Captain America Revisited 6

Who Will Campaign Door-to-Door for America? 

If The First Avenger outdoes its predecessor’ politics in any way, it’s in at least attempting to contextualize America’s outlook on war. Steve Rogers’ peer, Private Gilmore Hodge (Lex Shrapnel) remarks on being led by Peggy Carter, a woman and a British citizen, saying he “thought he was signing up for the U.S. Army.” The comment is emblematic of the general U.S. viewpoint on militarism, one steeped in both nationalist and hyper-masculine convictions — convictions that Thor tries and ultimately fails to subvert — though Carter proves her worth by responding to Hodge on his own terms, promptly punching him in the face.

Regardless, Hodge is endorsed for the Super Soldier Program by Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), who seeks mostly physical strength and the ability to follow orders. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) however, seeks qualities “beyond the physical,” leading Col. Phillips to toss a dummy grenade into a crowd of soldiers. Hodge hides behind a truck. Rogers, in an especially touching scene, jumps on the grenade without hesitation. A small man, willing to lay down his life for his peers, even those who had bullied him. A quality beyond the physical.

This grenade was Rogers’ second test in the film. His first, a much subtler appraisal, was being asked by Erskine — a Queens-based scientist originally from Germany — if he wants to kill Nazis. To which Rogers responds: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” It’s a noble answer, and enough of a barometer for Rogers’ morality that Erskine picks him for the program. But this outlook isn’t shared by the rest of their country.

The Super Soldier Program is shut down after Erskine is murdered by H.Y.D.R.A., but the U.S. government, not wanting to waste the star power of Steve Rogers, drafts him into the role of propaganda mascot. He wears a suit resembling his original comic book outfit — his first real-world comic even makes an appearance, sold on stands as wartime propaganda — and he tours the country reciting pre-written lines about contributing to the war efforts. The mechanics of this salesmanship are outside his control, but more importantly, they act in contention with who he is.

Even the song that plays on his U.S.O. tour, “The Star Spangled Man with a Plan,” features not only the lyric “Who’ll hang the noose on the goose-stepping goons from Berlin?” — an upbeat line about capital punishment, clashing directly with Rogers’ response about not wanting to kill — but also “Who’ll kick the Krauts to Japan?” Not “Nazis,” mind you, but “Krauts,” a derogatory term for Germans in general.

In contrast, the film’s narrative perspective sides heavily with Dr. Erskine, one of the “Krauts” in question. The night before Rogers’ procedure, Erskine mentions that people often forget “the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.” Germans like Erskine are also casualties of Hitler’s war.

Erskine reminds Rogers to stay a good man no matter what, a reminder he alludes to even with his dying breath. He is to Rogers what Ho Yinsen was to Tony Stark in Iron Man, a scientist from a country America is at war with, reminding our hero to stay true to himself. Though, both Erksine and Yinsen ultimately re-focus their own wartime narratives back toward American heroes who represent facets of American militarism — the series’ default perspective on global conflict, and one it rarely seeks to challenge.

The flip side to the MCU’s attempts at wartime nuance lie within each film’s specific wartime politics. They rarely extend beyond their heroes’ limited outlook, a pitfall Marvel found itself unable to escape until recently with Black Panther. Here, the issue manifests in how the film frames Nazi ideology during World War II.

Captain America Revisited 4

Carry the Flag Shore-to-Shore for America, From Hoboken to Spokane

The Red Skull wishes to ascend to Godhood, and the film borrows Nazi aesthetics to create Nazi-esque villains that aren’t quite Nazis, but they’re Nazi enough. The decision to obfuscate real Nazis horrors was arguably sound — this is a four-quadrant fantasy film, after all — but the downside to scaling back H.Y.D.R.A.’s ties to the Nazi regime is that they end up divorced from Nazism almost entirely. The film even goes as far as giving Hitler and the Red Skull an ideological falling-out.

By removing the specifics of the Nazi ideology, the film leaves only its texture, from the uniforms to occultism to vague notions of superiority. Not once is it remarked upon that blond, blue-eyed Steve Rogers is, ironically, an Ubermensch opposing Nazism; Hitler’s own ideal, come back to haunt him. Even so, the lack of a coherent substitute ideology poses its own conundrum.

The Red Skull, like the remnants of H.Y.D.R.A. in The Winter Soldier, seeks power and global domination in the broadest possible terms. In the process, the good-natured Steve Rogers is rendered a mirror to fascism in the abstract; he’s the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad of superheroes, a symbol without philosophy. He may fight for “the little guy,” but who is “the little guy” in this scenario? Whose necks are H.Y.D.R.A.’s boots actually stepping on? America, the global and military superpower? Steve Rogers may be Marvel’s moral compass, but who is he really fighting for?

If Rogers resents bullies, what does he support? What does Captain America truly represent if not, like most other Marvel heroes, maintaining an unspoken status quo? While Steve Rogers initially disobeys orders to rescue his fellow soldiers, he falls back in line with the very same military whose propaganda he was once the face of. Never questioning, never seeking to refine their approach, charging in literal-guns-a-blazing, without trying to live up to his own words: “I don’t want to kill anyone.”

To augment his shield with a handgun is to defeat the purpose of him carrying a shield in the first place. In most comic appearances, Captain America symbolically wields defense and protection as weapons, but here, he does so in name only.

As with most Marvel films, death ceases to matter beyond a point. The First Avenger neither deals with the emotional implications of a fundamentally “good” man having to kill, nor does it dwell on the death of Rogers’ lifelong best friend, Bucky Barnes. Both of these are glaring omissions in a film about one man’s moral outlook, how it’s challenged, and how he sticks to it through those challenges.

Beyond a brief scene where Carter tells Rogers to pull himself together, Barnes’ death has little impact beyond setting up a sequel (one that needs to retroactively add more backstory to make his death felt). This is the same man Rogers risked life and limb to rescue, but after his apparent death, Rogers proceeds through the film’s final act as if unaffected by loss, even when facing the people responsible for Barnes’ death. As much as the film’s final moments hit hard, they leave a lingering sense that something might have been missing along the way.

Captain America Revisited 5

The Star Spangled Man With a Plan

Who Steve Rogers is, what his symbol means, and how these two ideas clash are called into question as the series expands. In 2019, he is Captain America no more, his shield left behind, and the stars ripped from his uniform — an image that has cultural value beyond just the American flag, owing to Marvel’s global impact.

Captain America is now at his lowest point after Avengers: Infinity War. His ideal test going in to Avengers: Endgame ought to be whether or not to stray from his moral compass — a refusal to trade lives — now that it’s finally failed him, an outlook he still carries nearly eighty years later, symbolized by a navigational compass holding Peggy Carter’s picture.

While the film is part of Marvel’s shaky political foundation, Captain America: The First Avenger is ultimately about a hero whose physical strength is incidental to his heroism. In a world where heroes are defined by the physical — the ability to punch hard, or conjure magic, or fashion the coolest technology — it’s imperative that Steve Rogers exist, if only to remind the Avengers of what must lie beneath their physical feats, if they’re to be worth anything at all.

***

Expanded from an article published April 6, 2018.

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