These days, upright and virtuous heroes don’t get much love. In most ensemble casts, antiheroes or even sympathetic villains overshadow the goody two-shoes. That came as a surprise to me when I joined the Marvel fan community. I’ve always preferred my heroes as lily-white and virtuous as possible, so I find it frustrating when fans denounce straight-laced characters as boring or self-righteous. In the interest of balancing the scales, I decided to write a tribute to three of my favorite straight and narrow superheroes: Cyclops, Thor, and Captain America. These three paragons of virtue illustrate how to write good guys well, with all the little quirks that make them like real people—yet real people with a goodness of soul worth admiring and emulating.
Thor: The Quirky Paragon
I count the Thor movies among my favorite Avenger films because Thor feels like a real person who would be fun to meet and get to know as a friend. The deeper you delve into his character, the more you uncover the individual nuances of his personality. I love that he enjoys a physical challenge, such as when he fights the Hulk or the abnormally tall SHIELD agent. It’s amazing how quickly he forges lasting friendships: Sif and the Warriors Three follow him devotedly; Coulson becomes friends with him after just three conversations; Darcy and Selvig are willing to risk their careers and lives for him, while Jane falls in love, after only a couple of days of acquaintance.
We can’t waive these qualities away as born of circumstance or dictated by the needs of the story. If Loki had been sent to earth in the exact same situation as Thor, would his interactions with Coulson and SHIELD or Jane and crew have been anything like Thor’s? Imagine that Asgard had raised Tony Stark as the heir to the throne and exiled him to Earth to learn humility. He would have reacted to humans and their customs exactly like Thor did, right? Not a chance.
Even in his prideful moments, Thor is open and generous in a way that Loki and Tony Stark never would be, because that’s his character. He is quick to offer loyalty and respect to people who deserve it but don’t always get it, including Coulson, Selvig, Jane, and Bruce Banner. He still loves his brother even when he’s angry at him, as demonstrated in Thor: The Dark World, when Thor puts his trust in Loki easily and naturally in a crisis situation. Thor displays consistent devotion to all his family, especially his father and brother, even in moments of deep disagreement with them. If Thor were a different person, the MCU films would lose these quintessential traits that belong to him alone.
Cyclops: The Greater of Two Goods
In X-Men Evolution, one of my most beloved childhood shows, Scott Summers shows that virtuous heroes can develop conflicts that are just as interesting and complex as those of antiheroes. In most of his incarnations, Cyclops isn’t written well, while the writers lovingly explore all the subtleties of his rebellious counterpart Wolverine. This animated series is the exception: Evolution portrays Scott as both kind and generally idealistic (because he was an orphan who knew what it was like to be frightened and alone, only for a savior to miraculously rescue and give him a better life) but still rigidly respectful of the rules and hard on those who aren’t (in order to show his trust and gratitude to Professor X). His primary struggle revolves around discerning which of these goods is the greater.
Scott’s character development centers on learning how to best use his good intentions and virtues to help people, as a leader and a protector. Even as a child, I admired him for saving the life of the school quarterback, right after said classmate bullied, provoked, and then deliberately knocked him to the ground. He’s far from perfect, as evidenced by how often he allows his rivals to bait him, but that moment reveals the genuine and unselfish altruism at his core. Any missteps Scott makes, excepting a few that we can chalk up to the fact that he’s a teenager, come from trying too hard to do the right thing. Instead of starting as a dubious hero who must learn responsibility in spite of all his natural tendencies’ rejecting it, Scott journeys through learning how to use his already existing virtue well.
Captain America: Great Because He is Good
Last but not least, we have Captain America: the goody two-shoes that fans can’t help but like. Steve Rogers is my favorite kind of virtuous hero because he isn’t an interesting and well-written character in spite of his moral alignment—his richness actually stems from his virtue. He has layers of goodness we can peel back and analyze without ever lessening or tarnishing his unadulterated heroism.
For example, even though Captain America doesn’t have an absolute rule against killing, close observation reveals that he overcame none of his major or secondary villains in his films by personally killing them or even participating in their deaths. Captain America often chooses not to fight to defend himself, but he always rises to righteous anger in defense of others, from defending Bucky Barnes against misplaced accusations to rescuing soldiers abandoned to the enemy. He favors capture over killing in self-defense, something Tony Stark never worried about in his rampage through his third movie full of sympathetic minor villains. Even better, Captain America isn’t preachy about it: He doesn’t have to whine or pontificate about the evils of killing people, because he lives it. This fact makes him a great poster child for how to avoid writing murderous heroes without making their reluctance to kill nonsensical.
No one can fairly accuse Captain America of self-righteousness because, although he holds himself and everyone around him to a high standard of virtue, he is quick to forgive. When the Maximoff twins seek to switch sides, for instance, Steve puts their sincerity to the test by challenging them to help him save the lives of people in a train accident. Once they’ve proven that they share his basic principles about protecting the weak, he accepts them into the fold. He is the only Avenger present in the showdown before Vision’s creation that never engages in any petty repayment of insults to Wanda and Pietro. They have repented, so all is forgiven. Steve occupies the high ground without sacrificing his humility and compassion.
Perfection to Point to
When reflecting on modern English literature, G.K. Chesterton observed:
A modern morality, on the other hand, can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to…
This is one of the few things Chesterton wrote that left me depressed and discouraged. I wondered if pervasive modern and postmodern philosophies had weakened our moral imaginations. If our generation of authors might be suffering from a handicap that prevented them from writing truly virtuous characters, I worried that I would have fewer and fewer characters to embrace in the future. It’s a relief that Thor, Scott Summers, and Steve Rogers prove we can still write good guys well and enjoy them unreservedly, in spite of our cultural losses.