At the end of this month, Marvel’s latest Avengers movie will be released. The cast is already being dispatched to various talk shows and press junkets to promote the movie, as if the largest film franchise in the world needs promotion. For Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in these movies, this promotional tour is a farewell of sorts, as his contract has expired. Perhaps as a result, there are more philosophical questions than I expected in this Hollywood Reporter interview with Chris Evans, including an extended (for a celebrity puff piece) bit about how much time Evans spends fighting with Nazis on Twitter. This paragraph is my favorite:
Evans has a platform and he’s using it. But like a lot of straight white men seeking to consciously and conscientiously navigate a tumultuous moment in the history of straight white male-dom, he’s learned that shutting up is important, too. At [actress Jenny] Slate’s urging, he read Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, a collection of essays about the insidious side effects of patriarchy, and took away a great deal. “You have to understand that you don’t understand,” he says. It’s not the most action-heroish way to look at things — but that may be the secret of his appeal as a movie star.
There are a lot of reasons why Chris Evans was a great Steve Rogers. For one, they both have two first names. No less important is that—in a Cinematic Universe of sarcastic wise-cracking superheroes and villains—he managed to seem earnest and kind-hearted while basically wearing an American flag. There’s no better illustration of this than perhaps my favorite Captain America scene: in the first Captain America movie, before scrawny Steve Rogers gets the super solider serum. When Rogers is asked why he wants to join the army and fight in World War II, the question put to him is “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Rogers answers that he doesn’t want to kill anyone, he just doesn’t like bullies, no matter where they come from.
Now, look, I love comic books and comic book movies, and I recognize that they’re not meant to be works of high art or philosophy. That’s what we have museums and episodes of The Good Place for. I’m willing to overlook clunky dialog that falls flat sometimes to enjoy the holistic experience of something silly and fun for a couple hours.
But that corny line—he doesn’t like bullies—really lands with me. This is partly because he’s a good actor, and partly because I met Chris Evans once, before he was Captain America, and I don’t think he’s acting.
It’s 2010. I’m at the New York City Comic Convention, standing in line to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons on a life-size game board. Squares, not hexes, for those of you wondering. Each ‘session’ is two rounds long, and whoever kills the dragon in two turns gets some D&D swag. I’m next in line to play, so my attention is focused on the players currently in-game; I want to see what works for them and what doesn’t.
This is made difficult when a guy with a microphone walks up to me. He’s got a cameraman following him around, and he’s interviewing someone who’s supposed to be famous. They’re doing one of those “a celebrity goes to Comic Con and experiences normal people” things. The interviewer—a Cool Guy with a popped collar on his polo shirt—faces camera and starts his spiel with something like “I’m here with Chris Evans on the convention floor at Comic Con.” At this point, Marvel had cast Evans as Captain America, but he was still most famous for the Fantastic Four movies.
Sidebar: Before we go further, I should address the Cool Guy bit. I think we all learn in high school—and should do our best to immediately thereafter unlearn—that there exist certain social tribes or castes which are inherently at odds with one another. For purposes of this story, I mean the nerds and the cool kids. Once upon a time, in the distant history of 2010, I myself still subscribed to the idea that cool kids liked to bully nerds. The last few years, where the toxic masculinity behind Gamergate led more or less directly into a fascist white nationalist insurgency in our national politics, has taught me that the world has much more to be afraid of nerds than perhaps the other way around.
Back to our story: to prove that he is, in fact, at Comic Con Amongst The Nerds, the Cool Guy interviewer asks what I’m standing in line for. I’m a little concerned about how this conversation is going to go, but explain that I’m waiting to play Dungeons and Dragons. He replies back, “oh, cool. How do you play?” From the look on his face, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it’s cool and he doesn’t want to learn how to play. But I oblige, and explain that you fight monsters like dragons in settings like dungeons, and when you try to take an action, you determine your success or failure by rolling twenty-sided dice and adding some bonuses to the numbers that come up. It was perhaps not the best explanation of this game in the history of explanations.
At this point, Cool Guy gives me the “wow, that sounds super complicated. You probably have to be really smart to play, right?” I remember thinking to myself: how absurd that I played Dungeons and Dragons all throughout high school and was never once mocked for it, only to come to Comic Con of all places and find someone making fun of me. On camera, no less! I was at a loss for how to answer that second question.
And here’s where Chris Evans, silent until now, jumps in. He gently nudges Cool Guy and says “yeah, man, it takes a real genius to count to twenty!” Then Captain America flashes me a sheepish grin. Cool Guy turns to him, sighs, and they begin their interview with something banal like “what’s your favorite part of Comic Con so far?” So, uh, that’s how I met Chris Evans.
I freely admit this is about the gentlest, briefest encounter with bullying in recorded history. Some guy I don’t know and will never see again sarcastically remarking about the large number of rules for a game with a large number of rules didn’t cause me to lose any sleep. If it weren’t for the brush with celebrity, I’d have forgotten about it by the end of the day. But I think Chris Evans was a good Captain America in part because he’s the kind of guy who stood up for a nerdy guy one afternoon almost a decade ago. He pulled off “earnest and kind-hearted” in the Marvel movies because I think he is. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like bullies.