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The enduring legacy and fantasy of Captain America’s beard, explained

How Captain America’s beard became an honorary Avenger.

Captain America and his beard in Avengers: Infinity War
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The most beautiful moment of Chris Evans’s eight years as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, lasted about seven minutes.

That’s a microscopic piece of the time that Evans spent onscreen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise whose world was built across 22 movies over 11 years. And three of those movies were solely devoted to Rogers, a puny runt who, with the aid of super soldier serum, turns into the superpowered patriot Captain America. That elixir grants Rogers barn-door shoulders, a chest that seems like it could stop an oncoming train, biceps that can curl helicopters, and a butt so turgid and round that it threatens to redefine the idea of American exceptionalism. As appealing and character-defining as each of those were, none compare to the devastating beauty of what came later: Steve Rogers’s beard, and the glory of seeing it for the first time.

Obscuring Evans’s sharp jaw and poreless skin should be garish, like installing carpet atop mahogany floors. To put a beard on Captain America is to mask the literal face of our country. And it would undoubtedly clash with the rest of Rogers’s all-American style, from his appropriately cut hair to his well-fitting, unassuming wardrobe.

But when you see it — without prejudice — the beard makes sense. It deserves to be on Captain America’s face. And we want it to be.

The beard made its first appearance in the promotional material for Avengers: Infinity War. In the group poster, Evans is facing to our left, looking like he’s about to rush to our defense. His facial hair is in for the fight, too, standing majestic and unbroken. In another poster, a bright blue bolt grazes Evans’s face, making him look like an angel just touched down from a sapphire sun. The beard looks great, even if it’s blown out and bluish.

A poster for Avengers: Infinity War.

And in a third poster, featuring Captain America solo, Evans is twisted in a pose that exposes America’s glutes to full effect. But our eyes are again drawn to the beard, in profile, beaming proudly, as if the stubble is imbued with indomitable freedom and justice:

Captain America in an Avengers: Infinity War poster.

The beard, like Cap himself, only appears in Infinity War for six minutes and 45 seconds. Bearded Cap first appears in the shadows, saving his friends Scarlet Witch and Vision from the Carrie Coon-voiced villain Proxima Midnight. The beard is peppered in little spots throughout the movie — when we see Rogers recruiting Rhodey at Avengers HQ, telling the team where they’re going next, etc. — and its final appearance is in the grand battle against Thanos, defending the country known as Wakanda.

Trying to pay attention during those seven minutes is especially difficult with the beauty that is Cap’s beard demanding your attention. Even when Cap is throttling Thanos’s hell hounds or taking on Corvus Glaive, it’s impossible to pry your eyes away from Rogers’s majestic scruff.

For some, seeing the beard inevitably piques curiosity.

Does Rogers only need mere minutes to grow a five o’clock shadow? How long did it take him to grow his particular beard? How does he maintain it? If Captain America is everything good about America, then what does America’s beard feel like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like to have America brush against my neck?

That curiosity begets fantasy.

“It would definitely give you beard burn if you made out, but you also wouldn’t care because getting a little roughed up by a grizzlier Cap is exactly the point,” Captain America beard connoisseur, Variety TV critic, and former Vox culture writer Caroline Framke told me. “It smells like woodsmoke and pine.”

BuzzFeed declared the beard “the most important part of Infinity War.” Cap’s beard has become so popular with fans (who have flooded sites like Tumblr and Pinterest with art, GIFs, and movie stills), declaring how hot the beard is, how handsome Steve Rogers is, and how the beard’s beauty can make you forget about the world’s ills and the mortal coil, and possibly knock you unconscious.

The facial hair even overshadowed some of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes during the Endgame press tour, when someone asked Evans’s co-stars whether they approved of the beard (the majority preferred bearded Cap).

And, like waking up from a dream kicking, the first time we see Cap in Endgame, he’s in the bathroom abruptly shaving off the beard.

CNET lamented that the beard was Endgame’s “biggest loss.” a bold statement considering the movie is about dealing with the loss of heroes Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange — the future bedrock of the Avengers.

So what precisely makes Steve Rogers’s beard as popular as it is — seemingly popular enough to overshadow some of Infinity War’s biggest deaths? At the end of the day, it’s just human facial hair growing in an eye-pleasing pattern over a handsome human’s jaw. But I found out there’s so much more.

How beards in America explain Captain America’s beard

It’s so beautiful.

There’s so much more to beards than just hair growing from unshaven skin.

For taxonomy purposes, a beard consists of swaths of facial hair that slide down from the middle of the earlobe, hugging the chin and cascading to the Adam’s apple. But culturally, beards symbolize a certain combination of rebellion, chaos, and age. The thought being that men with beards don’t follow the rules set by corporate or mainstream America.

According to men’s magazines and grooming chroniclers like Esquire and the New York Times Style section, beards started becoming popular six or so years ago because of the rebellion they represented at the time.

“Previously a hallmark of certain kinds of lifestyles — say, lumberjack, biker or hipster — beards have moved past their countercultural roots and into the mainstream, showing up on Hollywood red carpets (Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling have all been photographed with them) and, now, in cubicles across the country,” the New York Times reported in 2013.

Hollywood actors hopped on the trend first, according to the Times; then mainstream culture followed suit. As members of a creative field, actors aren’t supposed to be clinical or robotic or rule-following. They want to be cool, organically rebellious, trendsetting spirits. Ergo, they and their adopted styles, facial hair included, need to get across that idea of rebellion.

By the time dudes across America adopted the scruff, the beard went from being worn by people who were actually off the beaten path — or could at least afford to come off that way — to being worn by men who wanted to be seen that way, all by following a popular trend.

“I think people started putting their toes in the water five or so years ago in the corporate setting with beards, and then got the general go-ahead, so they went nuts,” J. Clark Walker, a barber at Martial Vivot Salon Pour Hommes in New York City, tells me.

By 2014, the New York Times noted that prominent CEOs of companies like Google, Salesforce, and Goldman Sachs had begun sporting beards, a marked change from their previous clean-shaven looks — a C-suite banshee shriek indicating the looming death of everything beards stood for.

Another nail in the coffin of the beard was the rise of the “achievement beard,” a term used to describe beards worn by men who got to the pinnacle of their respective fields and then effectively retired, like David Letterman, David Beckham, and Jon Stewart.

If there’s anything that marks the decline of beards as a signal of rebellion or a sign of an outsider, it’s wealthy CEOs of billion-dollar companies and successful celebrities wearing them.

Then there was the rise of the Republican beard late in 2018 and early this year, in which GOP lawmakers and figures, including political square Ted Cruz, began growing out beards, some more successfully than others. It was no coincidence that businesses built around razors and shaving accoutrements leveled off by 2018 as well.

Now, it seems that the notion of beards representing any kind of counterculture is dead. Beards are now more of a statement of personal style, a style that wants to vaguely thumb its nose at the mainstream, as opposed to being an organic symbol of defiance.

“Big grizzly beards were the rage for a couple years; now the craze has slowed down and people are just maintaining the length that suits them,” Walker said. “No one’s trying to shock the world anymore.”

Captain America’s beard works because of Steve Rogers

Look at that majestic beard.

Curiously enough, shocking the world is the reason Rogers’s scruff works.

In the MCU, bearded Rogers is the result of 2016’s Civil War. Rogers, fighting his nature, takes a stand against the US government and the United Nations, which want to register superheroes because of the damage they could do if unchecked. Rogers argues that he trusts his own judgment more than that of a government body, and that heroes, like all civilians, need freedom. Adding to this mix is the reemergence of Rogers’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who we find out isn’t actually bad but rather the victim of intense Hydra brainwashing.

Civil War ends with Rogers breaking off with his own team of Avengers, essentially everyone but Tony Stark and James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and going off the grid and on the run. And to get that point across, it means not shaving.

Like the real world, the MCU uses a character’s appearance to help inform his or her story. Tony Stark’s goatee monstrosity helps get across his haughtiness, as Walker explains, as no regular civilian would have the courage to shape their scruff into something so physically unappealing. And in Endgame, Thor’s unkempt mane and billowy beard are signs of how he’s let everything, including his physical appearance, go in a fit of depression.

For Rogers, not shaving is sacrilege. If having a beard used to connote a sense of rebellion, being clean-shaven represents compliance. Rogers follows the rules, leads by example, and is a beacon of hope and goodness. And in order to show that, his haircut and his shave must be precise.

Rogers’s persona and his style — clean-shaven with a military-grade side part — evoke a vintage (think: white crewneck T-shirts, brown leather jackets, blue denim), effortless sense of cool. There’s nothing audacious or mythical about him. Steve Rogers is an uncomplicated guy who just follows the rules — until he sees that the rules are broken.

“His entire arc has been about growing up from a scrawny kid into a super soldier, trying to keep his intrinsic curiosity and kindness without leaning too far into naiveté, and ultimately learning the hard ways of the world,” Framke told me. “There’s something about him growing a beard that instantly ages him and makes it clear that he isn’t the kid he used to be.”

Rogers’s beard only works because of how deeply Marvel has realized and crystallized Rogers as a character both personally and physically.

The beard grounds the character Marvel introduced to us eight years ago, making him more relatable and human. If bearded Rogers is willing to defy the government, something he cares deeply about, then what else is he willing to defy? Clean-shaven Rogers would shake your parents’ hands, buy you dinner, lend you his jacket, have you home by curfew, and walk you to your front door at the end of the night.

Rays of sunlight or the sheer glow from Cap’s scruff? We cannot be sure.

Bearded Rogers? There’s something that says he might stay out past midnight (Walker notes that Rogers’s longer hair works in unison with the look too).

The power to create a lifetime of fantasy is a testament to its beauty and grace. But again, it’s fleeting. In Endgame, Rogers’s first minutes onscreen are spent giving himself a shave — the beard is already gone.

Having witnessed half of life on Earth decimated and all of his friends gone, Rogers’s clean shave is his way of going back to being the Captain America the grim post-snap world needs him to be: the impossibly hopeful soldier and relentlessly good man. It’s out of duty, and seemingly his and our way of moving forward.

Though he can’t exactly blame us for wanting to look back.