Captain America: The MCU’s Greatest Arc

Captain America has always had a unique legacy with Marvel. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s character enjoyed an immense level success in the comics when he arrived in 1941’s Captain America #1. Despite being popular with hardcore fans, Captain America was never Spider-Man or the Hulk or even one of the X-Men. When the Marvel Cinematic Universe started to build the most successful Hollywood franchise, Captain America was seen as a risk. From risky gamble to appearing in films worth billions of dollars, there is no doubt the character is now a juggernaut, but how did it happen? The heart of any character is the arc and journey they are put on. For Captain America, the story he was given, and the type of character arc utilized, came together to give Steve Rogers the MCU’s greatest arc.

A character arc can have multiple layers. Some have a positive character arc, where the protagonist overcomes a flaw, fear, or obstacle to become a better person. Tony Stark’s Iron Man, with his evolution from as a narcissistic and self centered to the ultimate hero is an example. Others, like Michael Corleone from The Godfather or Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars, inherit the negative character arc, where the protagonist ends up in a worse place through their actions or environment. For Steve Rogers, the flat character arc is used and serves to why the character is the soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I can do this all day

Steve Rogers in The First Avenger, Civil War & Endgame

A flat character arc is used for a protagonist that knows the truth about himself from the start; there his no arc to find himself for better or worse. Instead, this character can change the world around them. Examples for this are Superman, Gandalf, or Goku. For Marvel, Captain America holds this status. No matter the consequence, no matter the sacrifice needed, Steve Rogers always does what is right. His morals, ethics and outlook does not change or bend with circumstances. Through seven cinematic appearances and multiple adventures, here is why this character strategy helped make Captain America embody greatest arc in the MCU.

The First Avenger: Humble Beginnings

Captain America: The First Avenger began the journey of the Marvel’s iconic hero. The casting of Chris Evans, ended up being one of the greatest actor/hero castings we’ve ever seen. Captain America: The First Avenger starts of the story of Steve Rogers. A frail, yet determined young man from Brooklyn, Steve was adamant on serving his country during World War II. Time and again, Steve was rejected due to his diminished health. It wasn’t until his words inspired Dr. Erskine, that he was allowed to join but for a purpose and destiny he couldn’t have foreseen.

Put into the Super Soldier experiment, Steve Rogers emerged as America’s new opportunity to win. The moniker ‘Captain America’ was born as a way for Steve to pose as a poster child for the war. His true purpose was soon realized as Rogers was thrust into the war and defeated Red Skull after a heroic sacrifice. Trapped in the ice for 70 years, Captain America’s importance to the universe was soon to be realized.

The Character Defining Moment

Captain America: The First Avenger began Cap’s arc in a way fitting for Steve Rogers himself, with humbleness. The story was character driven, focusing on Steve the man before the hero. Captain America’s entire arc in a nutshell can be encompassed with one moment in the film. Before the super serums and shiny costumes, Steve Rogers was willing to sacrifice himself for others.

Throwing a dummy grenade to train the army’s attentiveness and focus, all the soldiers ran as Steve threw himself on the grenade, yelling at everyone to run. Here, he established the first part of his character arc, the truth. Even when powerless, defenseless and weak, Steve was willing to throw his life away for a chance to save another life. As we will see as we progress through his arc, this one moment represents Steve Rogers as much as any of his universe saving triumphs, with parallels to connect them together.

The Avengers: Becoming a Leader

2012’s The Avengers

The Avengers was a new beginning for Steve Rogers. In a world he truly doesn’t understand, Steve was quickly called to action by Nick Fury, who has been on the path to establishing the Avenger Initiative after meeting Captain Marvel 20 years prior. Tasked by Thanos to attack Earth and retrieve the Tesseract, the first iteration of The Avengers were brought together. With Captain America set to lead them, Steve was given a new chance to be leader and fulfill the purpose he was born for.

When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.

Captain America

Overall, Captain America needed The Avengers as much as they needed him. After losing his best friend in Bucky, the love of his life in Peggy and his entire life prior, the Avengers became his new home and family. Here, Captain America establishes himself as the tactical and ground leader. Throughout the Battle of New York, Steve guides and leads the Avengers through the war, stopping to save civilians along the way. The film ends with the team established, but there is one key element of the film that resonates for the entire franchise.

Steve Rogers & Tony Stark

You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.

Tony Stark

Steve met many of his future friends and teammates during this film but chief among them was Tony Stark. Knowing Captain America’s shield and much of his story is attached to Tony’s father, there was an immediate tension between the two. As an established part of Tony’s arc, Stark never felt attachment or love from his father, but knew his father cherished Captain America. This tension would later explode in Civil War, with the battle of the two faces of the franchise. Both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark taunted each other, with each of their taunts serving as the catalyst for ultimate payoffs that would be thoroughly explored later on. In Steve’s case, he would soon prove everything that is special about him had nothing to do with the bottle.

Winter Solider: The Fight for Freedom

Captain America: The Winter Solider remains one of the greatest comic book films of all time. It challenged preconceived notions, pushed characters to their physical and moral limits and provided a sense of stakes, consequence and emotion to a Cinematic Universe that was establishing itself as light hearted and fun.

Hydra, who Captain America seemingly defeated 70 years ago, turned out to be completely seeded in each layer of SHIELD’s infrastructure. With ties to all branches of the government, Hydra was everywhere and seemingly everyone. To add to this, Bucky, Steve’s best friend, had always been alive but tortured and experimented on to become the Winter Soldier. As soon as Steve faces Bucky, both of his world’s collide.

The price of freedom is high; it always has been. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not

Steve Rogers

With his world turned upside down, Captain America gives one his best speeches to the members of SHIELD. Warning them that Hydra has infiltrated the organization, he asks each person to fight for what’s right and once again brings up the notion of sacrifice. SHIELD agents quickly answer the call of Captain America and they were successfully able to defeat Hydra and start the chain of events that saves Steve’s best friend.

Bucky Barnes – The Return of a Brother

Captain America: The Winter Solider challenged Steve in multiple ways but none more so than Bucky’s return. For this, we need to go back and look at Captain America: The First Avenger. Here Bucky is shown to be the big brother to Steve. Protecting him from bullies, being by his side through war and trials before and after the super soldier serum, his place in Steve’s life is crucial to his character. Growing up in Brooklyn, Bucky was the only true friend he could trust and that trust guided them through many adventures. Because of this, his return as a Hydra agent and Cap’s refusal to kill him, becomes the heart of the film. Bucky’s relationship with Steve would be further explored in future films. Adhering to the flat character arc, Steve hasn’t changed since he was the kid in Brooklyn and that is a crucial reason why Bucky was able to snap out of his brainwashing.

Age of Ultron: Challenging Ideals

Captain America. God’s righteous man, pretending you could live without a war.


Avengers: Age of Ultron was not as well received as 2012’s The Avengers, with fans citing an uneven tone and a villain that was not properly fleshed out. Regardless of that, the film did provide important exposition and progressing of character arcs. Captain America is once again leading the Avengers and this time, the heroes themselves are challenged emotionally as much as they are physically.

Avengers: Age of Ultron was the first step between the divide of the Avengers. Captain America and Iron Man quickly came at odds over the concept of Ultron, a machine protector around the world. The plot of the film itself is not as crucial to the development of anger between heroes. Once again, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark come to harsh differences between each other.

Tony Stark: That would end the team. Isn’t that the mission? Isn’t that the “why” we fight, so we can end the fight, so we get to go home? 

Steve Rogers: Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.

Age of Ultron

Steve and Tony wrestle with the concept of war, how to prevent it, the meaning of protection and the purpose of the mission. This sentiment is crucial to understanding both Tony and Steve. In the case of Steve, we revert back to his Flat character arc. Captain America’s ideals do not change, they are challenged, attacked or inspire others, but they do not bend. Captain America firmly believes in helping others, but not at the expense of freedom. Tony’s need to protect and defend the Earth of the looming threat gives way to giving up freedoms for protection. This challenging of ideals is what ultimately leads to the two heroes going to war.

Civil War: What is Right vs What is Easy

We Try To Save As Many People As We Can. Sometimes That Doesn’t Mean Everybody, But You Don’t Give Up.

Steve Rogers

Captain America: Civil War is probably the most controversial aspect of Steve’s arc. He made decisions some considered to be out of character and compared to his counterpart in Iron Man, fans were divided on who to root for. Marvel quickly established a TeamCap vs TeamIronMan campaign to market that divide. When you look closely at Civil War, you realize that its been a product of a divide built up since 2012’s The Avengers. The consequences of each film prior and a steep contrast in ideals during Avengers: Age of Ultron have divided the Avengers down the middle on the Accords. Captain America’s stance is not out of character, rather completely indicative into who he was since The First Avenger.

Once again, we must look at the flat character arc that Steve Rogers embodies. We have established that Steve hasn’t changed since he was the frail broken young man throwing himself on the grenade. His stances have also not changed since then. Captain America believes in putting himself on the line for what his right. This means his need to protect freedom, his need to protect the people he loves and his need to do the right thing. When you impose this on Captain America: Civil War, you see he only does what is in his character. His stance on the Accords, his commitment to protect Bucky, believing in his friend’s true nature over what others perceive, and ultimately why he fought Tony Stark.

Rogers vs Stark: Breaking the Avengers

Steve: “Sorry, Tony. You Know I Wouldn’t Do This If I Had Any Other Choice. But He’s My Friend.”

Tony: “So Was I

Captain America: Civil War

Ultimately, the true consequence of Captain America: Civil War would be seen in later films, but the immediate takeaway for Captain America’s arc is the breaking of his family. Established in The Avengers, Captain America thought his old life was lost, that Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes are simply not part of his new life and he accepted The Avengers as his family. Even though they disagreed on everything, his brotherly bond with Tony Stark was still apparent. The two of them led the Avengers and saved the world multiple times together and on their own. With Bucky, his childhood brother in danger, Steve immediately chose his family first, which led to the ultimate clash with Tony.

At the end of this film, Captain America is now an enemy of the country. He is forced into hiding after not signing the Accords and his battle with Tony and the Avengers has alienated him from the family he made. Secluding to Wakanda to help Bucky heal but also stay in the shadows, the film ends with Steve Rogers and his arc at a low point.

Infinity War: The Ultimate Loss

I’m not looking for forgiveness. And I’m way past asking for permission. Earth just lost her best defender. So we’re here to fight. And if you wanna stay in our way, we’ll fight you, too.

Captain America

Avengers: Infinity War was important for Captain America for two reasons. Firstly, it forced him to come out of the shadows after the fallout of Captain America: Civil War, albeit as a Nomad Captain America. Secondly, it taught him the definition of failure. Up until this point, the good guys always won, with that, brought a sense of idealism and hope. Captain America firmly embodies and lives within that hope. The idea if everyone works together, they can overcome any obstacle and any foe. Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos thoroughly deconstruct that notion and force Captain America to admit defeat.

Oh, God.

Steve Rogers

Captain America returns leads the broken Avengers alongside T’Challa and his army of Wakanda as Thanos lands to get the final Infinity Stone. Captain America, without his iconic shield, still manages to lead well, but in vain. As Thanos snapped his fingers, Captain America quickly realizes it’s over.

While his role in the film was small, it is important. His final “Oh God” brings upon so many implications. Not only does it signify their loss and the Universe losing 50% of its life, but it also is full of regret that the Avengers couldn’t fully stand together after the events of Civil War. Through a flat character arc, Captain America is supposed to remain hopeful and always believing that there is a way to win, here he has lost and the film ends at Steve Rogers at his most broken.

Avengers: Endgame: Assemble & Closure

Captain America against Thanos

I keep telling everybody they should move on and grow. Some do. But not us.

Steve Rogers

Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate redemption film for multiple longstanding heroes. The original Avengers survived the snap of Thanos and are forced to rebuild. While they got their revenge on Thanos by killing him at the beginning of the film, they never ‘Avenged’ their fallen friends and family. The five year gap is important for Steve’s arc. While much of the world is picking up the pieces and trying to move on, Steve doesn’t. Even Tony Stark manages to build a new life, with Pepper and his daughter, Morgan. Steve on the other hand, stays in grief counseling, helping others move on, all while not moving on himself.

Whatever it Takes

Five years ago, we lost. All of us. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a part of ourselves. Today, we have a chance to take it all back. No mistakes. No do-overs. Be careful. Look out for each other. This is the fight of our lives. And we’re going to win. Whatever it takes. Good luck.

Captain America’s Final Speech

When the opportunity arrises to go back in time, find the Infinity Stones they encountered over the last decade, and preform their own snap, all of Steve’s heroism and optimism returns. Leading the remaining Avengers through time, Steve manages to get the Infinity Stones and snap everyone back. This is when Thanos arrives with his entire army, and a goal to destroy the Avengers, Earth and the entire Universe for trying to stop him. Here, Steve makes his final stand, alongside Iron Man and Thor, against their greatest threat.

Worthy of Mjolnir

Remember Tony Stark’s quote in 2012’s The Avengers? “You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” During the Final Battle, Steve Rogers proves once and for all, he is worthy. The true heroism of Steve does not come from the Super Serum, it does not come from the Shield or the costume, it comes from his heart. With Thor’s life on the line, Mjolnir responds to Steve’s call and results in one of the most spectacular sequences in superhero movie history. Steve uses both his shield and Mjolnir to deliver strong blows to Thanos, but Thanos still manages to defeat him. Here, he does something that encapsulates his arc from the moment his threw himself on the grenade.


Thanos breaks Captain America’s shield, the symbol that he carried on his back since World War II. Seeing all the Avengers around him defeated and Thanos unleashing the full power of his soldiers. Steve tightens what remains of his shield and stands against Thanos. He was not going to win, he knew it, Thanos knew it, yet he still stands. Why? Because that is his arc defined. Captain America does not give up, no matter what. His faith in that is rewarded when he hears his longtime friend Sam Wilson say “On Your Left” as the entire universe he inspired comes to stand behind him.

One look back, and the one look forward, Steve eyes tells the entire story for the audience. A glimmer of hope returns to Captain America as 11 years of Marvel stories, heroes and films culminate together for one final stand. Here, the line that everyone wanted Captain America to say for years finally comes to pass. With almost every single Avenger, Guardian and hero standing behind him, Captain America finally whispers, Assemble.

After a heroic and poignant sacrifice by Tony Stark by preforming an Infinity Snap, Thanos and his army are dusted and destroyed. The battle is won, and everyone is Avenged. Tony Stark, who Captain America taunted as not the one to make the sacrifice play, did so and saved the universe. In turn, Tony Stark also inspired Steve Rogers, to find happiness.

Peggy Carter- The Love of his Life

Cue, a “Long, Long Time” by Harry James as we enter the finale of Steve’s story. Steve’s story ends with the way it began, with Peggy Carter at the focus. Steve loved Peggy before the super serum, before the time travel and intergalactic wars were won. In virtually every single film he made an appearance, he mentions Peggy. The regret of missing their date, not having their dance, the regret of not being able to live the life he always wanted. At the end of it all, Steve just wanted the one thing that’s never changed, the love of his life.

Once again, perfectly aligning with his character arc, Steve doesn’t change. His ideals don’t change, his outlook doesn’t change, his will doesn’t change. So why should his love change? In Captain America: The Winter Solider, Steve gets to see Peggy one last time as an older woman on essentially her death bed. He also carries her casket during her funeral in Captain America: Civil War. Through it all, a feeling of regret looms over Steve, it’s the one true negative of falling into the ice to save the world 75 years ago.

A Happy Ending

“I don’t know. Family, stability… The guy who wanted all that went in the ice 75 years ago. I think someone else came out.”

Steve Rogers in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Steve Rogers : Well, after I put the Stones back, I thought… maybe I’ll try some of that life that Tony was telling me to get. 
Sam Wilson : How’d that work out for you? 
Steve Rogers : It was beautiful.

Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame

Captain America ended up fully committing to the soldier’s life. He didn’t see himself having a happy ending, perhaps dying in battle to save everyone was the next best thing. To him, The Avengers were his home and avenging his home after Infinity War was his only goal. He refused to move on. Once again, this is a key difference between Steve and Tony. Tony did move on, have a family, live a life with Peggy. That made his ultimate sacrifice that much more powerful.

Steve, on the other hand, never had a life outside of his heroic one, outside of the one he wanted with Peggy. With the goal of returning the Infinity Stones and a few extra Pym particles to spare, Captain America decides to retire and go back to the 1940s to live with Peggy Carter, the love of his life. Even so, Steve knows the mantle of Captain America has now become bigger than him, and ultimately returns as an old man, with a life fully lived, to pass on the iconic mantle to his friend, Sam Wilson. When asked to talk about her, Steve simply smiles and replies, “No. No, I don’t think I will.” The final shot we see of Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is his slow dance with Peggy and a final kiss as the credits roll.

Steve Rogers : You know, I still don’t know how to dance.

Peggy Carter : I’ll show you how. Just be there.

Steve Rogers : We’ll have the band play something slow.

The First Avenger

The Arc of Captain America

Captain America’s arc is special. Utilizing a flat character arc was a perfect decision for a hero who represents the soul of an entire film franchise. Steve Rogers, through multiple wars and moments that tested his character, didn’t change. Steve always stayed true to himself, even when it had him standing alone. Once again, the young man whose threw himself on the grenade, the same one that stood against Thanos and this entire army years later, represents the man he always was. Steve never thought about his own happiness until the battle was truly won. Even then, it took the sacrifice of Tony, a man who found a life, a family, to truly find his own.

What makes you so special?

Nothing, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.

Steve Rogers

Captain America’s arc is simple, effective and the greatest in the MCU. By using a flat character arc, Marvel created the perfect character to be the soul of their franchise. Captain America’s story is beautiful. It’s the story of a kid from Brooklyn who never gave up, whose heroics inspired an entire universe, whose loyalty to his friends, teammates and loved ones never wavered, a Hero, a Captain, an Avenger. That’s the man that finally got to have his happily ever after, a dance with the woman of his dreams.

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