The greatest climatic scene in any superhero movie yet didn't involve explosive violence, at least not of the physical variety.
At the end of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the star-spangled soldier wakes up in what appears to be a World War II-era hospital recovery room. But the Brooklyn Dodgers game playing on the radio – a game he remembers attending – tips him off that he's a character in a play of someone else's making. He flees the building to find himself in 2011 Times Square.
The chilling scene set the stage for the subsequent ascent of the most unlikely superstar of the movie superhero world: a 1940s patriotic throwback whose strength pales next to most of his contemporaries, but whose character is as unbendable as his mighty shield.
Former milquetoast Steve Rogers faces his toughest fight in "Captain America: Civil War," which opens nationally Friday and pits factions of The Avengers – one led by him, the other by Iron Man – in a battle over a government bid to regulate superheroes.
But as we've seen with the champion of the red, white and blue, things are never as black-and-white as they appear. Captain America fights his wars on multiple fronts, battling time and even himself as he’s morphed during his initial four movie outings from a straight-arrow do-gooder to the most deceivingly complex figure in the Marvel Universe.
He’s an independent hero – and perhaps an anti-hero – for our times, an era filled with political turmoil, upended expectations and more than our share of ambiguity.
As embodied by actor Chris Evans, who effectively conveys brains and brawn, Steve Rogers is a case study in innocence lost. The government created Captain America to fight the good fight, without question, against a defined enemy with the world at war.
Now, he’s heading the Avengers crew that’s resisting government interference spurred by the destruction wrought in battles with the likes of the Tony Stark-created Ultron. Rogers’ determination to save his World War II sidekick, Bucky Barnes, from a fate as a brainwashed assassin also drives his defection from authority.
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The film brims with parallels, not only to real-life tensions over war, weapons and human rights, but to the recent "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," which also centers on the conflicts over unchecked superhero powers.
Like DC stalwarts Batman and Superman, who were born in the late 1930s, 75-year-old Captain America has endured thanks to constant reinvention. The Marvel star got his first comic book case of future shock when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee yanked him out of a state of suspended animation in early 1964, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy and on the eve of a new era of upheaval.
Steve Rogers’ movie persona has been similarly updated, keeping the spirit of the comic book original while upping the intricacy of what it means to be an American hero. He seems determined to redefine not only himself, but also loyalty and winning. “Civil War” is shaping up as Captain America’s turn to deliver a rude awakening of his own.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.