In 1940, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were worried. A pair of American comic book makers, they were looking to create a lasting, iconic new superhero property. But unlike the creation of many other heroes, they began with the hero's arch-nemesis: Hitler. Creating a hero who was empowering to pre-war Americans but nowhere near as haughtily indestructible as Superman, they made Captain America--a kid who was in many ways typical of his idealistic, naive generation. Even in 1940, though, Hitler and Nazi Germany weren't quite considered the universal bad guys we judge them today. A lot of Americans were still insisting on neutrality in the mounting European war, and a minority wanted to side with Germany at the time. If you looked at most other American comic books at the time, many of them were ignoring the war in a move that seemed to be hedging their bets when it came to popular opinion. Many celebrities and companies were quietly investing in German companies, either actively supporting the Axis powers or operating on the assumption that it would be good to invest in them should they win.
Simon and Kirby's creation, however, stood staunchly against Nazi Germany, and its tremendous patriotism made it a hit as the war consumed American headlines and consciousness. But it's critical to understand that when Captain America was released there was still no mass understanding of the atrocities the Nazis were committing--in December of 1940, most Americans still identified Germany as yet another European belligerent, however more aggressive they may have been. Heck, the first issue of the comic is predicated on the concept that high-level Americans were actively supporting Germany. Captain America as a comic wasn't just about sucker-punching an easy real-life villain. It was about actively coming down on a side with an unequivocal moral judgment when most other Americans were trying to 'wait and see'.
This weekend, millions of people around the world are going to see Captain America: The First Avenger. I'll be one of them, and it will be the first time I've seen a movie on its opening weekend in years. If you spot a scruffy nerd wearing a Thor and Captain America t-shirt in a Midwest theater getting teary-eyed entirely too early on in the film, that might be me. But there's already a bitter rind of complaint that I've seen floating around the net about how this is "just another superhero movie", "a movie-length ad for the Avengers movie", or "Captain America doesn't matter anymore." This article is a big inappropriate gesture to all of those depressing pariahs of enthusiasm. Captain America is all kinds of relevant--largely for the role he plays in reminding us of the virtues our fathers and grandfathers esteemed that hardly factor into modern sensibilities.
I've intimated my own anticipation of the film in the past, but I'll elaborate further here. Because that's how the Nerdery rolls--elucidation upon elucidation.
"If you spot a scruffy nerd wearing a Thor and Captain America t-shirt in a Midwest theater getting teary-eyed entirely too early on in the film, that might be me."
Captain America is the sum and total of almost all of the best qualities of this country, and to say he's no longer relevant is to say that America doesn't need virtue anymore. There are a lot of people in America who clearly feel that way--who posit that concepts of justice and social responsibility are archaic concepts in a pragmatic world-- but I don't know any who'd come out and say it in those stringent terms. Steve Rogers, who would become Captain America, represents a kid who wants to do what's right regardless of his ability to succeed. Scrawny and sickly, the universal opinion that joining the military at the war's start would equate to suicide doesn't phase him, despite the constant reminders from those around him and his own personal history of getting regularly beaten up. Captain America is determined that one's inability to produce change should never sway one's concept of right and wrong. He knows in his heart what is right and would follow through with it even without the benefit of the super soldier serum, which is regularly invoked as the reason why he is worthy of that power.
This is important. This is true. Thousands of young American men who joined the armed services during the war did so under false pretenses--especially in regards to age. The draft board might hold that under eighteen was too young, but many Americans found their way around those guidelines to ensure that they weren't left behind when their friends and brothers went to war. Audie Murphy, one of the most widely decorated heroes of the war, joined and served under a false birth-date. As did my grandfather, a marine in the Pacific Theater. And, if the testimony of every documentary I've ever seen or read is any indication, so did a multitude of others across the nation. No one wanted to stay home and wait for their birthday when they could be out there helping put a collective boot on the Axis' throat.
"Captain America is all kinds of relevant--largely for the role he plays in reminding us of the virtues our fathers and grandfathers esteemed that hardly factor into modern sensibilities."
Today is another matter entirely. We're victims of skepticism, pragmatism, and bean-counting. A war today isn't worthwhile if it costs too much in terms of money and life--but mostly in terms of money. The pundits that try to manipulate public opinion and its rationale would tell us that today there is no Nazi Germany, no evil nations or mad dictators trying to wipe out innocent people or ruthlessly invade their neighbors. That's why we don't rush to aid other countries. But deep down, we know that isn't true. Not even the first world can claim ignorance of the genocides and atrocities being committed on small and large scales around the world. But we don't do anything about it. Because the cost of righting wrongs would be too much, and the rigor required to proactively be involved in world affairs would be too high. Shame on us.
The accepting, fraternal nature of Captain America the comic book is part of its great appeal and effectiveness as a symbol of America, as well. Despite the tendency of its contemporaries, Simon and Kirby's work didn't paint the Nazis as an ethnicity--there were Germans amongst the protagonists as well, clearly outlining a standard of acceptance with the fact that the serum's creator was himself German. Add to that the offhanded congeniality of the down-to-earth hero and the international relations he displays with America's allies throughout the war plots of his comic, and you can see that Cap represents the pinnacle of American involvement and the nature of America as an alliance-making coordinator on nearly every front around the globe.
And Captain America, unlike other heroes of his day and today, has always been a team player. While other heroes slide in and out of publisher's 'team-ups', he fights alongside his fellows. In the war era, Cap led the way as troops stormed beaches and cleared out military bunkers. Later, he defined a revival of the Avengers as a premier title, stepping into a key role of leadership and accountability as a voice from a more honest time in our history. When the Marvel universe split in Civil War, he served as a dynamic leader of the conscientious objectors/rebels. This characteristic emphasizes the cooperative frailty of Captain America--no matter how powerful he may be, his greatest strength is in his ability to rally like-minded heroes, whether they have powers or not.
"Captain America is determined that one's inability to produce change should never sway one's concept of right and wrong."
This isn't a war-mongering post. It's a recognition that today when we feel ire over injustice, we still fail to act. I think Captain America is just what we need to get a little conviction over our collective sense of passive entitlement. And the movie looks like it's going to be true to those themes. Just look at these pictures. The first is the cover of Captain America #1, which went on sale in December 1940. The second is a limited edition poster given out to the cast of the most recent movie.
Just look at that, appreciate the sense of history and the honor given to the source material, right down to giving der Führer a right hook in a recreation of the original cover's pose. Only this weekend will tell whether the movie lives up to the legacy of the world's greatest superhero, but all indications so far look good that Captain America will be making a strong return to Americans' collective consciousness.
A hero of ambition, determination, and moral certainty that fights alongside others, not on his own in a far-off plane. Because he has a lot to teach us, to remind us, and to show us. Because we need him.