Chris Evans is not special.
This is less a devastating insult than a statement of fact.
On the face of it, there is ample evidence to contradict this: He is Captain America, the centrepiece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe aka what might be the biggest ongoing franchise in modern movie history – a web of connected universes that has made more than $8 billion worldwide since 2008. Phase 3 of MCU’s slate commenced with the release of Civil War, and fans are still packing out comic conventions to see him (and the rest of the cast, of course). Across platforms, the internet hosts (often long, rambling) odes to Chris Evans’ blessed, charmed existence.
And speaking of charm, the boy’s got it. If he were a fragrance, that would be the top note, pushing out all notes (raw sex appeal, attractive world-weariness, a dour but commanding hard shell) into a secondary tier. Because Chris Evans will never be considered the second coming of Brando. He is not the golden boy Robert Redford once was, he is not the louche, sexual being Warren Beatty was, nor does he have the intense brooding machismo of Pacino or De Niro. He does not have the sleek, urbane presence of Denzel Washington. He does not have the arrogance-adjacent megawatt star quality that made us sit up and take notice of Tom Cruise. That star system is largely a thing of the past and where there were once standalone giants – shimmering, glowing stars in the cinema firmament, even – we now have a slate of (largely interchangeable) nice white men. We live in the Age of the Many Chrises. Fifteen years ago, you could argue, Chris Evans would be enjoying a nice mid-level Hollywood career, churning out inoffensive rom-coms (Playing It Cool) and cult fare (Snowpiercer), topped off by the occasional sleeper hit. But times are different, and specialness is a bonus rather than a hard requirement.
It's no accident that Chris Evans, now forever entwined with that symbol of American heroism, Captain America, rose to the top of the desirability pyramid. His arrival there is the result of a perfect confluence of events: his relative privacy, despite continent-spanning promotional duties; his thoughtful, not-quite-full-bro persona; and the perfect marriage of actor and role, chief among them. In an age when vulnerability is met not with derision but understanding, now is the perfect moment for a star like Chris Evans to become the canvas we need to project our desires onto.
In a column last August, I described Chris Evans as “very handsome, but not oppressively so.” He has a thick head of hair, nice blue eyes, and a pleasant – if not exactly breathtaking – face. He is the Goldilocks of attractive men: everything is just right. He is brawny, but not thick-necked; twinkly but not smarmy. This delicate alchemy projects an easy-breezy persona, and his career choices make sense in light of that. People hire him to be any number of variations on the theme of “chill bro”: In 2005’s Fantastic Four, he’s Johnny Storm, the hottie superhero with the cheeky smile all the ladies like (he flexes his abs a couple of times just for the heck of it, and possibly again under his skin-tight supersuit, en route to turning himself into a fireball to save the world). Even when the fate of the world is not in his hands, as in 2009’s Push – a deeply silly movie about government agencies and young people with superpowers – he brings the insouciance; at one point he shuts the door with his mind while he’s kissing a girl.
Ease and charisma have been the mainstay of Evans’ career since I first saw him onscreen when he played a teenager in Not Another Teen Movie. In Zach, a spoof of an archetype (the kind of guy ’80s teen movies introduced, and ’90s teen movies finessed), Chris Evans sets up his stall as the handsome guy who is just “bro” enough – probably a master of beer pong and flip cup who wears backwards baseball caps with ease, but who also has kind eyes. He would dance well with you at your cousin’s wedding and doesn’t actively hate women. It’s sort of tricky to pull off, even though people like him make it look really easy.
Chris Evans has talent, and he is well-placed to explore it while expanding his skill set. He may not dazzle upon first viewing – he’s no show pony – but he’s reliable and solid. He is kind of a mid-priced American-made family car in a world of glossy Euro-luxe machines. Put plainly, Chris Evans – affable, charming, and bro – is a stand-in for America: an ordinary thing, made less ordinary through sheer will, hard graft, and a determination to succeed. Yes, he’s a hunk, but perhaps that is incidental. Chris Evans is a handy avatar for America itself. What we respond to, what we have told ourselves in order to love him, is the idea that Chris Evans is a also a decent man, not like the others.
Which leads us to another thing: women and Chris Evans. Women fucking love Chris Evans.
Not all women, sure, but a good number. It’s an attachment that bloomed rapidly following his entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (starting with Fantastic Four) but for some, it’s been percolating for more than a decade. On a recent appearance on former co-star (and close friend) Anna Faris’s podcast, Anna Faris Is Unqualified, Faris and Evans’ co-guest Jenny Slate gush about what an excellent person he is. “You could not be more, like... masculine,” Faris says to Evans at one point, and on cue, in a show of good humour, he quips back: “Should I do some push-ups?”
Everyone knows Chris Evans likes women. On Faris’s podcast, Evans mentions being raised by and with strong women. “I mean, I feel like a woman sometimes,” he says before laughing self-deprecatingly. His “best friend in the world” is Tara, a woman "back home in Massachusetts.” Red carpet displays of affection for female family members aside, he says it often enough, and, every so often, we even see it out in the wild. I was once sent a video of Evans purportedly getting a woman’s number (while dressed in baggy jeans and a sweatsuit top!). In an excellent and now infamous interview by Edith Zimmerman in 2011, Evans puts an inebriated Zimmerman in his guest bedroom to sleep it off and offers to drive her home the next day. In the piece, Zimmerman refers to his casual way of touching her (and other people) all through their time together: making sure they’re OK, mildly flirting, laughing. At the People's Choice Awards in 2015, Evans escorted Betty White, then 93, up to the stage to collect her “Favorite TV Icon” award. This is all potent straight-lady catnip, and even the most jaded have found themselves helplessly in his thrall.
When women look at Chris Evans, they see something very clearly, and what they see is more or less the same thing. It goes beyond the obvious – the “wicked blue” eyes, the great skin, the defined body, the semi-bashful smile, the (arguably too infrequently grown) ginger-tinted beard – and slips into something more ineffable. He just gives off a certain…vibe. He seems soulful (“well, for a white guy”), they’ll say when prodded. He seems really chill; he likes space stuff (“I’m a big space guy. I like astronomy.”). And, according to a 2015 Toast article, “If Chris Evans Were Your Boyfriend,” “he’d get you both tickets to see the Joan Didion documentary at the Arclight.” BuzzFeed journalist Alexis Nedd does an occasional Twitter series featuring original Chris Evans “headcanons.” My favourite: “chris evans would surprise you with teeny pockets of wokeness. you'd find a tub of coconut oil in his shower and turn around to see him nod.”
There is no end to the marvels of Chris Evans as he exists in women’s minds – all the stars in the sky could not match the number of ways he could probably make you happy.
In 1940, “there was no national symbol, no all-American hero, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, who had the bravery and the brawn to fly over to Europe and break Hitler’s jaw,” writes Matt Frobeck in Captain America: The Ultimate Guide To The First Avenger. “That’s where Captain America came in.”
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America was never just a dude in a tight suit: He was an ideal, the hero America needed to lift its inherited war gloom and punch Hitler – and other assorted villains – square in the mouth. “He still represents the power of the US, and shows us how it should – and perhaps can – live up to its loftiest values,” writes Frobeck.
In 1940, this was a pressing thing: Comic books are not just pretty pictures, and the war effort was not just about, say, rationing. Captain America is an idealised reflection of what every American should aspire to be – and while he is special, there was never supposed to be just one of him. His specialness comes from his unspecialness. Steve Rogers (even his name is plain!) was a boy from New York, the son of Irish immigrants. He was frail and scrawny, until he was selected to receive the Super-Soldier serum, devised by a recently defected German scientist.
Cap is a stand-in for the nation he was named after: a perfectly clean canvas onto which comic readers (and more recently film viewers) can project whatever Good and Great Thing they want. As an Avenger – the right hand of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Cap is a complete American seduction: Everything you could want him to be, he simply...is. In the American fantasy, America the beautiful – the fair and the just – is never really the bad guy, not even when there is evidence to the contrary. Cap is a necessary seduction, then: the angel on top of the Christmas tree who tells America that it is a fundamentally good, strong country, with good, strong values.
Cap’s basically Superman, but without the pesky alien background: born and made in the USA, from the labours of immigrants. He was created to be great (the core of the American Dream); forged at a time when men were noble and kind (except maybe when it came to negroes, and selected minorities) and upstanding and stoic (often at the expense of their personal relationships). Cap is A Good Man. But even better, he is A Good Man Who Used To Be Puny. Steve Rogers has vast reserves of goodness within – a goodness forged by weakness, but not the kind that crushes a person. No, his weaknesses only embiggen him. To wit: Cap hates bullies and he is here for the little guy, the guy he used to be. He is charming but not slick or skeezy; he is kind and patient and generous with his time and his abilities.
Actor, meet Perfect Role.
Because that’s Chris Evans. Blue-eyed and reassuringly wide, old lady–escorting, NASA-interested, occasionally scandalous but, whisper it, just a teensy bit regular. The American Ideal.
“chris evans is a different kind of white man tbqh,” reads a post by Tumblr user steveandsam. In reply, another Tumblr user, afro-elf, writes: “he’s an organic italian bread roll as opposed to the average wonderbread, i completely agree.”
That pair of posts is a perfect distillation of the love for the image Evans projects, and it plays just as well at home in America as it does abroad (the non-US market has become increasingly powerful; success with large Asian audiences means huge box office takings).
In a field of so many just-different-enough candidates (the other Chrises, mostly), how is it that we placed the mantle of everyman American masculinity on Chris Evans? His place at the top of the "acceptably coveted" heap says less about him than it does about us, and what we want in 2016.
Chris Evans is the very template of the boy next door Hollywood has been so successful at repackaging for us over and over. He has said nothing too unacceptably awful that we could shun him for, which leaves us free and clear to construct narratives about him that suit our (positive) personal politics and outlooks. He is unfailingly polite, loves dogs, and his mother (whom he brought along on the Oscar red carpet in 2013; his sister was his plus-one to the Oscars in 2016). If the bar seems low, well, it is. If you are nice and charming, and have no overtly racist or misogynist fuckery in your past or present, eventually you might get crowned the internet’s boyfriend. Or Captain America. At this point, they’re sort of interchangeable. None of this is jarring, or even that interesting.
But then Evans makes it a little more interesting, all without dislodging himself from his (somewhat reluctantly filled?) throne. He just about escapes falling into the “bro” box (witness his unending adoration for football player Tom Brady, or his gentle bemusement at the idea that a woman may actively choose to not wax her bikini line), by being a little self-aware: “I’m not a complete meatball, bro!” he protests to Faris on her podcast.
Igor – the subject is sentient.
There is internet-level evidence to support his non-meatball claim. He has talked very openly about the ways he suffers with anxiety (“It’s very difficult for me to talk about myself. You feel strange, self-aware, very foolish. Your third eye clicks on, just to try to maintain a healthy sense of perspective…”) and how accepting the role of Captain America spurred the decision to begin therapy. In a Rolling Stone interview this month, he described the half-hour required of him on premiere red carpets as being "like 30 minutes of walking on hot coals.” Bong Joon-Ho, his director on dystopian sci-fi film Snowpiercer, said of Evans in a 2014 interview: “He’s actually just a very, very sensitive guy. You don’t notice that immediately because he’s so muscular and strong. But he’s actually very delicate.” He has a younger brother, Scott, who is gay, and he didn’t run screaming into the night when Scott came out to him. He bought a place in Boston, despite being, you know, Cap. He wants to direct, maybe full-time (and has already made his debut, Before We Go) when he’s done his Marvel duty.
If America’s symbol of unfettered masculinity (the face exported to far-flung markets) is to be a straight, hypermasculine white man named Chris, well… We could do a lot worse. That he does not have the wild, dangerous sexuality of his ’70s forebears, or reveal a simmering cruelty beneath the surface, is a good thing. His job as Marvel ambassador (playing the iconic Cap) requires a certain sort of what could be called blandness: How difficult did it become for audiences to divorce Tom Cruise’s onscreen characters from Tom Cruise IRL? Exactly. The reason Chris Evans works, the reason he is Tumblr’s favourite reflective meathead, is the glimmer of hope he offers: On such a pleasingly blank canvas, we can write in so much more.
The Chris Evans who is a mix of tight smedium tees, backwards baseball caps, and charming “left boob grabs” is also the same Chris Evans who is open about feeling anxious, who is a little sad, perhaps, that people ask him more about his workouts than his professional growth, and who might run for political office one day. He is the guy who says he’s “clearly an ass man” and who seemed to (sincerely) apologise for calling the character of Black Widow a “complete whore.” Just as Cap is equal parts just a man and the aspirational man we could all be, Chris Evans’ masculinity leaves room for human error – and greatness. It is a perfect hybrid of American masculinity as it has been (obsessed with sport, for example, and not very tender) and as it could be (woundable, and layered).
Cap is a seduction, and in the broad-shouldered-but-vulnerable, 6-foot, blue-eyed, Boston-born and -raised body of Chris Evans, America seduces itself over and over again.