A Character Study of the Captain and his Hammer

Just a Kid from Brooklyn

Avengers: Endgame was undoubtedly the pop culture event of the entire decade. After Game of Thrones ended with a lot of controversy (is George even finishing the books?) and JK Rowling has taken to twitter to continually embarrass Harry Potter fans, the conclusion of the Infinity Saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will be hailed as the bar for nerd franchises for a very long time. 

Perhaps one of the most captivating scenes that audiences everywhere went crazy for was when Steve Rogers/Captain America wielded Mjolnir, the hammer that was only meant to be lifted by those deemed worthy by Asgardian King Odin himself. When paired with the scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron, where multiple Avengers try to lift the hammer and Steve moves it ever-so-slightly, the internet immediately started asking the question I will be addressing in this piece:

“Could Steve always lift Mjolnir? Or did he become more worthy overtime?”

Kevin Feige, my personal idol in the industry, responded to this question in a reddit AMA with this answer:

2019-09-06 16_14_05-Window

Anthony and Joe Russo, whom I have been big fans of for a long time now (#sixseasonsandamovie), responded in basically the same manner:

2019-09-06 16_14_33-WindowApparently those working on the movie seem to interpret all of this as Steve always being able to lift the hammer, but he didn’t want to (quite literally) steal Thor’s thunder.

As a day-one MCU fan, and as a person who has come to value Captain America as their absolute favorite Superhero (sorry Batsy, Cap won in the end after all)…I gotta say, I fundamentally disagree with this take on every level. 

Now at least let me justify myself before the nerd rage begins:

  1. I can have great admiration & love for these creators and still disagree with them. 
  2. Notice that their language in answering this question emphasizes “our interpretation” and “we like to think”, meaning that there is room for fans to have their own headcanon, which can be done with many other moments/themes in the MCU.
  3. It’s so boring to simply accept Steve as consistently perfect. He has the greatest heart in the universe and its always in the right place…but having those qualities doesn’t mean that a person can’t be misguided, lost, or even wrong sometimes. 

It is much more interesting for Steve’s character arc if Mjolnir was something he couldn’t quite do until he went through some catharsis. This piece will provide my interpretation of this iconic moment in movie history, and even provide some insight into what I take away from Captain America’s journey.

Before we go into movies specifically, I want to point out how Steve deals with conflict. Despite all their differences, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark both want the same thing: to defend the earth and all of its people from those who would harm it. When things happen to Tony, we see it very visibly (mostly through his anxiety attacks). When things happen to Steve, he…doesn’t exactly address them properly. The conflict in Captain America: Civil War was never about politics because, (let’s be real here) if this was an actual real-life scenario we would all want some answers from heroes for the collateral damage. The conflict is moreso about Tony projecting his guilt from Ultron and his previous arms dealings, and Steve trying desperately to hold onto the only things that give him a purpose. Hold this thought. Now, we can go into the movies.

THE FIRST AVENGER

We are introduced to a sick, physically weak, and timid Steve Rogers trying to enlist in the army. Its admirable enough to keep trying after being rejected, but you truly see Steve’s passion and heart in an interaction he has with his best friend

Steve: “Bucky, come on! There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them. That’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me.”

Bucky: “Right, because you’ve got nothing to prove?”

This isn’t exactly selfish behavior, but we see that Steve himself is tired of being passed off as weak, especially when stronger men than him seem to be failing (he got beat up by some jock disrespecting the army in a theater, if you recall). After continuing to show his heart in conversations with Dr. Abraham Erskine and Peggy Carter, he is eventually chosen to receive the super-soldier serum. Before he does, there is an incredible moment that defines Steve’s entire character arc that often gets overlooked.

Similar to when Ho Yensin told Tony Stark (in a cave, with a box of scraps) not to “waste his life”, Dr. Erskine gave Steve similar advice as a mentor. Re-read and remember this, as it’s the basis for my entire point:

“Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. You will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

Bucky also reminds Steve of this later in the movie, by telling Steve that he isn’t following “Captain America”, rather he is following the stupid kid from Brooklyn who would always lose fights because he wouldn’t run from them. For the rest of the movie, Steve is who he is and lives up to what he promised Erskine…and then he wakes up 70 years later.

THE AVENGERS

Viewers often forget that Steve absolutely doesn’t belong in the 2010s, and that loss of time is what he’s mostly dealing with internally. We saw that in the previous movie he was looking for purpose, and after being gone for 70 years it makes sense that he would be trying to look for some semblance of that again. “Luckily” for Steve, he is immediately thrown back onto the front lines against Loki’s invasion of New York. With the urgent need of a soldier, and the fact that everyone in 2012 only knows him as a war hero, he falls into this role with ease. After this is where things start to get more complicated.

THE WINTER SOLDIER

We’re introduced to a Steve that’s trying to adjust to the time, but is moreso looking for things that remind him of the past for him to hold on to. Not only do we see him advance significantly as a martial artist and SHIELD operative, we see him reminiscing in his own museum exhibit and even see that he’s found Peggy again. 

What stings for Steve is that this whole thing is getting harder. He’s trying to find new things to be excited about (his friendship with Sam Wilson and his crush on then-undercover Sharon Carter) but it’s not working. SHIELD has ideas for dangerous plans to essentially control society, Peggy has Alzheimer’s in her old age, Bucky is back and is being mind-controlled, and then he finds out that he’s been living a huge lie: HYDRA has been growing inside SHIELD for decades. 

A great scene that gets us inside Steve’s head is when he is seemingly less stressed out talking to Natasha when HYDRA is revealed. He has an enemy, he has a purpose again. This gets further amplified when he decides that he’s going to look for Bucky and get his best friend back. 

However, all of this is leading to Steve getting used to a life of constant conflict, rarely taking any time for himself to address his own issues. At this point, being a soldier is a necessary coping mechanism for Steve.

AGE OF ULTRON

This movie is an interesting one, because if you get into the details then you notice that a lot of Steve’s flaws are starting to show (obviously we need some hindsight after knowing the events that take place after…but that’s a lot of this movie in a nutshell as, upon rewatch, it’s basically “Phase 3: The Set-Up Chapter”).

For one thing, many fans speculate/assume that this is where he begins to lie to Tony about the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark at the hands of Bucky. Even with that detail aside, we really get more when we get to the first real encounter with Ultron (where Wanda Maximoff is present as well after Ultron stole Vibranium from Ulysses Klaue. Wanda is super important here). 

Ultron hits Steve with an incredibly personal attack here: “Ah, Captain America. God’s righteous man, pretending you could live without a war. I can’t physically throw up in my mouth, but…”

Ultron wasn’t a very well developed villain, but he hits the nail on the head here. At this point, Steve has based his entire identity off of a few things that give him something to fight for. It’s almost as if he’s becoming somewhat desensitized after living in the 2010s (and who can blame him?). We see this emphasized more in the nightmare-sequence induced by Wanda’s powers, where Peggy is trying to tell him “the war is over…we can go home” and then immediately disappears, leaving Steve alone in a dance hall. The realization that, as much as he might want to, Steve can’t go home? That’s haunting, and that would do a number on someone mentally. 

The movie ends with him insisting to Tony that being an Avenger and training the newcomers is “home” for him, so we know he’s trying. For the most part, he does seem to find some semblance of peace with the Avengers…and then…well…

CIVIL WAR

This is where it can get fairly obvious that Steve is lowkey losing it. The Avengers’ very existence is threatened by the Sokovia Accords, Peggy passes away, Bucky is in the public eye, and he’s disagreeing with his own friends (Tony and Natasha). 

As mentioned, a lot of Steve’s determination and drive seems to be stemming from him wanting to hold on to what makes him comfortable. What makes this worse this time around is that he has to pick and choose between Bucky, Tony, the Avengers, etc. The situation with Zemo happens to work out so that he has to apprehend Zemo regardless, but after Steve and Tony both played right into his hands…Steve has to finally tell Tony the truth. 

From here, take where we had Steve in the 40’s vs now. The world he’s been trying to adjust to has finally beat him down into the loss of Peggy, Bucky (under containment in Wakanda), Tony, the Avengers, SHIELD, his public identity as a hero, and his own shield. There is nothing else left for Steve but the only thing that has given him peace in the entire time he un-froze: becoming a perfect soldier.

INFINITY WAR

Steve didn’t get much screen time in this movie, but I like to think of that a good director’s choice that is indicative of what he’s going through at the moment. I personally don’t mind the cliche of “character goes through physical change to signify emotional change” because I’m just dramatic like that too, so obviously we can start with Steve clearly looking edgy in appearance (Spider-Man 3, anyone?). However there are some other tell-tale signs of Steve being less-than-himself here

If we start with his persona, he’s less talkative and outwardly expressive. Most of his lines are, in some way, giving out orders or only related to the conflict at hand. Piggybacking off of how he was in Civil War, he makes this grand gambit with the mind-stone to save Vision because of how much he cares about the Avengers, and because he doesn’t want Wanda to go through the same thing Peggy did all those years ago. After all, the Avengers always win…right? 

Because I’m an MMA nerd, I can also make the case of Steve being much more of an aggressive fighter than we’ve ever seen him before. I guess that’s what happens when T’Challa gives you two shields that work better as punching mechanisms than defensive weapons, but I do think Steve’s fighting prowess went up even more here. Even Thanos was impressed!…right up until the point where he knocked Steve out cold. 

At this point you’re probably wondering “well majority of his arc is this ‘perfect soldier’ thing, then when does he ever become ‘worthy’ of Mjolnir?”. I’m getting there, but the most important detail of Infinity War/the start of Endgame is that after losing previous parts of his life, he’s now simply just lost. All he had left was defending the Earth, and he couldn’t even do that. Worse, half of the entire universe suffered because he couldn’t live up to what he always told himself his purpose was, and that stings. Especially when Tony calls him out and airs out all of their dirty laundry from Ultron/Civil War. So what now?

ENDGAME

Five years in the future, and the first thing we see is Steve isn’t defending, but uplifting others instead. Being close friends with Sam must have taught him something, because he took a page out of Sam’s book and is providing grief-counseling for victims. After that, we see him specifically visit a friend to console her as well. I personally don’t think Steve is holding it together very well and is internalizing again, but he’s doing certain things differently and we see him less eager to “punch his way out of a situation”. Also, he shaved.

There’s more! Steve is rarely ever a part of the “science-scenes” in these movies but he is there the first time the team attempts time-travel. He’s smarter about avoiding fights when he doesn’t need to have them (“Hail Hydra”). He’s capable of laughing at himself with his own doppelganger saying “I could do this all day”. Finally, he trusts Tony to retrieve the Tesseract. 

The absence of a war taught Steve there was more to being himself. Slowly the idea started to plant in his mind that maybe he could just “go home” when the fighting is done and be something more than a soldier. In every scene in the five-year-time-skip, you can see the subtle differences in Steve’s behavior. He’s starting to be himself again, he’s starting to once again become a simple and good man. I don’t think this should be the story of a guy that was always right, nor do I think it’s the story of an okay-ish guy that got better. I think it’s the story of someone lost, who had to go through a lot regarding his identity so that he could find his way again. I think that a lot of this clicked for Steve himself when he got to see Peggy again while Tony was trying to grab the Tesseract, and I also think this is where he made the decision that he would return the Infinity Stones and return to Peggy. Upon their return, the only thing standing in his way was Thanos, and suddenly the possibility of losing all that he found again was present. Not this time, however. This time Steve remembered his greatest strength, and who he really was. When the time came, and he called on Mjolnir, it was all his personal growth that unlocked his true potential. He was always worthy, he just had to be reminded of what made him worthy in Erskine’s eyes in the first place. 

That, I think, is a pretty cool interpretation of the Captain and his hammer. One I think everyone can learn from and be inspired by. After all, Steve is a hero, and shouldn’t inspiring others to believe in the good in themselves be a big part of heroism?

Endgame & Game of Thrones: Using One to Explain Where the Other Went Wrong

Perfectly Balanced in the Worst Way Possible

WARNING – THIS POST CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: ENDGAME & THE THIRD EPISODE OF THE EIGHTH SEASON OF GAME OF THRONES. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED, PLEASE DO NOT CONTINUE READING WITHOUT HAVING SEEN THE ONE(S) YOU CARE ABOUT.

This weekend was always meant to be an anticipated and emotional one for nerds and fans of pop culture in general. On the silver screen, an unprecedented narrative across 22 films and 11 years was coming to an end. On television, viewers (including those who have waited since 2011) were finally going to see a built-up threat shrouded in mystery and mysticism become a tangible adversary for humanity. No one could deny the hype behind both Avengers: Endgame and The Long Night.

Despite being wildly different fictional universes that require different suspensions of disbelief, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and Game of Thrones (GoT) have more common ground than one would think. The obvious one being that both are based on source material from books. While Marvel Comics was founded in 1961, A Song of Ice and Fire’s first book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996.

The constant retcons in comics and the nature of comic writing as opposed to fantasy novel writing allowed the MCU some freedom to bring the story into a modern and more streamlined setting. They didn’t have to follow the source material page-for-page. They simply had to do the characters right and pay homage where it is due. As long as you’re doing that and still telling a good story and sticking to your theme, it’s completely okay to put a scene where an overweight Thor yells at some gen-Z degenerate who is bullying Korg on Fortnite. It makes more sense than what happened in The Long Night, at least.

Fantasy novels are different, especially when you’re trying to finish an uncompleted book series on television. You don’t have to include every single minute detail that an author will take the time to do, but you still have to commit to the main beats of the story and the theme. That’s where the issue with The Long Night lies.

A Song of Ice and Fire is fundamentally a story about how war, petty political squabbles amongst noble houses, and monarchs who put their needs above the realm ultimately plunge said realm into an endless cycle of chaos and innocent lives being taken. The final test is a supernatural threat that gives humanity a choice between unity and death. If you recall the first few pages/episodes of the story in a specific chapter/scene from Daenerys Targaryen’s point of view:

“‘The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,’ Ser Jorah told her. ‘It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.’ He gave a shrug. ‘They never are.’”
– George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996), Daenerys (III)

For my Parks & Recreation fans out there, also recall when Ser Ben Lighstorm Ben Wyatt was being the lovable nerd he is, and responded to being teased about his love of GoT by saying “It’s about telling real life stories in a fantasy setting”. As funny as that moment was, he was spot on.

GRRM’s story has often been proclaimed as an allegory for our real-life socio-political environment. While ours has gotten insane as of late, which allows people to often force metaphors that were not originally intended (i.e. Trump = Joffrey), GRRM absolutely meant the threat of the White Walkers to be an allegory for climate change and has confirmed this. Surprise, environmental issues aren’t a new concern, we’re just dealing with it very poorly. Hell, President Jimmy Carter was haunted by the energy crisis much like Prince Rhaegar Targaryen was haunted by the Long Night, both trying to lay some groundwork so that future leaders can lead the fight (History and ASOIAF buffs can nitpick that, but I hope that made sense as a very general metaphor).

The point being, there is a supernatural threat that can’t be beaten by humanity being divided and by conventional means. On top of that, you better believe that the threat does not discriminate the way we do…it’s coming for all of us.

So what’s the point then? Look, when I digest fiction I look for three main things: storytelling, themes, and characters. Despite my nitpicks in Avengers: Endgame, after this weekend it became clear to me that the minds behind the MCU cared about those things and meticulously planned out everything they could. The minds behind GoT absolutely did not care.

The MCU also chose to go this route of storytelling due to what they did with Thanos. Tony Stark developed a severe anxiety disorder and PTSD after the Battle of New York. The main reason? He saw what was coming. He went into the wormhole to stop a nuke from hitting NY, he defeated the Chitauri and realized immediately that this wasn’t the end. Due to his fears of “we’re too late” and “what are we supposed to do about that?”, he created Ultron which ended up being an issue for the Avengers in and of itself. We see our heroes make mistakes all throughout the saga (there are so many characters, so let’s just focus on the two pivotal ones): Steve Rogers and Tony Stark broke apart the Avengers and they were spread too thin when Thanos himself arrived. The Russo brothers themselves have confirmed that the main reason the Avengers lost in Infinity War was because they were divided after Civil War. We saw a petty political squabble break apart our chances. We saw Tony jumping the gun without properly explaining himself. We saw Steve not thinking big enough to foresee the threat. Most importantly? We saw the Avengers lose.

In Endgame, they got a second chance (friendly reminder that in real life, we don’t get quantum realm shenanigans to go back in time and fix our mistakes). Not only did our heroes use this second chance, but they all overcame what was bigger than themselves. Tony Stark, a man who was criticized as only fighting for himself, truly thought about all of humanity and sacrificed his life to save billions. Steve Rogers, a man who was criticized as a self-righteous prick who forces fights because he can’t live without war, let go of his “soldier” persona and embraced simply being a good man. They let go of their personal baggage, stopped fighting each other, and succeeded against a world-ending threat in Thanos.

So why the long face when talking about The Long Night? To reiterate, A Song of Ice and Fire is fundamentally a story about how war, petty political squabbles amongst noble houses, and monarchs who put their needs above the realm ultimately plunge said realm into an endless cycle of chaos and innocent lives being taken. The final test is a supernatural threat that gives humanity a choice between unity and death…

…Except that supernatural threat now feels like a minor inconvenience, the people who put their needs above the realm are now in the right, and we’re back to war and petty political squabbles that are going to take more innocent lives. It’s an objectively terrible way to end the story.

With the Night King defeated in one episode, now we are left with Cersei Lannister and Euron Greyjoy being the biggest threats to the realm. Cersei’s incredibly selfish and stupid plan of denying the long night, waiting until the rest of the world dealt with it, and then plunging the realm into war again seems all but certain. Where is the breaking of the wheel? Where is the great supernatural threat of the White Walkers? What was the point of Jon Snow and Bran Stark’s arcs? What was the point of the Children of the Forest? So Old Nan really WAS just full of it, huh?

It’s almost insulting from a narrative standpoint. In the world the show-runners have created, the Long Night will go down in history as another “fairy tale the Northerners made up”, grumpkins and snarks as it was once said by Tyrion Lannister. This feels like the only people who won were the ones denying the threat. It serves as validation for people that put their inane drama over a united and cooperative human race. Not only is that not what GRRM presumably intended, but that also isn’t a world that I—and many people who are much better human beings than I—want to live in.

I’m no film student, and I’m no writer, but I don’t like to complain without providing solutions. A part of me genuinely thinks that this season would have been better if this episode was an incredibly tough battle where the living came out on top by being better tacticians (i.e. flanking with the Dothraki, Jon Snow using Ghost to scope the landscape just like Robb Stark used to do with Grey Wind, actually making use of a famously tough castle to breach, etc). You can still have fan-service moments like Arya Stark solo killing a Walker, Jon Snow running at a horde of wights with Ghost beside him and Rhaegal above him, Theon Greyjoy going out in a blaze of glory, and Lyanna Mormont defeating a giant. The end would be Bran Stark, who has warged into his ravens, realizing that the Night King totally skipped over Winterfell and went straight for King’s Landing. The ones who denied the threat are now suffering it, and the army of the living has to make one last stand despite their numbers being heavily depleted. That finale is where you would have your prophecies pay off, aka Valonqar and Azor Ahai, because this is still a fantasy story and the books deserve that homage.

One can only hope that the books handle everything a lot better (or, you know, ever even finish). As for the show’s message? Suffer more, common folk. The lords and ladies will continue to play the game of thrones and get us all killed, even after being threatened by an eternal winter.

I suppose Jon Snow isn’t the only one who knows nothing.