Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence

I saw Captain America: The First Avenger last week. I thought it was good. A solid OK. It was a good comic-book movie, as opposed to say, The Dark Knight, which was an excellent movie-movie. But I digress….

Captain America Comics No. 1

Damn straight.

A Different Hero Then and Now

I was intrigued with how they would dance around the problem of propaganda in this film, because, c’mon, if there were ever an iconically, jingoistically American hero, it’s Captain freakin’ America. He’s punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first comic after all. But people didn’t roll their eyes at that. Well, to be fair, I don’t know what people did when they saw him. But I know what people didn’t do. They didn’t drag his name through the mud for encouraging a politics of aggression and militarism. They didn’t hold him accountable for throwing out due process of the law. They held him up, instead, as a hero.

Two Kinds of Hero

Thor's Battle Against the Ettins (1872)

Fighting for.

Dean A. Miller, in his indispensable book, The Epic Hero, identifies two kinds of heroes in Icelandic sagas: Thor (“willing to follow, serve, and represent”) and Odin (“absolutely resistant to any form of subordination to a directive principle”). They are both extremely powerful, necessary in their own ways, crucial in the right circumstances. Miller uses Thor and Odin as his labels for the kinds of heroes that they are (actually, “Þórr-warrior” and “Óðinn-warrior”), but he could have just as easily used Hektor and Akhilles, Arthur and Launcelot, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. Captain America very clearly is a Þórr-warrior; he’s fighting in defense of the established order, in order to preserve it, to save it. America means something to him, and he’s willing to defend it with his life. Which is interesting to me, because, for the past few decades, American mainstream popular culture has overwhelmingly chosen Odin over Thor.

Tyranny and The Man

Odin, the Wanderer (1886)

Fighting against.

The Vietnam War is often cited as a turning point in the popular consciousness of America. It wasn’t when we started to become suspicious of our government; it was when we started to assume it was guilty of … well, whatever was wrong at the time. Anti-heroes started springing up like mushrooms. Federal agents became more and more sinister, agents of The Man. Common people couldn’t turn to the government for salvation because the government, more often than not, was the source of the corruption. This is still, I would argue, our default setting with regard to Authority, and so I think our default hero is still someone who tears down social structures, as opposed to someone who defends and maintains them.

Heroic Violence

Heroes are, without exception, intimately tied to violence. Even if the heroes are nonviolent themselves, such as Jesus Christ or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., they attract violence to and around them. Not always on purpose, but always always always. It has to do with their function in relation to society’s structures: they are either tearing them down or making them stronger, always to the consternation of another powerful force, always with violent results.

Enter Captain AmericaCaptain America: Who Will Wield the Shield

Captain America is very much a defender and maintainer. His iconic weapon is, not accidentally, a shield. So I was interested to see how the new film would deal with this tension, avoiding the appearance of “oppression,” which is how power wielded by or for Authority is so often labeled these days (the Óðinn-warrior’s derogatory moniker being “anarchy”).

The movie, to its credit, did address this tension, but it did so in a way that was ultimately unsatisfactory to me. In what was probably my favorite sequence of the movie, Captain America’s first military assignment is to be a USO show, convincing people to buy bonds and encouraging the troops (or trying to) to stay the course. He becomes a one-man propaganda poster. The troops hate him when he tries to put on his show for them; they want the dancing girls to come back. It magnifies a growing disillusionment Captain America already feels. He’s being used by the government, but not in the way he wants to be. It’s interesting (vis-à-vis Thor/Odin) that, immediately after this, he establishes himself as Hero in the film’s first major (and violent) action sequence, rescuing a unit of POWs with the implied consent of his colonel-mentor but against official (governmental/Authoritative) orders.

Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull

Vhat are you looking at? I am evil, yah?

What ultimately irks me, though, is that the solution to the whole overriding tension that really interested me in the movie in the first place was to set in opposition to Captain America a horrendously evil villain. Not even a Nazi—a demon Nazi. This villain, Red Skull, simplifies the entire situation, and that makes it exponentially less interesting to me. True, the Joker is horrendously evil in The Dark Knight as well, but the issues he brings up and the ideas that he confronts the other characters with (and, more importantly, the conclusions that other characters come to with regard to those issues and those ideas) are still problematized, complicated, difficult. The Dark Knight‘s characters are forced to make pragmatic decisions, as opposed to idealistic ones. And that is a profoundly interesting kind of heroism to me, because it is essentially human, with uneasy solutions. The solution to Red Skull? Kill him; save the world.

The movie also misses the mark with the problem of propaganda. The soldiers hate Captain America (and Captain America hates himself) because he’s trumpeting the fight without doing any of the physical fighting. But that’s not why propaganda is poisonous. Propaganda is poisonous because it frames complicated issues in oversimplistic, extremist terms. Quick and violent solutions not only become reasonable, they become necessary. Anything else becomes part of the problem. Furthermore, propaganda’s heroes remain unfazed by the horror of both the opposing evil and their solution to it. They are committed to a kind of moral genocide against evil, and all of their enemies are unproblematically (and 100%) evil; thus, simplistically expendable. It, unfortunately, sucks the humanity out of the heroes and sweeps away the very real and very problematic consequences that come to a soldier who is confronted with violence and destruction on a large scale. Alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, night terrors, emotional numbness, alienation, nervous breakdowns. We don’t need to include these things in our heroism because they are good. We need to include them because they are human. And, ultimately, for our own psychological and philosophical well-being, so too must our heroes be.

Uncle Sam

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5 thoughts on “Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence

  1. Excellent start to what, no doubt, will become a big thread on Heroism here. We might, in time, decide to merge our respective threads.

    You might have split this post into two posts. Ostensibly, it’s about Captain America, and that is interesting enough. But your real Thor-hammer here is this paragraph:

    “Dean A. Miller, in his indispensable book, The Epic Hero, identifies two kinds of heroes in Icelandic sagas: Thor (“willing to follow, serve, and represent”) and Odin (“absolutely resistant to any form of subordination to a directive principle”). … he could have just as easily used Hektor and Akhilles, Arthur and Launcelot, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ.”

    1) “indispensable book”? Wow. And here I was never having heard of it. Clearly, I must Amazon it at once.

    2) The Thor and Odin archetypes, as you extend them to Hector/Achilles etc: This is powerful stuff. A possible organizing principle for everything to follow in this thread. To be examined on its own merit.

    3) Oh, the irony. I am smirking a benevolent smirk, for was it not you, Sir, who were so above archetyping a while ago in my hero thread? 😉 As you see, you cannot help yourself. You must.

    So let’s ponder whether this is the appropriate archetype pairing. I think it has huge potential.

    • Ha ha ha, I can feel your smirk. You did say you were going to read my exegesis closely. But first things first: Dean Miller. I actually took a few minutes to decide what the best modifier for his book should be. I settled on “indispensable,” and I’m sticking with my choice. It is the first and last book on ancient heroism you could ever want. I cannot recommend it enough.

      So, OK, archetypes…. Heh, OK. I draw an important distinction between what Miller is doing and what someone like, say, Joseph Campbell did. I started to explain it in this comment but it got waaaay too long, so it’s going to be its own post. To sum it up all too briefly: Miller is defining heroes here by their function; whereas Campbell defined them by their perceived essence. A few key things follow from that, and I’ll lay them all out in due time. They’re all very theoretical, and so run the risk of being boring…. 🙂

      For now, I agree that the Thor/Odin dichotomy is a powerful insight into digging out what makes a hero (or heroes), and I’ll definitely give it its due time. Perhaps it speaks to a necessary cycle of stability and renewal; I don’t know. I do think it’s fascinating that both heroes are necessary, but in different circumstances. In the right circumstances, they are the heroes; in the wrong, the villains. But that’s as far as I’ll go right now. What would Hannibal think?

      • Hannibal probably meant to be a Thor but became an Odin. Oh, who knows.

        It occurs to me that Thor is also, in this functional sense, like Vishnu, and Odin like Shiva.

        I shall now apply the Thor/Odin dichotomy to the present US Congress….

      • I defer to your greater knowledge of Indian mythology. Ha, politics makes for an interesting subset of Heroism: bureaucrats wielding the rhetoric of Thor and Odin. Each side tries to simultaneously cultivate an image of Thor (dutiful obligation and defense) for their ideological base and Odin (unyielding destruction) towards their ideological opponents, all within a labyrinthine bureaucracy, rules and exceptions that tie a hero’s hands down. Perhaps this is why the stereotypical hero hates politics; Odin-warriors because they chafe at taking orders and following plans (they want instead to confound plans and defy orders), Thor-warriors because they are so easily taken advantage of by their duty to following orders and trust in (what Odin might see as dependence on) their companions.

  2. Pingback: Heroic Archetypes and Heroic Functions | The Brain Dump

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