and Pepper’s relationship, and showed that Tony is more than just his suits.
Queen Alia. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Lost in a pileup of villains, she only really merits a spot because she has extensive wealth, great tech, and will soon give us Adam Warlock.
Captain Taserface, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. He overthrew Yondu and eventually led Queen Alia’s forces to the planet Ego, nearly killing all of the Guardians as they literally were saving the Galaxy again.
Crossbones, Captain America: Civil War. Not unlike Batroc the Leaper, Crossbones was a throwaway villain in Civil War. However, he rates higher because he has a history with Cap, and his actions directly trigger the central conflict of the film, throwing the entire MCU into chaos.
Kaecilius, Doctor Strange. Another case of first-movie-villain, with similar powers. I give Kaecilius points because he had an interesting monologue with Strange, presenting him with information that would test his loyalties and make him question his own priorities.
Ronin, Guardians of the Galaxy. He was ruthless and stone cold, though his motivation was somewhat one-dimensional. Still, he introduced the Power Stone, and gave the Guardians a taste of success in saving an entire world from an Infinity Stone. They wouldn’t be so lucky next time.
Ghost, Ant-Man and The Wasp. She ranks higher because of her unique motivation, and what her condition revealed about Hank Pym’s history.
Red Skull, Captain America: The First Avenger. While Red Skull is another case of First Villain, Hugo Weaving’s performance really enlivened the character, and was a strong counterpart to Cap in his movie. He also gave us the Space Stone.
Killmonger, Black Panther. Another case of First Villain, elevated by Michael B. Jordan, who made this otherwise two-dimensional (and jerkish) bad guy pop off the screen. Didn’t agree with his motivation much, but he showed major tactical prowess.
Hela, Thor: Ragnarok. Okay, so Thor has a sister. She takes over Asgard, and is…grumpy. That’s about it. She’s almost a repeat of Loki from Thor, but with more power. During her time in Asgard, she reveals that the Infinity Gauntley in Odin’s treasure room is a fake, which solves some things.
Ego, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Dude. Kurt Russell. Peter’s dad. A homicidal maniac trying to spawn a child so he could consume the entire universe. Do the math, that is twice as bad as Thanos. Still, he failed.
Alexander Pierce, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dude. The head of S.H.I.E.LD. was the head of Hydra.
Iron Monger, Iron Man. Jeff Bridges is a beast, and his role here solidified just how uniquely smart Tony Stark is, and just how close to home were the people who wanted to kill him. Plus, the first MCU villain! However, sadly, another case of First Villain.
Loki, Thor, Avengers. Speaking of First Villain, here’s another Norse god, with a penchant for mischief. Even though his plan made little to no sense, he managed to pull the Avengers apart while inside a prison, and nearly succeeded at conquering both Asgard and Earth. Bonus points, he introduced the Mind Stone.
Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron. The best villains are the ones you accidentally build yourself. From James Spader’s perfect swagger and rage and quippiness, to his willingness to just kill the whole world, to the “there are no strings on me” jingle…yeah. Ultron’s movie may have been a mess, but it was a fun mess, and he was a great villain.
The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For all intents, he was the true antagonist of this film, presenting a completely unique challenge to Cap: you have to beat this man, and you can’t do it by killing him. You have to remind him who he is. Winter Soldier’s very existence has huge repercussions for the MCU.
Helmut Zemo, Captain America: Civil War. He took down the Avengers without superpowers, with limited resources, and with sheer determination and brainpower. Even though he was caught and imprisoned, he still got away with it.
Vulture, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Finally! A blue-collar villain, a working man who had had enough, and Michael Keaton did a heck of a job playing him the whole way through. Especially when that third act reveal popped up. A superb villain.
Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War. Underwhelming, right? I mean, he kind of has to be number one. Strongest, biggest impact, and the first villain to actually pull off his plan. Ego tried to kill everyone. Thanos was more dangerous and only had half the goal.
And since I know you will ask: I am not officially including any of the TV shows, for 3 reasons:
1) They are, unfortunately, not part of the continuity of the movies.
2) Most of the shows suck.
3) These villains have at least 13 hours to establish themselves, which gives them more weight.
Nevertheless, two honorable mentions:
Kingpin, Daredevil. I can’t sum it up, you just have to watch the show. What a magnificently crafted character.
Kilgrave, Jessica Jones. Give someone Jedi mind powers. Remove all their morals. Dial up the evil to 11. Yeah. Kilgrave was the one redeemable factor from one of Netflix-Marvel’s worst shows.
This is the new Captain Marvel trailer that dropped this week. The last one had some cool bits in it, and left me with some questions, the biggest one being:
Does this script ever call for Brie Larson to emote?
And I’m not the only one to wonder this. She just has one tone of voice, one look on her face the entire time.
The new trailer is more of that, though it appears that we have a clearer sense of why: Carol Danvers flies a subphotonic plane that somehow shoots her out into the galaxy, and while she is out there, she fuses with a Kree and gets…massive, massive overpowers.
Marvel has put out 20 films, most of them good, some of them great, few of them bad. After an average of two films per year over a decade, I trust them.
That said, I am a little worried at how much this looks like Green Lantern. I’m also concerned that they might be making the Marvel version of Rey from the new Star Wars films: emotionally bland, and just stupidly overpowered for no reason.
But if there is a reason why they are only showing this side of the character in the trailers, then the justification should be good.
I do suspect that a great deal of this story will be a setup for Avengers 4, in much the same way that Captain America’s first movie was a setup for Avengers 1.
We shall see. Captain Marvel comes out in a few months.