When Marvel kick-started the MCU back in 2008, nobody could have predicted its success. Head back to the early '90s, and Stan Lee - often Marvel's ambassador to Hollywood - was still struggling to get Marvel superheroes taken seriously. The Avengers were on nobody's radar, eclipsed by the popularity of the X-Men, and Captain America was treated with disdain.
Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is officially the third-biggest box office success in franchise history (behind Star Wars and James Bond), and the latest Captain America film - Captain America: Civil War, essentially an 'Avengers 2.5', has exceeded $1 billion in box office takings. Captain America is so dearly loved that, when Marvel Comics took the character in a controversial direction two weeks ago, the Internet went ballistic and the writer received very ominous death threats.
CAPTAIN AMERICA WAS ALWAYS AN IMPORTANT SUPERHERO!
As I've discussed elsewhere, Captain America has always stood apart from the rest of the world's superheroes. Where other superheroes tended to avoid overtly political stances - Superman's early socialism was quickly ditched - Captain America has always been on the front line. The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, and reflected a conscious effort by his creators to influence public debate and encourage the United States to enter the Second World War. In that classic issue, Abraham Erskine gives voice to their hopes.
Unlike many superheroes, during World War II Captain America was always depicted as being on the front-line. His enemies have Nazi links to this day - the Red Skull, for example, first rose to power in Nazi Germany, and remains one of Marvel's most iconic supervillains. Meanwhile, throughout his history Captain America has represented a quest for American self-identity - most famously in writer Steve Englehart's response to Watergate, which featured Captain America uncovering a conspiracy that went all the way to the White House.
This gives Captain America an important role as a comic book cypher of American self-identity, one that he only shares with DC Comics's Superman.
MARVEL STUDIOS PLAYED IT SMART WITH CAPTAIN AMERICA!
In spite of his important role, sales of Captain America comics have rarely been a stellar success. Fortunately for the Star-Spangled Avenger, as Marvel Studios began to plan out the MCU they only had a limited number of superheroes to work with. Franchising in the '90s - essential to help Marvel recover from near-bankruptcy - had left film rights to their superheroes distributed with other studios. Only as the rights reverted could Marvel Studios use the characters.
This essentially forced Marvel Studios to focus in on the Avengers, whose comic book popularity had gradually been increasing since the early 2000s. Still, some of those superheroes were very risky; Captain America and Thor were seen as particularly hard-sells. If the MCU was to succeed, though, Marvel had no choice.
Captain America: The First Avenger was a bold stab at a solo movie, but it was also an essential film as it established Captain America's backstory. Recognizing the brand's comparative weakness, Marvel Studios wisely gave it a title that linked it closely to the Avengers. Chris Evans was cast in a decision that originally received a fair bit of criticism - some fans found it hard to forget he'd played the Human Torch in Fox's first two Fantastic Four movies. It's proved to be an inspired choice, though, as it's now impossible to picture anyone else as Steve Rogers!
But absolutely key was the way the films handled Captain America. The First Avenger confronted head-on the criticisms that Cap was nothing but a joke - the film begins with him treated that way, and proving his own, becoming a confident wartime leader. In The Avengers, Joss Whedon deepened the process, building an important character conflict with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, and showing Cap taking the lead against the Chitauri. All without once dropping the famous "Avengers assemble" line.
MARVEL STUDIOS GOT THE RIGHT TEAM FOR THE NEXT TWO FILMS!
Marvel Studios was determined to continue building their Cinematic Universe, and Captain America had become a key part of it. Even as filming finished on The First Avenger, the Studio was planning a sequel; the plot was pencilled in before filming had finished on The Avengers. And what a plot! #KevinFeige planned to turn this newborn universe on its head, exposing S.H.I.E.L.D. as corrupt, and bringing that whole powerful organisation down in a pyrotechnic fireball!
Marvel Studios picked just the right team. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had penned the script for The First Avenger, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier seemed to give them a chance to thrive. Their plot was smart and politically-aware, with visible analogies to the very real debate of liberty versus freedom. As before, they portrayed Captain America as a physically-powerful superhero - the opening scenes alone show him taking a dive from a helicopter without a parachute - and as a skilled leader. In one scene, Captain America gave a speech that turned the whole film on its head, kick-starting the whole 'civil war' within S.H.I.E.L.D. Never before has the phrase "Captain's orders" been imbued with such power.
Marvel Studios recruited brothers Anthony and Joe Russo as directors, largely because the studio had a concrete vision for the film. As Kevin Feige told SFX:
"We hired our directors on Cap because they loved our explanation that we really want to make a '70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie. Just like with the first film – we got Joe Johnston because we said, "We want to do a '40s World War II movie masquerading as a big superhero movie." I love that we're doing a sequel to a film that's a completely different genre than the first film. I think that's fun. And the comics do it all the time."
The resulting movie is generally seen as Marvel's best to date, and - knowing a good thing when they see it - Marvel Studios kept the same team for the hugely successful Captain America: Civil War. It's ensured confident writing, a consistent portrayal, and a respectful attitude toward the title character.
CAPTAIN AMERICA TAPS INTO THE CONTEMPORARY DEBATE!
There is, perhaps, one reason why Captain America's increasing presence in popular media has been so successful. It's because America as a nation is more divided than it's ever seemed to be before. Just look at the current presidential election, where two radically different views of America have been in the running for nomination - Donald Trump on the one hand, Bernie Sanders on the other. In the aftermath of unpopular wars, and with international influence declining with the growth of China and Russia, the United States is undergoing a very public identity crisis.
Captain America taps into that. He reminds viewers of a simpler time, and he has an unflinching confidence in his position. In The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury defends S.H.I.E.L.D.'s stance:
"S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we'd like to be. And it's getting damn near past time for you get with that program, Cap."
"Don't hold your breath."
The same is true in Civil War. Although he almost breaks, at the end of the day Captain America stands unflinchingly by his principles. It's an old-fashioned attitude, but frankly - at a time when the world looks bewildering - we can use a little old-fashioned.
This, incidentally, is why Marvel Comics's latest plot has caused such a stir. Perhaps underestimating the power of the symbol, writer Nick Spencer is charting a story in which he uses two Captain Americas - Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson - to debate the nature of American self-identity. He's achieved this in part by turning Steve Rogers bad, tying him to HYDRA (a post-Nazi organisation), and starting a very dark plot. Fan reactions have been extreme to say the least (Marvel's Tom Brevoort publicly published a horrific death threat), but the first issue's sales were off the charts.
Captain America is a powerful figure. For myself, I'll never forget one of the first times I came across him in comics. I'd grown up on a diet of Spider-Man and the X-Men, and I was reading through Spider-Man's intense "Maximum Carnage" event. This was at the peak of the 'dark comics' '90s, with Carnage, a mass-murderer bonded with a deadly symbiote, running amok. Spider-Man had compromised perhaps more than he should, had been defeated and demoralized in every way, and was lying beaten. Then, an outstretched hand, and a simple question:
"Need a hand, son?"
This is what Captain America stands for: a beacon of hope in a dark time, a reminder that principles matter and that compromise isn't always the right way to go, and an outstretched hand to the weary and defeated.
Long live Captain America.