Captain America: Stars, Stripes and a Shield

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Happy July. This is a month kicked off by pyrotechnics, red white and blue, patriotism, and a good bit of (I hope, healthily considered) American jingoism.

What else does this remind you of?

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Captain America
Sign of the Times: on the cover of Captain America issue #1,
Cap gives Hitler a right hook.

If you’re a comics buff, or grew up in the U.S. some time after the early 1940s, the answer might be Captain America. This stars-and-stripes bedecked superhero has been through as many ups and downs as the country whose values he espouses. Attempts have been made to update him, shape his World War II-era origins so that they’re relevant to modern times, and place him somehow in the larger social and historical context of the conundrum that is America.

Cap started out in a fairly clear cut form in 1941, an important period for American comics. Three years prior, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish boys from Cleveland, Ohio, brought us Superman, the alien who vowed to protect “truth, justice and the American way.” Superman’s relevance to American culture of the turbulent late 1930s was obvious: that anyone could assimilate the basic values and rightness of the American dream, whatever that may be to him or her. Superman’s later developments, to say nothing of his connection with Nietzche’s Nazi-beloved Übermensch—and much reflection on the implications of a “closeted” superbeing—exposed the darker side of the myth, but not before he had already become iconically American.

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Updating a classic: Chris Evans as Captain America from the recent film.
Updated for modern times:
Chris Evans as Captain America
from the recent film

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America’s creators, didn’t bother with all of Siegel and Shuster’s metaphors, symbolism and mythologies of ancient origins. The human behind the Captain America mask, Steve Rogers, is not an alien, mutant, or other supernatural phenomenon or freak of science. Well, somewhat: Rogers’ patriotism was such that he agreed to submit to an experimental technique designed to enhance physical abilities, an early (and, from today’s perspective, benign and innocent-seeming) super soldier program. Laboratory boost aside, Rogers is primarily a stand-up guy who becomes a superhero through his complete espousal of American values. The implication is that the enhancements he receives would only work on someone of pure intentions, strong will, and patriotic spirit—an Arthurian set-up, one of the few genuine literary references I’ve found in the Captain America mythos, whether intentional or otherwise.

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There are a few such figures that qualify as superheroes (namely, that they lack superpowers as such, and their superhero status is achieved with some help through technology or just pure determination), Batman being the other most famous. Batman’s powers are the result mostly of rigid ethics and a collection of gadgets and super-toys that were his thanks to nothing more than a sizable inheritance (are you listening, Paris Hilton?).

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In Captain America’s case, the funds were public—war-time taxpayer dollars at work—rather than private, as was the case with supernaturally rich Bruce Wayne. Cap was the most popular superhero in Marvel’s comics lineup during war time, Simon and Kirby’s sledgehammer aimed at collective patriotism having struck a very wide chord.

By the postwar ’50s, however, the character’s popularity waned as the country pulled itself out of the privations of the ’40s and embraced a different social, political and military reality. Attempts were made to revive the title during the ’50s and early ’60s, but, despite the conformities of the ’50s, it seems to me that America was still trying to find its voice. The Cold War was still spinning up, so there was no obvious enemy to fight, as there had been in the ’40s; during that decade, Captain America is shown pitching in on the America war effort by fighting elements from the Axis powers.

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The middle and later part of the famous Silver Age of comics saw Captain America becoming relevant again, as he was made a part of the leadership team of the Avengers in 1964. It would have been untidy (and unlikely) to have a superhero in his 60s hobbling around with the likes of Thor and Iron Man, super serum or no, so Marvel developed a convoluted backstory to explain Cap’s reappearance: he was frozen cryogenically and then thawed out in the ’60s, youth and bulging muscles intact. Here’s another Arthurian aspect of the character: he seems to go dormant until he’s needed, and then appears again, a once and future hero. As Arthur had Excalibur, Captain America has his indestructible shield, a product of technology to be sure, but a powerful symbol nonetheless.

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Captain America, maintaining his leadership role in a modern comics incarnation of The Avengers.
Captain America, maintaining his leadership role in
a modern comics incarnation of The Avengers.
(Click to enlarge.)

It’s interesting to me that he’s being revived now, primarily through his incorporation into Marvel’s huge film franchise. He seems to have merited a film of his own (explaining his activities during war time), and has been folded into the crossover-rich Avengers film that features other characters who got their own “origin” movie or movies (the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and so on). Here’s America trying to find itself again as it faces both new enemies and powerful rhetoric about who those enemies are. It makes sense that we would seek the comfort of a clearer and more innocent time, hence the heavy handed use of such a stand-up guy with prototypical American values amidst the cynicism, general folderol and alien origins of other Avengers film characters.

So as you contemplated the fireworks last week, I hope you thought a bit about how the stars and stripes have taken a bit of a beating since the ’50s. The answer may not be blind patriotism, but may lie in a sort of heroism that, in this cynical age, feels rare and just out of reach.