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….
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.