Last Friday Mock’ and I decided to have something of a play-day, and after some morning chores, we headed off to the matinee showing of Captain America. I’m not exactly easy to please when it comes to superhero movies, particularly when it comes to my favorite characters. In truth, Captain America was never exactly a favorite in terms of dedicated collecting of his solo title, but I dipped in and out of the Avengers for years, and Cap was almost always there. In fact, one of the most memorable comics moments for me was a page in Avengers (I have no idea what issue), showing the aftermath of a battle that had left Avenger’s Mansion in ruins. Cap was on his knees in the remains of his room, his cowl pushed back, and holding a scrap of paper in his hand. When one of his teammates asked him if he was all right he held up the charred paper and said something like “This was the only picture I had of my mother, and now it’s gone,” and he cried, man. It was one of those moments when you realize that comics aren’t kid’s stuff, aren’t trash, aren’t a waste of time, but are an art form that tells stories every bit as engaging as any novel or film, and brings to life characters so real that you find yourself weeping with them. Comics can and do matter as an art form, and as a medium worth respect and critical study.
And Hollywood can fuck them up so easily. But every once in a while, Readers Mine, they get things right.
Captain America is one of those times. This is a big deal because Cap is so very hard to get right. It’s way too easy to fall into jingoism, or to make Cap a cardboard cutout spouting patriotic clichés. It’s a problem that Marvel itself has struggled with for decades, particularly in the Captain America title, but also in The Avengers and the many other titles Cap has made appearances in. Peter Sanderson describes the heart of the character perfectly in Marvel Universe:
Here is the essence of the super hero myth: it elevates the will and conscience of one man above those of the rest. [Cap’s alter-ego] Steve Rogers is the perfect American who does not exist in real life, but who embodies Americans’ idealized image of themselves, a Frank Capra hero turned super hero.
That kind of hero is hard to buy in the cynical world of the 21st century. Starting in the 1980s superheroes went dark, becoming more gritty, violent, and real. Marvel had long made its trademark with characters with all too human foibles, and the new esthetic seemed made for the company. Even the ultimate Boy Scout, Captain America, got a makeover with the launching of the Ultimate titles, emerging as a shoot-first-and-follow-up-with-a-grenade hard-boiled combat vet who was as likely to use his Thompson SMG as his shield. But the problem is, that’s not Cap. Look, we all know that the world has edges that just seem to get sharper, and after awhile, repeatedly capturing an evil villain, only to have to recapture him all over again months or years down the line just starts to seem a bit… stupid. Some people, we seem to believe, just need killing. Maybe, but the truth is that what we all secretly want is something to believe in, someone who really is good, who really does to the right thing, no matter the cost. We want Mr. Smith to go to Washington and Mr. Deeds to go to town. We want to meet John Doe. We want Captain America, who acts on the best sprit of American idealism, despite what the government or the public may want or think. We’re hungry for the better angels of our nature, and no superhero has ever done that better than Cap when done right.
Joe Johnston and Chris Evans do Cap right, and deliver in a big way. Not to mention that for the first time so far, we get in Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter a female who’s tough, smart, savvy, sexy, and no pushover, even for the tall, blonde, hunk that is our hero. The supporting cast is nothing short of awesome, and includes Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, and the inestimable Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull, who makes Hitler and the Nazis look strictly minor-league. The film and its hero are indeed Capra-esque. When asked by the aristocratic, highly educated, fanatical Red Skull why he was chosen to receive the super-soldier serum, what makes him so special, Cap replies with a small grin, “Nothin’. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” In the end it is this that sums up Captain America and makes the film work. Increased strength, dexterity, stamina, memory, etc are all well and good, but what makes Cap a hero isn’t any of that. Steve Rogers is a good man. And that is the difference.