Captain America, the Problems With Nostalgia and the Search For a Hero

American politics are profoundly lacking in heroes at the moment.

The debt ceiling debate seems to have exposed every last failing in each side, from spinelessness to venality to intransigence; meanwhile reports of violence are everywhere, the latest being an attack from a right-wing terrorist in Norway that left some 76 people dead at latest estimate.

No wonder we're looking for heroes on the big screen.

Captain America is a decent, uncomplicated superhero movie set in a time most Americans look back on fondly as a decent, uncomplicated time in our history. The Nazis were evil, America was good, we fought them, we won.

Even in this film, though, there are hints that not even that era was as decent or as uncomplicated as we thought—and our own time, where Cap winds up, certainly isn't.

Captain America is the fourth big superhero flick of the summer, following Thor, X-Men First Class and Green Lantern into cinemas packed with moviegoers seeking cinematic relief from the stresses of everyday life during the Great Recession. It's a stylistic as well as literal throwback to the films of the 1940s, shot in beautiful soft focus, sweet and naïve rather than deep and nuanced.

When I say sweet and naïve, I mean there's a scene where young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the skinny short kid who's been rejected five times for military service before being accepted as a lab rat by a nice fatherly and yes, German scientist (Stanley Tucci), basically admits to being a virgin while sitting in a car with the fierce British lady spy/love interest (Hayley Atwell). I mean that the gruff commander (Tommy Lee Jones) has a heart of gold and the best friends really do have each other's back. I mean that there are no double crosses, no red herrings, no wild plot twists or big reveals. There's just a good guy who triumphs over adversity, who then faces more adversity, and finally goes down with the plane rather than save himself. Except that since we've seen from the beginning, he's not actually gone.

It's too much to say that in World War II America was actually the skinny sweet kid willing to wheeze along at the back of the pack and throw ourselves onto a grenade to save others, and now we're more like the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). The super-soldier serum went wrong somewhere and left us not the world's heroes but the grinning death's head face of Empire in all too many corners of the world. Still, there's something compelling about the image of pre-Captain America Steve puffing himself up to his full size when asked if he wants to kill Nazis and saying, “I don't want to kill anyone, sir. I just don't like bullies.”

The irony, when you think about it, hurts.

In both of the superhero movies I've seen this summer, Nazis figure prominently as the villains, and yet they are in a way supra-Nazis—in X-Men First Class, Sebastian Shaw is posing as a Nazi scientist in order to get access to mutant kids like young Magneto, but he has no interest in the cause; in Captain America, the Red Skull's Hydra uses Hitler's occult obsessions to finance its research and then moves to supplant the Nazis as its own, even more nihilistic Reich.

How desperate for villains are we when we have villains who are actually worse than the Nazis?

Except that Hydra aren't really worse than Nazis. In this movie they become instead a way to skirt the issue, to confront us with a simple bad guy who can be simply vanquished. The Red Skull was the first test subject of the super-soldier serum and he's been driven off the deep end by its failure (and also given that creepy red skull for a head), gone across the world searching for a mystical object that gives him the power to make weapons that simply zap people out of existence, thereby eliminating the need for blood and guts and a possible R rating. Keeping the movie sweet and naïve.

It is interesting that we've gone from the Holocaust victim obsession of Schindler's List to the ultimately-uplifting survivor's story of The Pianist through the revenge fantasies of Inglourious Basterds and landed, finally, on Captain America, where the Nazis are just bad guys in good uniforms. Despite the Jewish origins of Captain America, we see absolutely nothing of the Holocaust other than Steve's assertion that the Nazis are “bullies.” Presumably the pop culture iconography of the jackboots and swastika does all the hard work of creating emotional resonance for the reader and we don't have to have any moral quandaries at all about who the good and bad guys are. Nazis are bad, and the Red Skull is the uber-Nazi, so he must be really bad. Any interesting questions about the morality of the scientist who created both the Red Skull and Captain America are circumvented by his early death, We simply take for granted that creating Captain America was a good thing—the only problem that Steve has with his new body and skills is that he can't get drunk.

In other words, kill the Red Skull and despite the mantra of his group, “Cut off one head and two will rise in its place,” presumably the threat is gone. The U.S. army just has standard-issue Nazis to deal with, and the war will be sorted. We don't have to deal with most of that mess, because we simply fast-forward with Cap to 2011.

The film also glosses over the very real problems with the U.S. military during World War II; Cap's racially and ethnically diverse team of commandoes and his crack shot lady friend are simply there, with nary a nod to the cold hard facts of the racism of the time. (Cap does make a comment about an Asian soldier, who replies “I'm from Fresno!” but no more is said, let alone that the question about a Japanese-American from California should have been “How'd he get out of that pesky internment camp?”)

Chauncey DeVega wrote:

Captain America: The First Avenger applies a heavy whitewashing (or is that a “brownwashing?”) to World War II that is distinguished by a deep commitment and dedication to an insincere multiculturalism and a childish flattening of historical events. More than simple dishonesty, the movie’s keen attention to a forced quota of black and brown faces in a Jim Crow era was a distraction that took me out of the frame: rather than watch the film and be caught up in a World War II serial adventure, I found myself counting the conspicuous black folks in the foreground and background of almost every scene.

Cap's America must be cleaner and purer and better than the real America was, rather than marring our lovely nostalgia trip with some brutal honesty about the facts.

Nostalgia is dangerous, after all. The Tea Party sprang from a misplaced sense of nostalgia for a World War II kind of world, when there were clear villains and Americans felt good (and, one might be forgiven for noting, people of color were kept out of power, out of sight and certainly out of the White House). When there was a middle class.

And yet they forget that the middle class was built on the backs of government programs coming out of the New Deal era. That Cap's contemporaries, returning home, could buy homes with FHA and VA loans. Meanwhile today, veterans returning from any one of the wars are more likely to fall into a predatory loan than to get some support from the government that sent them into battle. What would Cap think of a modern army, with pilotless drones controlled from a station hundreds of miles away, with veterans left homeless, with suicide rates through the roof?

We don't find out, of course. When Cap's revived, he's in a room carefully stylized to look like 1942, playing a radio broadcast of a baseball game and complete with a nurse in '40s army garb. In a way, it's the perfect metaphor for the film itself, a shiny and incomplete picture of a time period that is obviously false as soon as you're paying attention. Sure, he breaks out and finds himself in the middle of present-day Times Square, but his biggest concern isn't even what's changed.

“I had a date,” he says, in a tone reminiscent of Keanu Reeves.

The utter lack of engagement with political issues either of the time period or today makes even less sense when you consider the history of the comic character, who has been used, as Jeet Heer wrote in Canada's Globe and Mail, “to explore the contemporary dilemmas of American power.” The original Captain America comic featured the superhero punching out Hitler (obliquely referred to in the film when Cap goes on a fund-raising tour for the military) 10 months before the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s entrance into the war. It was an unsubtle call for the U.S. to get involved in the war, but later incarnations of the character dealt with more complex reactions to the wars that followed, struggling with his conscience over the deaths of comrades and even being called a traitor by Michael Medved.

The very fact that there is none of that in this film is telling. The most overtly political of the characters to get film treatment this year, Cap should've taken a stand on...something. Anything.

And yet the film is enjoyable. It's a welcome retreat in its way from the politics of today. To sit in an air-conditioned theater on the hottest weekend of the summer, eating popcorn and candy and grinning at the winsome Evans' pumped-up Captain America physique, after a week of following the twists and turns of debt ceiling brinksmanship, was positively refreshing. As pure escapism, the movie did its job.

It almost made me wish for heroes for a second. More than that, it made me wish that a skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn could actually wind up America's hero. That a kid whose only gift was a willingness, again and again, to take a punch rather than run away, to throw himself on a grenade, to go down with the plane (and yes, miss his date with the girl) would actually be the kind of hero Americans want. It made me long for something inspiring in our politics again, not even four years after the “hope” and “change” of the Obama campaign.

It made me wish that Cap would stroll into the debt ceiling negotiations, toss his shield at John Boehner and stare Eric Cantor into silence. And inspire the Democrats to fight back.


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