There’s a lot of stuff going on in Age of Ultron. You get Tony Stark being handed his first legitimate post-Iron Man mistake, a welcome look at how the Avengers are perceived outside the US, four new characters including the most urbane Ultron in the characters’ history and an awful lot of set up for every single movie that’s going to follow it. A lot of reviews are already going down the ‘difficult second album’ route and while I can see their point I don’t agree with them. Age of Ultron is huge, deliberately so and the Director’s Cut will be even huger at 3.5 hours.
But a lot of that size is built on quiet moments featuring individual characters and none of those are more apparent than Steve Rogers, Captain America and the difference between the two . Here, I’ll take a look at why Steve is still so disconnected from the present, what the two parties he ‘attends’ tell us about those reasons and the consequences of that disconnection.
The film wastes no time digging into this. Very nearly the first line we hear in the movie is Cap chastising Tony for swearing. It becomes a running gag too, not only through the fight but the rest of the movie. It’s a great tension breaker and it also marks Cap out as both an outsider and someone who’s painfully aware of that fact. He’s cut from different cloth to everyone else and there are parts of modern day life that he has a real problem with.
Just how big a problem he has is something we see him come to terms with over the course of the movie. It starts in that opening scene too, as Cap is not only leading the charge but also neck and neck with Tony for who can be the most sarcastic while in combat. It reads, initially, as a slightly odd character note. Especially after The First Avenger, where so much of the emotional investment the audience had come from how clearly terrified Steve was every time he went into battle. He didn’t stop, because he doesn’t, but he didn’t enjoy it. Here, he’s having fun. The reason why, oddly, only become clear once he’s no longer at war but somewhere far, far worse for him; a party.
Again, almost the first line we get after they return home is Cap’s, as he points out that from the Sokovians’ point of view, they absolutely are at war. That line is vital, both to the movie and the ongoing rehabilitation of a character who at his worst is constantly in danger of embodying blind, braying nationalism. It has to be Cap who delivers that line, has to be him who points out that the Sokovian twins aren’t clear cut villains, because he’s one of the two people against whom they define themselves. Tony lacks the emotional maturity to look his role in Sokovia in the eyes, so Cap, the man out of time, does it for him. He’s not happy about it but when there’s a bullet to jump in front of, that’s what he does.
His comfort in that particular theatre is pointed out at the party in two different ways . Firstly, there’s the brief exchange with Sam Wilson, and Sam’s cheerful admission he’s lying about wanting in on Steve’s life with the Avengers. Sam remains one of the best parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this scene is one of the reasons why . I rewatched The Winter Soldier as part of the prep for this and was reminded, again, of how strongly Sam registers. His constant, self-deprectating jokes about his role (‘Oh I do everything he does, just slower’) cover the fact that in many ways he’s better at his job than Steve. Sam is far more comfortable out of the field, has none of the self-imposed pressure Steve labours under and is working on making his peace with his past. They’re both soldiers but Sam has been able to find a home somewhere other than war whereas Steve, as he says, can’t even afford a place in his old neighbourhood.
That alienation, and discomfort, anywhere other than in battle is made painfully clear by just how lonely Steve is at the two parties that feature in the movie, one real, one imaginary. The ‘wrap party’ for the Loki’s Staff mission is up first. He’s almost entirely reactive and doesn’t spend much time with anyone, even the old vets, who while never mentioned as such seem certain to be men who served with him. Steve is a soldier without a battle, a man without a home and the embodiment of everything they used to be just as they are what he was, defined himself as but no longer is. Even his conversation with Banner about the nascent relationship he has with Widow is a little uncertain and awkward. He can see other people forming bonds but, with the exception of Sam, isn’t quite sure how to himself . Even then, their friendship has been forged on common experience and a common goal, defined by work as much as it is by choice.
That idea, of Steve wanting to come in from the cold but not knowing how, is key to his character arc across every single one of his movies. The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier both see him only really settle once he has a unit to work with and the lack of that same cohesion is a key plot point in Avengers Assemble. In Age of Ultron, that’s why he’s clearly so pleased everyone keeps ribbing him about the ‘language’ thing. Its soldiers messing with each other, people who like and trust one another goofing off to relieve tension. He gets that reference.
So, those first two scenes give us a good look at Steve at work and Steve at…not work, because it really can’t be called play. The difference between the confident, relaxed soldier and the awkward, almost shy not-quite old man is striking and the reason for it is provided by the third pivotal scene he has. The visions the Scarlet Witch hands the team members are worth examination all by themselves, especially in the way they break down between past and possible future. However, for the purposes of this piece, it’s worth focusing on Steve’s vision, what it says and what it doesn’t.
He finds himself at another party, this time in a post-war ballroom filled with people celebrating the end of the conflict. The band is in full swing, the flash bulbs are exploding and he’s jumpy and nervous. So much so that the scene seems to all but explicitly state that Steve has PTSD of some form. He’s not comfortable anywhere but at work, even in a moment his own subconscious is telling him he wants.
His earlier line from the party about being the ‘world authority on waiting too long’ comes into play here as he’s tormented with a vision of Peggy Carter. Her appearance and her dialog all key into his desire for the war to be over, the mission to be done. Which is ironically the exact same reason Tony wants to ‘put a suit of armour around the world’. But where Stark tries to engineer it into existence, Steve knows it can never be. In fact, you could read him as being the only member of the team who beats his vision. He denies what he knows isn’t true and is left, in one of the most stark images in the movie, alone in the red ballroom. Denied the comfort of the battlefield, trapped in his own suit of armour with no one to dance with.
Except when he’s at war , and has no shortage of dance partners. The closing fight closes the circuit for Captain America in two vitally important ways . Firstly, he realizes just how at peace he is in battle. His line to Tony;
‘I got no plans tomorrow night.’
Is loaded with context. It’s a very clear, fraternal moment of bonding. Tony’s as emotionally vulnerable as we’ve seen him at that point. He’s screwed up, he knows it and he’s admitting as much in the only way he can. Cap’s response is to reassure Tony, absolving him and also letting him know that he’s made his peace with death. It’s also a huge indicator of just how damaged he is; his response to a near hopeless battle in which one or more of his friends is all but certain to die is…relief . He knows how to fight wars. He knows how to meet death. Its ground he’s covered before.
Secondly, it shows him making his peace with that damage. One of the most emotionally loaded lines in the movie is one of the last. At the new Avengers Academy, the moment he says ‘I’m home’ is thick with emotion and implication. The uniformed recruits, the shouts of instructors, the outdoor exercise and military discipline. The Academy is the closest he can get to Camp LeHigh where he was reborn. A camp, it’s worth noting, which was destroyed as a result of his actions in The Winter Soldier. The sadness with which he says those words speaks volumes to Steve’s self-knowledge and to how new that self-knowledge is. He’s painfully aware of what he’s lost but, as the movie closes, also aware of how fiercely he’ll defend what he has. He’s a man out of time, but no longer a soldier without a war. It’s not much, but, for a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who never expected to live, it’s a better start than he could have dared hope for.
And us too. Steve’s emotional trajectory across the Marvel movies is one of a single individual clinging to the only thing that’s a constant; his willingness to fight the good fight. Steve Rogers is a man who has given everything to a higher ideal other than his ability to question that ideal if it doesn’t live up to its name. He’s Jimmy Stewart with a Vibranium shield, Denzel Washington with flak armour, the embodiment of decency and compassion and the willingness to defend both those things. In the wake of the never ending streams of institutionalized corruption that break across the real world like waves, not to mention the shockwaves in Steve’s own universe, it’s easy to see why he only feels at home in battle. Because there, perhaps, he can make a difference or at least try.
That’s the lesson Cap, and Steve, both teach us here; the good fight isn’t one you necessarily win but it’s always one you have to show up for.
So, assemble. Because there’s work to do.