In the run-up to this summer’s superhero blockbuster, The Avengers, I’ve decided to take some time and look at the core heroes of the much-anticipated movie. This is partly an exercise in meme-mining for my own uses, since I have a deep interest in what makes successful superheroes iconic, but mostly because I just find them so gosh-darn irresistible. I thought I’d start with Captain America.
Last year’s movie did an amazingly faithful job of translating America’s most patriotic hero from comics to silver screen, but it only shows us the “modern” version of Captain America’s origin. His original origin, and the story of his literary creation, is in many ways much more interesting.
In the run-up to America’s entry into WWII, a lot of Americans remained isolationist. More than a few Americans were actually pro-fascist, and many Americans remembered the post-war politics that followed WWI (The Great War, the War to End War), and wondered why we should do it again. Cap’s creator, Joe Simon, wrote the first Captain America stories a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. Simon found Nazi Germany morally repulsive, and the cover of Captain America Comics #1 showed Cap punching Hitler in the face. It sold a million copies (and Simon got a lot of hate-mail). Unlike in the movie, since the comic started before we were at war, Steve Rogers first fought on the home front against Nazi spies and saboteurs–and the Red Skull showed up in the very first issue, an American industrialist and Nazi traitor.
In short, Captain America was a super-patriotic, pro-war icon. Not surprisingly, his popularity faded after the war, although writers tried to field him against the Commie Menace for awhile. Eventually his comic was canceled, and he disappeared until later writers brought him back to be part of the Avengers–making him one of the first Sleeper characters in popular fiction (the man who goes to sleep, like Rip Van Winkle, to awaken decades later in a much-changed world). Since his reawakening/thawing out, Steve Rogers has been a man out of time, and various writers have used the theme to explore modern aspects of American culture and society.
Captain America has always fought “politically motivated villains: Nazies (Red Skull, Baron Zemo), Neo-Nazies (Crossbones, Dr. Faustus), technocratic fascists (AIM), Communists, anarchists (Flag Smasher), and terrorist conspiracies (Hydra). Along the way, he’s been used as a critique for whatever the writers think of current US policies, foreign and domestic; in the Civil War story-arc he actually led a superhero rebellion against the US Government’s superhuman registration policy. After giving himself up to end the superhero war, getting assassinated, coming back (superheroes do that a lot), and being pardoned by executive order, he is now the head of national security–yes, he even gets to boss SHIELD around.
With this background, Captain America has always been a symbol of Americans as we want to see ourselves (strong, idealistic, standing up for freedom and the little guy, etc). He firmly believes in the core political Enlightenment ideal expressed in the opening line of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He expresses his faith in God through his defense of American’s God-given rights, and considers the USA the greatest nation in the world because he believes it is the nation that best defends those rights. How accurately that belief reflects reality is, of course, a subject of hot debate. As an icon of muscular, often uncritical patriotism, quite literally wrapped in the flag, Captain America can be both an attractive and problematic hero. In the Marvel Universe, he is currently the conscience of the nation as it tries to maintain its security while not giving up its freedoms.
So, what do I predict for Captain America in the upcoming Avengers movie? First, from teasers it appears that they are going to give at least a few scenes to his Man Out Of Time problem–we’ll get to see him adjusting to life in the 21st Century. I expect him to be the grounding character in the merry band of anarchists, mad scientists, and government agents that make up the Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow). As the stand-up soldier of the bunch, I also expect him to take the team-leadership roll–not without resistance from Tony Stark, who thinks he’s smarter than God and possibly Thor, who thinks he is one. Since of the entire group, Captain America comes closest to the Everyman of the story, if the writers are smart they’ll have made him the main viewpoint character through which we get to witness all these heroes in action.
In any case, I have high hopes that the movie writers will realize what they have here with Captain America–the opportunity to make unabashed superhero war movies. Make the enemy Hydra, Nazis, alien invaders (Independence Day, anyone?), or some other absolute villain, and they’ll have blockbusters for years to come.