Captain America: A Case Study in Depression
Contains spoilers for Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If ‘Captain America’ and ‘depression’ were used in the same sentence, most would think of the hero’s origin story dating back to the 1900s and the Great Depression. Not as many would consider the mental state of Steve Rogers starting midway through Captain America: The First Avenger and continuing through the most recent installment of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But in reality, Steve Rogers stands as an important example of depression, its symptoms, and how it can affect the hyper-masculine archetypes of today’s superheroes.
The Center for Disease Control defines depression as someone who experiences five or more of the following symptoms: “depressed or sad mood, diminished interest in activities which used to be pleasurable, weight gain or loss, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue, inappropriate guilt, difficulties concentrating, as well as recurrent thoughts of death…for a continuous period of at least two weeks” (CDC).
Depression manifests in different people in different ways, but these baseline symptoms give a general idea of what to look for, and certainly serve as enough background to trace in a character such as Captain America whose every action can be scrutinized by viewers. In fact, five of these symptoms can be seen in Captain America during his three major film appearances.
Depressed or sad mood: In a deleted scene from The Avengers, Steve is shown trying to adjust to his new life. He’s seen leafing through paperwork pronouncing all of his old friends as deceased, except for Peggy who he contemplates calling before deciding against it. During this process, he is sitting in a darkened room with washed out colors, highlighting the loss he’s facing and the sadness that comes along with that.
Diminished interest in activities which used to be pleasurable: Two notable scenes from Captain America: The Winter Soldier show Steve’s lack of interest in anything outside of work or anything he might have done for fun in the past. In one instance, he is talking to Natasha (aka the Black Widow) who has just asked if he has plans Saturday night. Steve says back, “Well, all the guys from my barbershop quartet are dead, so…No, not really.” Obviously, Steve is still mourning the loss of his friends, but in doing so has refused to get himself back out into the world. Later on in the film, Steve is talking with Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon) inside the VA where Sam is a counselor. Sam asks about what makes Steve happy, to which Steve replies he doesn’t know. Steve also admits that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he quit serving the country. In other words, Steve has shown no interest in having fun or doing something he would find enjoyable, spending all of his energy on work instead.
Fatigue: The CDC lists sleep impairment as a possible side effect of depression, and since Steve cannot experience fatigue as non-serum infused individuals might, looking at his diminished sleep habits can offer a glimpse into this possibility. At the beginning of The Avengers, Steve is introduced while beating on a punching bag. Director Fury comes in to ask him to help save the world, but not before exchanging a quick dialogue:
Fury- “Trouble sleeping?”
Steve- “I slept for seventy years, sir. I think I’ve had my fill.”
This seemingly innocent and even cavalier comment hints at Steve’s inability or reluctance to sleep. Whether the cause is nightmares, flashbacks, or insomnia, the Captain is obviously experiencing some form of sleep impairment.
Inappropriate guilt: After Bucky’s fall from the train in Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve is seen sitting by himself in a bombed out bar. When Peggy comes to see him, Steve asks her if she knew that because of the serum, he can’t get drunk anymore. He’s been drinking, that’s clear enough, and his comment lends viewers to believe he’s been attempting to get himself drunk despite the serums limitations. Later in their conversation, Steve admits that he feels like Bucky’s death is his fault and that he believes his actions led to his friend’s death. This initial conversation can be credited to the recent grief from Bucky’s death, but Steve shows signs of guilt in later movies as well. When it is revealed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the infamous assassin the Winter Soldier is actually Bucky, Steve is initially shocked, but as the film progresses he shows again and again that he feels like Bucky’s transformation falls on his shoulders. He is relentless in saying that he’ll get Bucky to remember him, that Bucky needs to be saved, then is ready to die at Bucky’s hands to level the scales. Sure, Steve says his refusal to fight Bucky is because of their age-old friendship, but that does not explain why Steve feels the need to die at Bucky’s hands (an action that would surely haunt Bucky should he ever regain his memories) rather than attempt to bring him in and help him recover from his conditioning.
Recurrent thoughts of death: Even though an actual glimpse into Steve’s thought process is never given, it is not difficult to infer that Steve is engages in needlessly reckless behavior, and makes decisions that directly endanger his life. At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve crashes the Hydra plane Valkyrie into the ocean, an action he believes to be a suicide mission at the time. He makes no effort to escape, despite the plausibility of setting the plane on a crash course and attempting to jump. His safety would not have been assured, but it would have shown an attempt at survival rather than the easy acceptance of his imminent death pictured in the movie. This same theme occurs in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well, with Steve perfectly willing to let Bucky kill him. Steve’s given excuse of not wanting to hurt his friend is plausible, but just a few minutes earlier it is shown that Steve is able to subdue Bucky without hurting him, pinning him down instead. Instead of attempting to save himself and potentially even save Bucky from his tormentors, Steve accepts death as the best option. Steve also continuously engages in reckless acts that needlessly endanger his well being, including jumping out a plane without a parachute. He might be a superhero with an enhanced body, but he can still bleed, hurt, and die like a normal human, and these acts cannot be written off as simply ‘heroic’ since no other heroes show such continuous disregard for their own life and repeatedly accept death as a first outcome.
Weight gain or loss: The issue with this symptom is the super serum. There are a few possibilities here, one being that Steve’s body is altered to the extent that weight loss would not be readily visible on his frame, a second being weight fluctuation in itself isn’t possible seeing as seventy years frozen in ice didn’t drop him a pound, and a third being that Steve’s film-persona inhibits the ability to display weight fluctuation. Regardless, this is one symptom that cannot be readily attributed to Captain America.
Psychomotor agitation or retardation: This two-sided coin requires two considerations, once again due to Steve’s serum infusion. The serum would presumably erase any kind of psychomotor retardation, keeping him from being sluggish or too weary, similar to his differing experience with fatigue. However, the psychomotor agitation could plausibly be visible, as jumpy fingers or a bouncing leg or other such nervous-type gestures. None of those are displayed in the films, with Steve remaining stoic and at military parade rest most of the time when not in action. So while the symptom does not appear to be present, psychomotor retardation could be suppressed by the serum, but there is no way of knowing for sure so both aspects will be considered nonexistent.
Difficulties concentrating: This symptom isn’t really present in the films. Steve always seems to be focused and in the game, ready for the next mission that comes his way. At home, training, on the battlefield, whatever the backdrop Steve always appears to be concentrated on the task at hand without needing to be called back to the conversation or missing a step. And based on Steve’s initial response to the grief of Bucky’s death (storming head first into Hydra’s main base), this is hardly surprising. Steve seems to prefer remaining active and otherwise involved as opposed to slowing down and letting his emotions actually take their course. So, while this symptom appears not to be present, it is likely not for the best reasons since bottling up emotions is never a healthy practice.
So What Does it Mean?
To recap, Steve experiences five of the eight symptoms listed by the CDC throughout the films, which span (only counting Steve’s time awake, not his time frozen) far over the CDC’s two-week margin. Therefore it is not only plausible, but also entirely probable that Steve is suffering from depression. If recent events in Steve’s life are taken into account, the idea becomes even more likely considering how he has lost everyone he loves in some capacity or another, whether through death, sickness, or brainwashing.
Steve’s symptoms could very well be attributed to grief in the face of such tragic events, but even if Steve’s depression is a lingering form of his grieving it is still important to acknowledge. Mental health is all too often ignored or brushed under the rug, especially in relation to men and modern society’s hyper-masculine expectations. But, given that Captain America: The Winter Soldier occurs a considerable amount of time after Steve’s thawing, it is very possible that his depression is farther-reaching than initial grief.
Discussing depression in relation to one of “Earth’s mightiest heroes” is important for multiple reasons, but most stem from viewers being able to relate with the character, feel validated, and also feel represented in media. Society’s definition of masculinity does not often include emotion and in fact expects men to shut down emotional responses to most situations, leading to a feminization of mental health issues and a reluctance to discuss them for fear of being perceived as weak. However, Captain America is the embodiment of masculinity with his chiseled physique, physical prowess, and steadfast morals and patriotism, and he is seen struggling with emotions and how to express them in a healthy manner.
This representation recognizes an often-overlooked fact of life and validates people’s feelings. If Captain America struggles, then surely ‘normal’ people are allowed to struggle too. Not to mention that representation of mental health issues is just as important as any other kind of representation, offering a way for people to see themselves on screen and thus feel less alienated or wrong.
There’s no way to prove for sure whether or not Steve Rogers is depressed, but taking a look at how symptoms are playing out in his life and showing such a strong figure struggling in any way emotionally is a step forward for representation of mental health in media and should be encouraged as a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues and encourage discussion. Captain America serves as a multi-dimensional look at depression, offering a case study that is wholly unique and heart wrenching. For those who see it, Captain America is even more of a hero not just for saving the day, but for waging a seemingly endless war within his own mind as well. That kind of strength is seldom recognized, and even more seldom seen on the big screen.
What do you think? Leave a comment.