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.
Think about what sci-fi would look like without the term “robot” in it. Think of all the properties that would be vastly different, or gone altogether.
No C-3PO, and maybe no R2-D2 either.
No Terminators, which probably means no breakthrough role for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
No Optimus Prime, no Autobots. No new Bumblebee movie this weekend.
Will Robinson died because nobody was there to warn him of danger.
Virtually no career track for Isaac Asimov, as presently constituted. The dude wrote an entire library of robot stories.
Not to say someone else wouldn’t have eventually come up with the idea of man-shaped machine that could think for itself, and give it a name that would become universal around the world, but we’re going off of what did happen in our timeline.
The writer responsible for this massive genre cornerstone was none other than Czech author Karel Čapek, pronounced “kuh-RELL CHAP-eck,” who died on Christmas of 1938. Here is his Wikipedia article, and a picture of him.
The term “robot” comes from a Czech word for “labor,” which was a central theme of the play he wrote, Rossum’s Universal Robots, set in a future where the robots performed manual tasks for humans, then eventually rose up and took over, and achieved sentience bit by bit.
The play is about 60 pages long, and I meant to have read it before doing this post, but work and life have taken my focus and it fell down the list of priorities. Nevertheless, as we humans like to celebrate round numbers of anniversaries, I wanted to give his legend a boost on his 80th.
Personally I’m grateful for his work. Transformers and Terminator both came out in 1984, the year I was born, and they’ve had a massive influence on my creative work throughout my whole life. Robots have always been my thing and I’m sure I’ll write a lot of stories about them in different ways.
Between Stan Lee and Karel Čapek, I’ve been thinking a lot this fall about what kind of mark I want to leave on the creative world during my time. It will be a lot harder than it was in their day; competition is stronger and more plentiful, and it’s hard to stand out. Will I ever revolutionize sci-fi and fantasy like these men did? It is my hope, and can only happen if I work at it.
I do have the great fortune to stand on the shoulders of giants in my time. Thanks for your stories, Karel Čapek. Keep resting in peace, and Merry Christmas to you all.
Last night I finished a short story for an anthology about lesser-known fairy tales. Mine’s based on a Spanish story. I sent it in and now the waiting game begins.
The other project I worked on during November was a romance novel. There’s a lot of secrecy around this one, so no details here.
The most important update for today is that I am taking another crack at my fantasy epic, Brimstone. This is my “blast crew goes to Mordor” series and I love it more than most of what I have written.
It just had some flaws in the mechanics of the story, and I think I know how to address them now. It will be a good palate cleanser from these other two stories, and it will get a considerable monkey off of my back too.
I need to rearrange some chapters, rewrite others, and cut about 20% overall. This will be Graham at his Genghis Khan-iest.
While it may be premature to call Michael Crichton a legend after ten years, the man was certainly prolific, productive, and proficient. I will always heap praise on his imagination as well as his technical knowledge, his zeal for research, and his ability to take that which is “commonly known to be impossible…”
…and make me believe that it is not only possible, but about to happen.
Time travel. Cloned dinosaurs. Alien probes that give us godlike powers by accident. Gnarly aggressive gorillas that really don’t want us taking diamonds from Africa. And that’s just a small sampling of his work that I’ve read.
The man had the #1 book, movie, and TV show in America at the same time in the 1990s. He wrote novels to pay his way through medical school because oh yeah, he was a freaking doctor.
When I hit seventh grade, and was just about tired of middle grade/young adult books (keep in mind that Harry Potter wasn’t a thing yet), I made the jump to big-time sci-fi so I could read THE LOST WORLD and then JURASSIC PARK. (Oops. Order, and such.)
Then I gobbled up whatever else of his I could, partly because I was much less picky, and partly because I didn’t know why I liked what I liked, only that I liked it, and I didn’t have this idea in my head that I only had time to read the best of anything. Some of his stuff wasn’t the greatest, but most of it was, and it fueled my drive to tell my own stories.
Granted, I made up a lot of stuff that he would have researched, but hey, baby steps.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of his passing due to cancer. It was significant enough in my life that I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.
I’m just glad that he left so much of his time and work for people to enjoy even after his death, in the form of books. The fact that they’re good, and historically significant in American culture, ensures that many future generations will have the chance to enjoy them as I have, and that makes me happy.
I wrote about this back in 2013 on my old blog, and it’s a good time to revisit this subject.
Washington Irving’s best-known tale is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, featuring lanky Connecticut schoolmaster Ichabod Crane versus the ghost of the Headless Horseman.
Everyone has heard of the story, due to its staying power over the centuries (Irving wrote it in the early 1800s) but Hollywood tends to butcher the important parts.
The two most recent adaptations were Sleepy Hollow from 1999, wherein Ichabod Crane is a sexy supernatural detective played by Johnny Depp, in his pre-Jack Sparrow days.
Later he was played by Tom Mison in the TV show “Sleepy Hollow,” which was a wild, wild departure from just about anything having to do with Irving’s classic (other than Ichabod, Katrina, and the Horseman.)
Apparently Jeff Goldblum portrayed Ichabod in a for-TV version of the movie back in the early 1980s. This version of the character was closer to accurate, even if the story wasn’t.
To date, the most correct portrayal I’ve seen is the animated Disney version from many many decades ago. Both the character and the story are directly adapted from what Irving crafted.
I bring this up because I usually read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in October, and have for the past five or six years. Yesterday I plugged in the audio (I have the version narrated by Tom Mison, funnily enough) and as always, it’s a striking feat of language and emotion and storytelling.
This story always draws me in, and not just because Irving was a fantastic writer; I found out back in 2015 that I actually have a ancestors buried in the Old Dutch Church Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. (Their names were Dirke Storm and Gregoris Storm.)
Naturally this has fueled my imagination for some time, and I’ve poured that fuel into a story idea that I’ve been kicking around since my twenties. I’ve tried tackling it before, only to fail, but this is the year that I can make it happen.
So my NaNoWriMo novel is called SLEEPLESS HOLLOW. It’s a modern-day follow-up to Irving’s original story, one that treats it all as historical fact, and accurately portrays the characters he created.
I won’t get into too many details for now, just know that SLEEPLESS HOLLOW is going to be my big release of 2019. It will be about a year before you guys get to read it, but check back here for updates and snippets as I write and illustrate it.
And if you need something to hold you over in the meantime, head over to http://www.gutenberg.org and grab a free ebook copy of Irving’s Legend. Fall in love with it like I do every time I read it.
There is more to be discovered in that sleepy little villa…
I usually have projects going on a few fronts, and am trying not to spread myself too thin. When I was setting annual goals in January, I wanted to have a book out by now, but some other demands have landed on my lap and taken priority. Nevertheless, here’s what I’m up to:
ART: I have a commission on deck that I haven’t been working on because of my day job and other stuff. Once this other stuff (see “career” below) is taken care off, that’s the next big thing. Keep an eye on my instagram, @GrahamBeRad.
WRITING: So hey, good news! When the “Ready Set Write” folks on YouTube read one of my pages, I was unknowingly entered into a monthly contest to get a five-page critique, and I won! So I have them looking at the first five pages of a different project.
I’m attending Lisa Mangum’s writing retreat at Capitol Reef next month too, which gets me another five page critique, so I’m having her look at different pages of the same project, due out in November. This book will also have an audio part, narrated by yours truly. #FridayFighters
FITNESS: Not as explosive as it was in 2012 when I trained for a mud run back then, but I’m determined to keep it up even after my Spartan Race this month. Once again, outside life has been derailed by my…
CAREER: I’m still studying to make a position change at work. I’ve failed the test twice and I really want to pass it on the next attempt. But even if I were to pass it like, TOMORROW, I am sure I would still have to be a trucker for a little while because of some jobs the company has going. Nevertheless, passing the test will free up my time and energy for drawing, writing, and gettin’ dem gainz.