“I understand that reference.”
There’s a moment in 2012’s The Avengers that resonated with me beyond its proportional role in the overall film, consisting of – simultaneously, not separately – one line of text, one line reading, and one physical gesture by the actor speaking that line of text. It’s not a plot point, or exposition, or an overt declaration of purpose, indeed in its nature it’s what might be uncharitably called a throwaway line and more sympathetically deemed a quip with some minor revelatory value to the character. It comes when, after advised by Black Widow that Loki and other Asgardians are “basically gods,” Captain America replies “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that” before swinging into action. I had never “gotten” Captain America before that moment, but after that I did.
The line attracted attention from a number of Christian writers who were pleasantly surprised that it survived the studio notes process, but the entire moment has since stayed with me because of the affect Chris Evans’ rendering of the character placed upon it. Perhaps because the mention of religion is coloring the way I look at this moment, the descriptors that come to mind for Evans’ performance as Steve Rogers and Captain America are in the manner of purity, simplicity, humility, righteousness. Most importantly of all, though, Evans sells the character’s innocence, to a degree bordering on the miraculous in the modern cinema, and the innocence is at the very core of the character.
Captain America’s origins, in the years immediately preceding the United States’ entry into World War II, were as an idealized avatar for an idealized American way of life, and that has maintained through the intervening decades and sea changes in American culture. The character’s essential nature has preserved him much like the ice in which, in canonic evolution, he was frozen, and successfully so because despite the existential realities America has faced as a nation over the years, and the many crimes for which its political system has to answer, the idea of America has always been a noble one; however often its moral precepts are violated by its political machine whether for expedient reasons or outright awfulness, the precepts themselves are worth preserving. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Truth and justice. Religion isn’t a mandatory element in this mix, but it traditionally has been a big part of the American mythos and is inextricable from its history. Of course Steve Rogers went to church and believes in it. He’s Captain America.
Having finally unlocked this understanding of – and affinity for – Evans’ Cap, I eventually made my way through all of his billed appearances. His interactions with the strange future in which he thaws out could provide material for several more essays like this, but my personal interest in Steve Rogers, Captain America, and Chris Evans’ essaying of one, both, and the same, is fulfilled entirely by The First Avenger, which to my taste is by quite a distance the best superhero origin story film. Its retro/retro-futurist design is a delight, and Joe Johnston’s direction radiates the influence of Steven Spielberg, all clean, clear forward momentum and pure ironic revel in goodness. But without Evans’ being both perfectly cast and well up to the task of carrying the film, it would lack the considerable emotional pull it amasses by the end. Considering that I’m the model of the kind of MCU skeptic prone to saying things like “the MCU films are synesthetically gray” (remember, taste is variable, and “synesthetically” is fun to say) the heartbreak at Cap realizing he has to crash the Tesseract into the Arctic and that the life he could have had with Peggy is a profound achievement.
The above is, admittedly, a little short on specifics about what exactly it is Chris Evans does as an actor that makes the character so vividly alive. The truth is, I don’t know. Every time I look at the guy in character I start hearing “God Bless America” in my head so loud I can barely hear what he’s saying. I’ve studied cinema and acting for long enough to know that “he just plays himself” is a fallacy, and clearly Evans is doing stuff because he’s supremely effective in the role. But the best assessment I can make of his performance is he keeps it simple and projects a sincere holistic nobility. Maybe Chris Evans is one of those actors gifted with the ability to completely mask process in a veneer of effortlessness (joining the likes of Cary Grant and James Garner, giants of the medium both). Maybe the screenwriters have an innate sense of how to write the character to make him sing. Maybe – and based on the evidence at hand, I’m willing to concede that it’s this simple – Captain America is just great.