And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
As a child I was not allowed to read the comics because they were, by definition, comical and thus trivial and a waste of precious time. Furthermore, they drew the mind away from loftier themes and indulged the imagination, rendering the loftier themes. . . well, boring. The theory was that reflection on the signs of the times and the coming apocalypse should be enough to sanctify the imagination and result in good behavior.
This led to a personal and a professional interest in the apocalyptic mindset, the psychological and social conditions that make people think the world is going to end in their lifetime. It also made me ask myself if such beliefs, on balance, had brought more good into the world than not, and if such a perspective could be reconciled with a love for life and for this Earth—extravagances that I associated with enjoyment of the Sabbath.
The mining of the archives of DC and Marvel comics and the upsurge of superheroes in film over the last few years has given me opportunity to test the theory. Why do we find them so fascinating? Do they answer some primal need for reassurance? Does their very presence become another sign of the times? One thing we can say for sure: these films make a ton of money, always a good sign in these times. And they’ll keep coming at us for the foreseeable future. They tap into the huge audience of Boomers who grew up with them and they’re bringing new generations up to speed by keeping them running breathlessly after the sequels, the prequels, and the remakes.
These films frequently break box office records because they both reflect and shape our response to these chaotic times. Conventional dogma is that people go to the movies to escape their boring lives. This is nonsense. People go to the movies to make sense of their lives because film has become the most powerful form of social education in our time. The movies unveil the mysteries of sex, they give us models of how to raise children, why we should get married, get divorced, or have affairs. They teach us the subtleties of conversation, the morality of money, the lure of power and the bitterness of revenge. They tell us what’s funny, how to regard the suffering of others, the current standards of what’s hot or not, and when all else fails, how to win through intimidation. And they are the most prolific channels for myth in modern history.
One of the most pervasive themes in film is the battle between good and evil, waged endlessly at every Cineplex every day. Without belaboring the obvious we need only mention Star Wars and Harry Potter, film series that manage to both caricature evil on a grand scale while exemplifying the virtues of courage and loyalty on a personal level. It’s fascinating to watch these stories for the social mores portrayed in the retelling of ancient myths.
Which brings us to Captain America, the latest superhero to make the leap from page to screen. I went, not expecting much, not knowing the story, mildly interested but wary of fist-pumping jingoism. I needn’t have worried. I’ve since found myself turning scenes over in my mind, pulling up associations and parallels, finding the mythic threads: in short, enjoying it far beyond the actual viewing.
Captain America is the idealized image of what we thought our heroes should be back in 1942—courageous, self-deprecating, fair, almost to a fault, and chivalrous. As Steve Rogers, the original 97-lb. weakling, goes through basic training his characteristics of self-sacrifice, determination, and courage come to light.
“So,” asks the camp doctor at one point, “do you want to kill Nazis?
“I don’t want to kill anybody,” Rogers says, “I just don’t like bullies.”
Rogers is most certainly not the choice of the project’s colonel, played with brisk efficiency by Tommie Lee Jones. But Doctor Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Project Rebirth’s scientist, prevails. “He’s smart and he’s got compassion,” he says.
After his transformation into Captain America he confounds military planning and strategy by simply driving in the front door of the enemy’s castle. His square-jawed unblinking fearlessness inspires others to do more than they thought they could in the circumstances—the very embodiment of charismatic leadership.
“Trust thyself,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, Self-Reliance. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” How American, both in its iconoclasm and in its confidence that everybody thinks that way! Emerson demands that we stand out, away from the herd. “Whoso would be a man,” he says, “must be a nonconformist. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
Captain America is the quintessential man of action whose motivation is virtue rather than ideology. His opponent, the demonic Nazi, Johann Schmidt (aka Red Skull), intends to rule first Europe, then America, and soon the world. His megalomania runs to the blood-and-earth variety: even though he is a brilliant scientist he also believes he can conjure up the ancient Teutonic gods. Rogers couldn’t care less about such insanity. He has answered the call of duty and will not be distracted.
“It is the harder,” says Emerson, “because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
After Rogers defies an order to stay put and single-handedly breaks up Schmidt’s military headquarters, freeing captured American troops and bringing back secret weapons in the process, he is hailed at the American camp. The contrast between Rogers and Schmidt, between democracy and totalitarianism, couldn’t be starker. Captain America wins over the doubters through guts, courage, and defying the odds. Schmidt just kills those who oppose him.
The other theme that rings through the film is the fascination with technology. At one point, Howard Stark, the best engineer in America (and the father of Iron Man Tony Stark) shakes his head in wonder. “Their technology is several generations better than ours.” But that doesn’t put a crimp in American ingenuity. Stark simply comes up with a MacGyver-like solution to everything that Red Skull throws at Captain America. But the lesson here is that while Red Skull apparently has a budget that would stagger the Pentagon and enough firepower to destroy the world, what finally wins the day is courage and heart.
Although there are moments when disbelief must be suspended, when tongues are firmly in cheek, the film never descends to parody or campiness. Steve Rogers, the weakling who becomes Captain America, doesn’t forget where he came from and who he is, despite his strength and daring. He’s the one who stands up for the little guys because it’s the right thing to do—not because he gets off on kicking ass.
However idealized, it’s an ideal worth striving for.