New Frontiers: A Dialogical Analysis of Steven Rogers Part 1 – Captain America: The First Avenger
“You better get cleaned up” – Bucky Barnes
“Why where are we going” – Steve Rogers
“The Future!” – Bucky
The next installment of Captain America has hit theaters. With five movies strong, Captain America’s character has become a pillar within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) much like his canonical comic counterpart. This pillar is about to have its mettle tested as the seismic Civil War adaptation is on our horizon. Steve Rogers is a very compelling character, in some ways (pre-serum) the everyman emblematic of our desire to reach our heroic potential and in most respects (post serum) A towering hero, symbol and example. Through and through Steve Rogers is a character who exemplifies not just his time, as well as change but a conversation, or dialogue between the two. Of all the characters I have observed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve Rogers embodies not just the process but the tensions within globalization. This is evidenced quite firmly across the spate of movies he has been in. I have been doing some reading on Dialogical Self Theory (DST) in the context of globalization. DST explores the positioning and counter-positioning that takes place within the self in reaction to change, difference and uncertainty. DST in a way accounts for our perennial negotiation with the various aspects of our core self, imagined others, as well as the countervailing or complimentary narratives that they bring to bear. Having watched several of the MCU movies involving Captain America’s character, I would like to show how Captain America’s vantage point and dilemmas are the perfect means to address some of these dialogical themes. This article will explore those themes as found in Captain America: The First Avenger (CA: TFA)
Central to DST is the concept of the traditional, modern and postmodern self. These aspects of the self are atemporal stages, that relate to our various positions, and narratives given particular contexts. These aspects coexist, and at times negotiate depending on the particular dilemma at hand. (I.e. we maintain our traditional self despite having a modern and postmodern one) Each aspect of the self has benefit or a disadvantage (shadow).
Steve Rogers & The Traditional Self
The traditional self is what governs our view of the world in terms of totality, unity and purpose. The traditional self, adheres to hierarchical and fosters obedience. The primary benefit of the traditional self is that it provides for us a meaningfully ordered cosmos, where one’s position and purpose are clearly defined. The drawback or shadow side to the traditional self is found in the blind adherence and deference to authority that it inculcates. At times this can come at expense to the individual as it is poised to choke their potential.
In CA:TFA we see the traditional Steve Rogers, as a scrawny Brooklynite yearning to find his place in the world and contribute his fair share to the war effort. Due to unfortunate life circumstance of a series of ailments he finds himself an outcast, relegated to the world outside meaningful order and purpose as he understands it. Here Rogers is not just outcast forbidden from the rank and file of the conventional war effort, he is a patriot unable to serve his country in the means he sees required. His yearning for purpose and place is shown in the following exchange with his best friend Bucky Barnes
“There are men laying down their lives…I have no right to do any less than them, that’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me” – Steve Rogers
His physique and fitness notwithstanding it is Rogers’ sense of duty, character and determination to serve which catches the eye of Dr. Erskine, who is looking for characteristics “beyond the physical” to compliment the super soldier serum. This takes our budding hero into the ambit of the strategic scientific reserve, and his progression into his modern self.
The Star Spangled Man & The Modern Self
The modern self is where justification is found within its own ground. In philosophical terms the modern self has been described as a “Sovereign Self” (Richardson et al. 1988) The modern aspect of the self is where ones autonomy is expressed however, its shadow/disadvantage is a risk of considerable alienation from the social and natural environment, emotional isolation, loneliness and excessive competition. A hallmark of the Modern Self is its advancement in the context of industry.
In CA: TFA this is exemplified perfectly by super soldier program and strategic scientific reserve. Steve Rogers is able to become his ideal self through the scientific integration and innovation on the part of the SSR and Howard Stark. Competition through espionage with HYDRA however, results in the success of the super soldier program being rendered a one off. Instead of Steve becoming the first in an Army he is once more a minority and outcast. Albeit a particularly buff one.
I asked for an Army and all I got was you. You are not enough” -General Phillips
We find Steven Rogers, here as an oddity. An outlier at odds with the system of command that he respect so much. Despite his transition into a super soldier the program is deemed a de facto failure. When given the opportunity to “serve” Steve is relegated to moral boosting pageantry as the “Star Spangled Man” naturally this rouses the ire of his brothers in arms who have to risk life and limb, without his abilities. Once more competitiveness albiet an internecine variety is a driver for Steve’s alienation, and his yearning to be more than just a show puppet. A yearning which brings conflict between his Modern and Tradition self ultimately setting the stage for his Post-Modern emergence. Steve is now caught in the dilemma of just following orders, or fulfilling what he feels he was meant to.
“You were meant for more than this you know” – Peggy Carter
*The symbolism of Steve on the stage taking out a superficial threat (Adolf Hitler) while later encountering the true threat (Johan Schmidt) is significant here. Setting the stage for his development and autonomy and cementing his place as a leader of men.
Captain America & The Postmodern Self
The Hallmark of the postmodern self is the end of truth pretension. Here the self comes to terms with the protean nature of “truth”, recognizing that what is understood as such is firmly influenced by systems and institutions. In addition to the movement away from universalistic truth notions and hegemonic narratives, the postmodern self is informed strongly by the dissolution of hierarchies, as well as an emphasis for difference, otherness, and local knowledge. In the Postmodern self, truth, meaning and value are self-derived.
Steve’s initiation to post-modernity and ultimately Captain America occurs when he breaks orders in order to rescue a regiment of soldiers that Bucky is part of. Steve is operating outside the military’s sanction, and without their faith in his abilities. This is of no consequence to Steve as he now has faith in himself. This defining infraction has a few outcomes that are notable, it earns him the respect of his superiors, it earns him the respect of his peers and it leads to the encounter with the true threat, Johann Schmidt and the opportunity to study his weaponry (The Tessaract). After Steve asserts himself and the value of his abilities, he transitions into the leader the SSR needs to counter the threat of HYDRA.
“I am assembling the best men.” – General Phillips
“With all due respect sir, so am I” – Steve Rogers
The shadow aspect of the self, results from a form of nihilism born the recognized pliability of the truth. This can lead to a view of the other in the self which known as the abject self. The abject-self houses a contempt for others borne from a sense of superiority and a lust for domination. In the search for meaning one can revile the otherness they encounter. Though it can be argued that Steve Rogers does not experience this shadow. I would say it is exemplified perfectly Johann Schmidt. In many ways Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt are equal opposites, where Steve’s leadership serves as integrative and unifying Johann’s variety is oriented towards fear, domination and fragmentation a natural offshoot of Nazi ideology. It also involves the seizure of power it cannot control nor completely understand. His adherence to myth and legend is rooted in his desire to be godlike. Rogers on the other hand does not forget his humble beginnings. After being questioned about what makes him so special, Rogers quips.
“Nothing…I’m just a kid from Brooklyn” – Steve Rogers
This speaks to the heart of Rogers leadership style, he doesn’t just lead he inspires. Steve Rogers doesn’t just become the super soldier, he becomes a catalyst who recognizes virtue in others and fosters that to its highest potential
It is not just Steve’s ability to unify his peers, his country and integrate his various selves that set him apart, but also his ability to lead through challenge and uncertainty. As I will show in the next part this positions him perfectly as the leader of SHIELD’s most uncertain heroes, the Avengers. Steve Rogers meets the future.