I’m still in the middle of moving — new job and new home means very few blog updates, as I’m sure anyone who’s still following me has noticed — but I had a chance yesterday to catch the Captain America movie, and it demanded comment.
Captain America is a very interesting sort of superhero. He doesn’t follow the general arcs other superheroes do. By far the most common superhero character-development arc is Tragedy – Vengeance – Responsibility: something bad happens to the character that drives him to become a superhero, and once he’s addressed the situation, he feels responsibility to continue to pursue justice. This arc describes many Marvel heroes, including Spider-Man and Iron Man, as well as DC’s Batman, who is similar to Captain America in that he’s not a “true” superhuman but rather a human operating at the pinnacle of his abilities.
Another arc, seen less often, is Pride – Fall – Redemption. A good example of this arc was Marvel’s other recent movie, Thor, featuring a god of thunder who had to learn humility and compassion. Fellow Marvel hero Doctor Strange, an arrogant surgeon whose hands were shattered in an accident and who learned magic to attempt to heal himself, ultimately failing but becoming instead Earth’s guardian against supernatural threats, is another example of the type.
Captain America doesn’t fit either of these common molds. He’s defined by his sense of duty and justice. He’s Steve Rogers, a skinny, sickly 4-F army reject who volunteered for a secret military super-soldier experiment. The experiment worked — he became a living Platonic ideal of a human being — but at heart he’s still the same guy. Skinny, sickly Steve Rogers had the heart of a lion, an iron will, and a powerful moral conviction. The super-soldier serum gave him physical prowess to back it up, but it didn’t make Captain America. Steve Rogers did. The power never went to his head.
The closest superhero to Cap is probably Superman — Supes didn’t become a hero out of a need for vengeance or redemption, but because it was the right thing to do. But Superman is also a god among men. He can fly, he’s basically invulnerable, he can lift buildings and outrun aircraft, he shoots lasers from his eyes. Captain America as I mentioned earlier, shares the Batman conceit — he’s the best example of humanity, but he’s still human. And he is human foremost. Superman became Clark Kent, but Steve Rogers became Captain America.
There’s something powerful here. Something that inspired the first Captain America comic to sell a million copies and caused the character to endure, when the legions of other flag-wearing heroes were, with few exceptions, quickly forgotten.
I’m happy to say that the movie gets it. There have been other attempts to make Captain America, but none of those worked. This one works. This movie isn’t just about Captain America; it’s about Steve Rogers. “Just a little guy from Brooklyn,” as he says in one scene. It takes place during World War II and covers his origin with minor but believable tweaks. He battles the Red Skull, Hydra (which is reimagined as the Nazis’ science division), and scientist Arnim Zola. His allies include longtime friend “Bucky” Barnes, no longer a boy sidekick but a sergeant; Howard Stark, a playboy engineer very much like his son Tony; Agent Peggy Carter, presumably ancestor to the comics’ SHIELD agent Sharon Carter; and the Howling Commandoes. There’s some fun action, a few laughs, and a decently-told story that mostly avoids the pitfalls that occur when writers misuse the Captain America character, like jingoism.
This movie is no Casablanca, but who expected it to be? It does everything that could be reasonably asked of a summer Captain America blockbuster, it does it in a way that respects the character, and for the most part it does it very well. Go see it. You won’t be sorry.
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