How a Cinematic Captain America is Interpreted through a Post-9/11 Lens
by Michael Maurer
Comic book characters are currently at their most popular in pop culture since their creation in the 1930’s and 40’s. These characters are mostly superheroes, and their moral decisions set a standard for acceptable vigilantism and prosocial causes. While these characters saw their birth in the comic book medium, it is safe to say that a majority of the American population (and possibly the world) have only experienced them through blockbuster films and that is why in this study we will look at where Captain America’s values are founded in his box-office appearances, most notably the films Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. These films are one of many iterations of the hero, but as of 2015, this interpretation of the character is the most relevant. It will also reflect how a character created in a time of world war and moral clarity is now interpreted for modern audiences in a post 9/11 world where high levels of distrust for American government exist and America’s enemies are much more difficult to identify.
Captain America through name and action is a character directly attributed to being a representation of his nation the United States and the values of its population and government in ideal circumstances. He was created in 1941 by Marvel writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. In the cover of his very first issue he is seen delivering a right hook to Adolf Hitler, which expresses that character’s original intent as a propagandist war superhero meant to encourage American involvement in World War 2. Since then, Captain America has evolved to one of the most respected superheroes in the Marvel pantheon. Steve Rogers (Captain America’s alter-ego) is consistently treated with the utmost respect by other Marvel characters. This is due to his history as a war veteran as well as his never faltering ethical code. But was exactly does Captain America Represent? How does he do it? And how does he reflect modern American culture in his new cinematic format?
Captain America as the Soldier
Captain America: First Avenger is the first time the character of Steve Rogers is really brought into the limelight of the modern mainstream media. With this introduction of Captain America, we see the character in the primary role of the Soldier. Here is where Steve is firmly placed as an agent of the nation-state and a physical embodiment of United States military action. As the Soldier Steve represents characteristics of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”.
…The American people understood the magnitude of the challenge, the importance of an unparalleled national commitment, and, most of all, the certainty that only one resolution was acceptable. The nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment. They understood what was required of them, and they willingly volunteered for their duty.
In First Avenger, Rogers portrays many examples of sacrifice and overburdening himself with responsibility. Where this trait is most evident is the scene where Colonel Phillips throws a dummy grenade during a troop training exercise to test their reactions. Rogers’ first instinct is throw his body on the grenade to limit the blast while all other recruits focus on saving themselves. In this action, Captain America demonstrates, in overt text, his willingness to put his life on the line to protect those around him. Movie-viewers can relate themselves to Steve Rogers as (pre-superpower drugs) he is the physical underdog that never stops giving his all while continuously rejected. Through this attachment, Rogers acts as the Soldier and uses this connection to show that America is worth everything that he is sacrificing or at least, everything that America can be, as iterated in this dialogue with his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes:
STEVE: “What do you want me to do? Collect scrap metal in my little red wagon…There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them. That’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me.”
The most appealing trait of the Soldier as an agent of America is his ability to understand immediately who are the enemy and precisely deal out appropriate punishment quickly. America has been involved in many international conflicts in its history but none had more moral clarity than World War II, the conflict from which Captain America is birthed. Nearly the entire backdrop of First Avenger is fit within this time in history and there is little to no argument who the villains are in the situation. As the Soldier, Captain America kills Nazis with complete moral clarity. In the film, the villains are all dressed in black and (sometimes literally) faceless. The main antagonist, Johann Schmidt “The Red Skull”, is an exaggerated stand-in for the German Magog, Hitler, whose moral compass was amazingly different from the American people that Nazis became the ultimate villains in pop culture for decades. “…Hitler was a ready-made comic book villain, more realistic and despicable than any comic villain who had come before him” (DiPaolo). Those villainous traits are dramatized more-so in First Avenger in order to portray to audiences that Captain America can make quick work of war criminals with limited casualties.
More than anything, Steve as the Soldier allows American audiences to escape the current cynicism of the American military and visualize a world where the armed forces of the United States can do no wrong in its involvement in international affairs. This is Captain America’s (and superheroes in general) greatest appeal. Jon Favreau, director of another major superhero film Iron Man, elaborates on this point in an interview published on the website Superhero Hype:
FAVREAU: [9/11] that was a game changer. I think people were looking for emotional simplicity, escapism and if you look at it, there were superhero movies before. “Spider-Man,” but that first “Spider-Man” was hitting right, I think, in May of 2002 when it was the first way that we could get to those emotions because you couldn’t say anything about politics. You couldn’t say anything about war. People just didn’t want to deal with it, but you put people in a costume and say, “This is the good guy. This is the bad guy,” and you either set in a fantasy world like “Lord of the Rings” or in the Marvel Universe, you all of a sudden allow people like kids and adults to experience those emotions in a way where they dealing with very real emotions in a very escapist way
At the end of First Avenger, Steve is propelled into the future world of 2012, missing more than 60 years of history. His story picks up again in Captain America: Winter Soldier, where Captain Rogers works for a fictional U.S. covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Here, we see him begin to question his loyalty to America’s modern methods of maintaining freedom. These doubts are evident in a conversation he has with Col. Nick Fury about a new initiative that can predict people about to commit terrorism before it occurs:
FURY: “We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.”
ROGERS: “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.”
FURY: “We can’t afford to wait that long…For once we are way ahead of the curve.”
ROGERS: “By holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.”
It is here we begin to see the effects of a post 9/11 world on Captain America as he develops from the Soldier persona, a freedom fighter and agent of the American government, to the Patriot, a freedom fighter with no geopolitical ties.
Through what Rogers decides to wear at pivotal points in the film speaks greatly on his ethical stance. In a letter to the editor from the reader Shon, he expresses his regrets on Captain America’s dated uniform:
“I think it’s about time that Captain America discarded his mask. I know the “A” and “Ol’ Winghead” are a part of the legend and Cap’s tradition, but masks are still considered by law agencies as the tools of vigilantes, no matter how well respected the hero. And has Cap not stood for truth and justice all these years?”
As the Patriot, a key trait we see Rogers develop is his growing distrust and later complete detachment from the United States government. He evolves from a Soldier ready to take orders and rarely question high command into an independent Patriot who does not acquiesce to having his superiors withhold information from him. This development leads to Rogers abandoning his affiliation with S.H.I.E.L.D. and becoming a full superhero vigilante. This also leads to an ironic symbolic gesture of Steve discarding his mask while on the run. As recognized member of the American government Captain America always wore his mask on missions but now as a Patriot he dons his civilian clothes and wears a new disguise of glasses and a baseball cap making him look like everyone else. It is not until the end of the film does Steve suit up in his traditional Captain America attire by giving new purpose to his World War II uniform echoing back to how as the Soldier, everything he did was right and just.
Contrary to how Steve handled enemies in the First Avenger, the first half of Winter
Soldier is spent establishing that the enemies are not as clear. Many scenes feature villains dressed as policemen or government agents attacking the protagonists for unknown reasons. In this new world, no longer can Captain America simply look for the man in the black mask or person wearing swastika and swing. He is challenged by the notion that in this brave new world, his colleagues and even his superiors, the very men who represent the best interests of the country he put his life on the line to protect are out to cause terror in order to gain control. Now becoming the Patriot, Rogers is swallowed with distrust for the American government and chooses to keep his circle of friends tight in order to minimize chances of betrayal. This new fear in this story reflects how out of place a character like Captain America is in a post 9/11 world that lacks clarity. In First Avenger, this problem didn’t exist as Steve sliced through Nazis in his militaristic fight for freedom. Those tactics are no longer applicable. As further explained Jason Dittmer’s Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero:
“The desire for [cathartic violence] in the face of frustration, whether the frustration over the inability of the United States to truly tee off on an enemy in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks of the mundane frustration of a comic book reader with his or her banal existence within a society full of norms and requirements, speaks to the strong forces seeking to align the perspective of the reader with that of the superhero.”
While Winter Soldier touches on this conflict in American culture, the final sequences of the story still give Captain America the super power to distinguish friend from foe. When the mystery of the hidden enemy is revealed to be a terrorist sleeper agency labeled HYDRA, Steve reflects relief over the revelation in this transaction with his comrade Sam Wilson:
WILSON: “You seem pretty chipper for a guy who just found out he died for nothing.”
ROGERS: “Well, I guess I just like to know who I’m fighting.”
Oddly, following this discovery Steve still simplifies how to visualize the enemy when going to confront HYDRA sleeper agents in the final scene.
WILSON: “Hey, Cap! How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?”
ROGERS: “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad.”
Thus, the appeal of Captain America lives on as audiences can rely on this Patriot to distinguish corrupt from innocent and dole out the exact physical measures needed to protect freedom and limit loss of life. Even in the midst of this conflict that mirrors American politics, the Patriot saves the day with ease by acting independently of the American government and preserves freedom with physical measures.
Captain America has existed for more than six decades and numerous international conflicts. Throughout history, he has remained in the American conscious as an ultimate doer of good. Whether as a soldier in World War II or as a patriot in his newest adventures following the cultural changes from 9/11. First Avenger and Winter Soldier encompass only a small portion of this character’s evolution. No matter what the historical context Captain America holds a purpose to inspire beings to stand against oppression and fight for freedom and democracy. Whether aware of it or not, how we admire our fictional characters can have a profound effect on our day to day life.
“When we look at the pulp literature, films, television, and video games that receive a steady attention of most American minds, we must also recognize that they are thereby forming a cultural matrix for action. The superhero tales amount to a kind of mythic induction into cultural values of America. A citizen’s brief interludes at church, synagogue, or mosque are far less likely to impart a significant vision of how to cope with the world’s conflicts. But as artistic creators of popular entertainments respond to current events with mythic scenarios, they help to shape the public sense of what is appropriate in confronting the crises of national and international life.” (Jewett)
Understanding how media influences us and how we influence media can shed light on our ideals, values, and even prejudices. With Captain America we get a myth so closely tied between the worlds of American government and superhero pop culture that his stories become tremendously culturally relevant. So, either as a Patriot or a Soldier or perhaps something in between, we can discover how we wish to interact in this current world with our governments and piercing our perceptions of it perpetuated by pop culture.