Captain America, We Love You!
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Here’s something worth noting about the Captain America:
The First Avenger movie that has opened this weekend. Fearing that the patriotic title
wouldn’t go over well outside the U.S., the studio gave other countries the
opportunity to display it under the more neutral First Avenger title. Only
three countries took them up on it.
I don’t think that’s because every other country suddenly
loves American flag-waving patriotism. But I do think that in the 70 years
since Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created him Cap, as he’s lovingly referred to in
the comics, has grown so large in the worldwide imagination that movie
distributors realized it would be a mistake not to use his name in the title.
Also that “First Avenger” kinda sounds like a Rambo-style revenge flick by itself,
but let’s put that aside or we won’t have much of an essay here.
He may have come a long way from the comics to a big budget
summer blockbuster, but Captain America had anything but humble origins. On the
cover of his first appearance in Captain America Comics, Cap is shown punching
Hitler right in the face.
Cap delivers a message to the Fuhrer.
The U.S. hadn’t even entered World War II yet, and
not everyone responded well to the audacious image. But for enough people it
captured both their growing anti-Nazi sentiment and an idea that America had
about itself, that it would stand up to tyranny and not back down. That gave the
character immediate popularity that has helped it survive to this day,
while other very similar but less bold flag-wearing superheroes lie mostly
forgotten in the pages of old comic books.
Yes, you Shield.
It starts with the costume. Captain America is literally
draped in an American flag, so he means whatever that means to you, and as ideas
about patriotism have changed over the years he has adapted to fit. In the 40s
Cap’s costume meant saying nuts to Hitler and no to Hirohito. After the fallout
and public mistrust from the Watergate Scandal in the 1970s, it meant you could
still love your country even if you weren’t blindly faithful to its leaders.
Cap has one other important characteristic, maybe just the
one. Captain America is good. He’s just a former scrawny kid from Brooklyn
trying to do the right thing. He’s no government stooge; he supports the ideals
of his country, not necessarily whoever its current leaders are. Even his
choice of weapon reflects the idea that he’s a defender and not an aggressor;
he’s a knight that goes into battle with a shield but no sword. And Marvel
comics has, for the most part, wisely resisted darkening or dirtying up Captain
America himself to make him more “adult,” whatever that means. Even when the
general trend in comic books was to go as dark as possible, he mostly got to
stay a Boy Scout.
What “good” is can mean different things to different people,
of course, but by leaving it open to interpretation Captain America becomes
whoever you most want him to be. For instance, my favorite song that
references a superhero is Jimmy Buffet’s “Captain America” from his debut 1970
album Down to Earth, where Captain America is described as “number one without
a gun” and a “do-do good who loves apple pie and kisses little babies, he’ll
guard you against everything from atom bombs to rabies.” It’s a bit tongue in
cheek and political, but the song’s chorus of “Captain America we love you,” and
its digs at real life Nixon Vice-President Spiro Agnew say a lot. Captain America is the
man we want for the job, too bad he’s fictional.
I’d vote for him.
So, Captain America is a symbol of America, but Captain
America is also a good man. That combination shields him against rising and
falling directly with how patriotic the country is feeling at the time; it
allows him to only represent the good about America, the American dream, while
not representing or even opposing the things you dislike about America. What America
the country means might sometimes be a controversial proposition, ideas seem
split down the middle even at home now. But a story about a good American can
be more acceptable even in other countries, or at least more interesting.
For seven decades Cap has smiled back at us from comics,
film serials, slurpee cups, t-shirts, cartoons, and even a couple of low budget
movies, but this weekend is the start of his biggest ever worldwide
exposure, and it may only grow with the Avengers team movie that will follow.
It’ll be interesting to see how that wider audience reacts as they figure out
what Captain America means to them.