Equipping that stars-and-stripes Vibranium shield comes with a great cultural and social responsibility. When a character is bedecked in the colours and name of its nation-as Captain America is-the very fabric of the character and narrative acts to expose the cultural climate, particularly a nation’s image of itself. Our beloved Cap is a relic. Back in the 40s, he played a significant political role, propagating an Aryan myth of American greatness. But we are no longer involved in a global war, and the Aryan unit is no longer as culturally relevant. So what value does he still have? Does America still need a spandex-clad Muscle Mary jumping in and saving it? (well, I would like that very much so, but I ask if the nation needs it.)
In his recent resurgence, played by Chris Evans, people shouldn’t have time for him when compared to the laser shooting Iron Man, the gargantuan green Hulk, and the godly Thor. Objectively, his only redeeming factor is his phenomenal arse. Yet Steve Rogers, a weedy kid turned super soldier has a certain something. Is it his Aryan status, that grants him an automatic leadership within the Avengers? Is it his naivete and charm? Or does it all just come down to those steely buns? Suffice to say, while he may not whip the scaly behinds of as many Chitauri as Iron Man (or even Hawkeye), he has re-earned a place in the world’s heart.
All superheroes come with a certain political charge. Most famously, Superman. Whenever America is at a crisis and needs a hero, Superman swoops in to mop up the mess. Be it 1938, when the character was first released by Action Comics, at the brink of a second World War, or in 2006 with (the awful) Superman Returns, when America was still feeling shaky post-9/11. Batman could be said to symbolise an American vigilantism akin to that of John Brown. Thor seems to symbolise the American hope in divine intervention. Iron Man is clearly a “hero-isation” of the libertarian right.
And most importantly, Black Widow symbolises America’s love for women in fitting catsuits (let’s ignore the fact she’s an ass-whooping combat expert who should have her own movie, but was instead shoehorned into a hyper-masculine one as the redeeming booty to be ogled over).
But Captain America takes on automatic political charge simply through his name and patriotic affiliation.
Captain America is the idea that the nation, despite it’s (at times) painful naivete and out-of-touchness, still commands a great amount of respect amongst people as diverse as the Avengers. No one dares to challenge Cap’s orders, partly because they’re often well-informed, but mainly because he is infallible; he is transcendental in his almost perfect Americanness. Through less-cynical eyes, Steve Rogers symbolises that charming notion that through hard work (and a muscle-mutating series of potentially lethal injections in a pressurised metal container), anybody can achieve the American Dream. Why, he goes from a small thin whippersnapper destined to end every fight in the dirt, to a hulking beefcake. And isn’t that what the American Dream is all about? Punching people you don’t like in the face? Oh, and having rippling pecs.
Much like what I write about The Powerpuff Girls in my article on Adventure Time, cultural anxieties are evident in the supervillains. The unsaid is fleshed out and given form in the narrative’s antagonists, and Marvel has its fair share of villainous analogies. Mandarin is easy comic Orientalism, especially with modernisations of him as Middle Eastern in Iron Man 3, suggesting (rather crudely) that Eastern cultures are interchangeable for character backgrounds as they all act in opposition to The West.
Skrulls, the shape-shifting alien race, came to the furore in 1962, on the tail of the second Red Scare of the late 50s, infiltrating American society and attempting to destroy it from within. Secret Invasion, a Marvel cross-over event, prominently explored this idea in 2008, when America had finally stood post-9/11, and pulled the sheets up to cover their diminished masculinity, but were still fearful of those around them.
A resurgence of faith in superhero films in 2008 (Iron Man, The Dark Knight – both met with stellar reviews) aligns beautifully with the Presidential Election. America simultaneously needed a powerful, rich, and self-sufficient superhero (Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne) to save them with their wildcard vigilantism, but there was also a fear of covert enemy invasion, best surmised by ever-present questions of foreign policy, and also the questioning of Obama’s birth.
But despite my cynicism, Captain America in the latest set of films does not take himself too seriously, nor is taken too seriously. He’s lovable, charming, and only as problematic as his origins. I know Joss Whedon is a positive force in this universe, and I trust him and the guys at Disney-Marvel to market quality film adaptations without stepping on the heads of muted groups, or propagating a poisonous political message. It is always my argument to enjoy films, but remain critical. I adore the Marvel films, but am acutely aware of its more problematic areas (which are few and far between when compared to the rest of Hollywood.) I look forward to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, mainly because I need to freshen up my wank bank with some Steve Rogers boxing gifs.
(Yes, we know. But there are some things worth seeing twice-ED.)
Catch Captain America: The Winter Soldier on March 26th 2014 at cinemas worldwide (North America on April 4th).