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

The Super Soldier Program is shut down after Erskine’s murder at the hands of HYDRA, but the U.S. Government, not wanting to waste the star power Steve Rogers had garnered through headlines, drafts him into the role of a propaganda figure. He wears a suit resembling his original comic outfit – his first real-world comicbook 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. There’s nothing inherently sinister about Captain America’s first role in this world being a War Bonds salesman, but the mechanics of this salesmanship are outside his control, and act in contention with who he is. Even the song that plays on his 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 clashing directly with Steve’s response to Erskine about not wanting to kill anyone – 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. Abraham Erskine. The German-born scientist’s conversation with Steve the night before his procedure makes mention of a fact that people often forget” the first country the Nazis invaded was their own. Germans like him are also casualties of the war. He reminds Steve to stay a good man no matter what happens, a reminder he alludes to even with his dying breath. He’s the Ho Yinsen to Steve’s Tony Stark, a man from the very same part of the world America is at war with, showing our heroes kindness and reminding them, even as they die, to do the right thing.

On the flipside however, lie the specifics of film’s wartime politics. They don’t extend beyond contextualizing Steve Rogers’ outlook, a problem the Marvel Cinematic Universe finds itself unable to escape time and time again, even in this film’s sequel. HYDRA and the Red Skull are the film’s antagonists, threats to the world at large as they attempt to bridge the gaps between science and occult. The Red Skull wishes to ascend to Godhood, and the film borrows the aesthetic elements of Nazism to create Nazi-esque villains that aren’t quite Nazis. It even goes so far as giving the Red Skull and Hitler an ideological falling out.

While the decision to obfuscate the horrors of actual Nazism was arguably a sound one –  this is a fantasy film after all, and it can’t get too ugly – the downside to scaling back HYDRA’s actual connections to the Nazi regime is that it occurs to the point of divorcing them entirely. By removing the specifics of what drives Nazi ideology and leaving 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 Umbermensh opposing the Nazis – the result is inadvertently an ideological vacuum.

The Red Skull, like the remnants of HYDRA in The Winter Soldier, seek power and global domination in the broadest possible strokes, rendering even the good-natured Steve Rogers a mirror to fascism in the abstract. He may fight for the little guy, but who is the little guy in this scenario? Whose necks are HYDRA’s boots stepping on, exactly? Captain America is a hero like no other, but who is he fighting for? If he resents bullies and fascism and global domination, what does he support? What does Captain America truly represent?

While Steve Rogers initially disobeys orders in order to rescue his fellow Allied soldiers, he falls back in line with the very same military whose propaganda he was once the face of, never questioning or redefining their approach, not even fine-tuning it so that less people die. He does, however, keep unquestionably fighting the bad guys at great personal risk, and the climax still packs the punch that it does, despite a lack of anything resembling real world politics even at a time of political volatility. It manages to be enough for the time being – at least until the series demands ideological specificity.

Avengers Infinity War Trailer Breakdown - Captain America

The Star Spangled Man With a Plan

A celebrity during World War II, Captain America is a fugitive in 2018. Once a man desperate to serve his country, he now has a clearer understanding of the faults of that notion. He first catches a glimpse of them in The Avengers, before the structures he held on to crumbled and revealed their true nature in the films that followed, setting him against the very governments he once sought to serve. He is Captain America no more, his shield left behind and the stars ripped from his uniform – an image that has cultural value on Marvel’s now global scale, owing to what that shield and those stars have come to represent.

Who Captain America is, what his symbol means and how these clash with each other and with the world at large are called into question as the series expands. And at its point of origin, emotionally, narratively and thematically, lies Captain America: The First Avenger, a film about a hero whose physical strength is incidental to his heroism. In a world where heroism must be defined by the physical, whether the ability to lift cars or conjure magic or fashion the best technology, it’s imperative that a figure like Steve Rogers exist to remind the Avengers, and all of us, of what must lie beneath those physical feats if they’re to be worth anything at all.

“Promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

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