Note: Made a slight revision to this post after I watched the new Avengers: Endgame trailer and remembered just how bad Thanos is. My apologies for the slight mistake in information.
This post will contain spoilers for
The Marvel Cinematic Universe,
including Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War
Mary Sues have everything handed to them on a silver platter. Every other character in the story thinks they’re amazing. Not so in the real world; the audience usually despises them. So when a character is deemed a Mary Sue, it’s basically a death-sentence for their popularity.
That’s for the perfect Mary Sue, but what happens to characters who simply have no notable flaws? What about characters who seem… not perfect, but certainly intrinsically good?
I’ve written before about how Captain America seems to escape the Mary Sue punishment. But catching up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe unearthed a question I’ve been puzzling over ever since:
Are flaws and weaknesses two different things?
|Marvel Studios 2016, via The Movie DB|
Captain America does not have any notable character flaws. He’s firm in his beliefs, and that causes conflict sometimes. But is that really a flaw? I guess you could argue he’s stubborn, fighting for what he believes is right even when his own best friends stand in opposition to that. But… when have Cap’s convictions been wrong? Makes it hard to call this trait a flaw. And if it is a flaw, it’s one that only endears him to the audience even more.
But while most characters without flaws get accused of being a Mary Sue, Cap gets a pass. I have yet to hear someone argue the Captain America of the MCU is a Mary Sue. I’ve never heard anyone complain about him not having any flaws. So… if Mary Sues are so loathed because they don’t have flaws, how come Cap doesn’t suffer the hate?
It doesn’t make sense to me… unless there’s a difference between character flaws and character weaknesses.
Character flaws are something bad the character does on a regular basis; it’s a vice they struggle with. For instance, Tony Stark’s alcoholism or Dr. Strange’s pride. Flaws are things that we really shouldn’t like about a character. This is why when I experimented with making an unlikable character, Cassius, I tried to pack as many character flaws onto him as I could. He was loud and lying, cold and cruel, selfish, and so delighted in brutality it bordered on sadism.
According to this definition of a character flaw, I don’t think Captain America has any. However, Cap still isn’t a Mary Sue.
Why? Because he’s not all-powerful: he may not have character flaws, but he does have weaknesses that legitimately debilitate him and keep him at a relatable human level.
A character’s weaknesses may include character flaws, but “weakness” is a broader term. It’s anything that makes the character weak. It could be a physical weakness (like Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite), a relational one (How often did Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man villains kidnap Mary Jane to get to Spidey), an emotional weakness, or more. It could be a tragic backstory that has left the character scarred and fearful of intimacy. It could be something the character isn’t willing to lose, something that will push them to do anything to protect it.
Weaknesses, obviously, aren’t always inherently bad things. We all have weaknesses of many kinds… and our friend Cap is no exception.
Cap may be suped up on super soldier serum; but he has enough weaknesses that it’s not hard to recall he’s still just a human being.
So what are some of Cap’s weaknesses?
A Man Out of Time
One of the most obvious weaknesses Cap struggles with is cultural. He’s literally a man out of his time. The beginning of Winter Soldier did a great job showing that adjusting to our modern world is and continues to be a bit of a struggle for Cap.
Just think about all the technology he had to adjust to. That’s no easy task for people who didn’t grow up around it; just ask any elderly person to try turning on a computer.
|Marvel Studios 2014, via The Hollywood Reporter|
It’s not just a change in tech that Cap has to deal with, but also changes in media and culture. His pop culture iconography “to-do list” is endearing, but it also highlights how much he feels he’s missed out on, how far behind he is, how he’s still trying to catch up to a world that rolled on without him.
And that’s minor compared to the cultural shift. One of my favorite scenes from the entire MCU occurs when Cap chastises Tony about his language almost without thinking, and how Tony and the rest of the team keep teasing him for it. It’s a detail that is, again, endearing, while showing how drastically the culture has shifted from Cap’s time to now. That’s a tough adjustment to make.
With all these things Cap has missed out on and needs to learn (or relearn), it’d be easy to feel isolated. Alone.
And I think he does.
Emotional and Relational Weaknesses
Cap has lost the people he was closest to, who are also the only people who could understand what he’s going through… the people who could rescue him from his weakness of loneliness.
|Marvel Studios 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger|
Take Peggy, for instance. Though losing his brave and beautiful “dance partner” doesn’t affect his performance as a superhero outwardly, you can see how deeply it’s hurt him. It’s hard for him to even consider getting into a romantic relationship with someone else, especially after Peggy dies, even though he’s clearly interested in getting married and having a family.
And then there’s his best friend Bucky. Not only has he lost Bucky, but he’s had to endure losing him three times: once when Bucky fell to his seeming death during a wartime mission, next when Bucky was brainwashed and forced to fight against Cap, and finally when Thanos snapped his fingers and eliminated half the universe’s population.
It’s hard to pull through the loss of one important person in your life, but the two people closest to you? That’s a tough hit to take. And wounds, more often than not, cause weaknesses, as is the case for Cap. The loss of his friends creates hurt and leaves him lonely.
But it’s thrilling to watch Cap fight against his weaknesses, especially when we know how difficult those weaknesses are for him to deal with. We want to see characters whose weaknesses are pushed and preyed upon, because it brings the characters to their lowest points… and gives them a chance to overcome them in the end.
So when we say we want flawed characters, a character with weaknesses might work just as well. Which is why I think flaws and weaknesses are two very different things… and why audiences might be okay with characters who may not be as “flawed” as we think they need to be.
Photos used under US “Fair Use” laws.
Captain America and all related terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC and Walt Disney Studios. And I am not affiliated with them.
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