Saturday, August 13, 2011

O Captain My Captain

Captain America spoilers herein:

Making a movie about Captain America is a risky proposition. In the months leading up to the latest big budget high-profile release from Marvel Studios, media attention focused on the viability of a star-spangled hero in foreign markets--which are now crucial to a blockbuster movie's revenue stream. In the end, this largely proved to be a nonfactor. Despite the option given to overseas distributors to change the title of the film, few did, and the end result has been robust box offices and a Hollywood Reporter story with the headline "'Captain America' Surprisingly Loved by the World."

I personally was not surprised by the overseas reception. While audiences in other nations may have objections to policies of the American government, they haven't ever let that get in the way of their consumption of American pop culture. But I still had three concerns about how the filmmakers would execute the character's concept.

First, Captain America is an easy character to turn into a political marionette. When one is literally draped in symbolism, it can become awfully easy to view the character as a symbol to be manipulated. And of course, that is how the movie's Senator Brandt views Steve Rogers, turning him into a stage performer in order to rally the homefront. But the writers and director never stoop to this tactic themselves, never using the character to make a ham-fisted political statement (something which was done by the makers of the straight-to-video 1990 Captain America movie, which involved a villain motivated by anti-environmental interests and a direct appeal during closing credits for viewers to support the Environmental Protection Act of 1990). But even the Senator Brandt character, while shown to be wrongheaded and willing to exploit the Captain for personal political gain, has a degree of nuance. He wasn't wrong to assert that Cap could help build morale on the homefront, and it isn't totally unreasonable to assume that just one super soldier couldn't do a whole lot of good in military missions.

Second, anytime you portray fictional soldiers fighting a war, there is a danger of insensitivity to the reality of the horrors of war. Add Nazis to the mix and there is a further danger. What kind of commentary would it be if this revisionist history showed that a souped-up individual was necessary to beat Hitler, when in reality a U.S. and Allied military beat Hitler without the help of any superheroes? But the writers wisely used Hydra as a rogue offshoot of the Nazis, so that Captain America (and the unnamed Howling Commandos) could concentrate on eliminating this threat, while the rest of the war could presumably proceed as it actually did historically. As for the portrayal of soldiers, I think there are only two satisfactory outcomes for the hero of a war movie. The hero must either die, or must experience some degree of feeling of alienation upon returning to the civilian world. Anything else would cheapen the message of what war really does to people. The genius of the Captain America mythos is that we actually get both outcomes. He makes a heroic sacrifice at the end. Even though he had much to live for (symbolized by the "date" he makes with his "dying" breath), he realizes that it is more important to surrender his personal good for the greater good. But then when he awakens decades later, he finds himself in a world nothing like the one he left. And despite the efforts of others to ease the transition, he sees through the facade immediately. I find the subtext in the final scenes incredibly powerful. Even the post-credits scene where Nick Fury tells Captain America that his services are still needed strikes me as a subtle reminder of what today's soldiers go through, with their multiple tours of duty.

Finally, for as much mileage that superhero movies have gotten from the Joseph Campbell template, I was kind of hoping that Captain America would largely skip the hero's journey route. After seeing Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Green Lantern, and even Batman and Smallville's Superman trod the path of "learning valuable lessons" that gives rise to heroism, I hoped to not see that here. I always thought that Captain America, like Superman, should be a fully formed hero from the outset. And in fact, the movie does a terrific job of portraying this. Steve Rogers is already a hero in the opening scenes. He is unrelenting in his attempts to join the military, but also is pointed in answering Dr. Erskine that he "doesn't want to kill anybody," that his motivation is not to kill Nazis, but to stand up to bullies. And when he shows a willingness to fall on a grenade to save his fellow recruits, we already get a glimpse of the man who would soon figuratively fall on a grenade in order to save the world.

With such a solid grasp of the character and the way in which the filmmakers were able to balance thematic sensitivity with a strong moral message and the requisite action, it's no wonder this film did so well both in America and worldwide. Now we only have to wait nine months to see Chris Evans' Cap interact with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. Avengers Assemble!


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