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Captain America: An all-American hero goes back to his roots

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
Sasha Simic reviews the new Captain America film and reflects on how the 70 year old icon has picked his battles
Issue 2263
A scene from the latest incarnation of Captain America, starring US actor Chris Evans
A scene from the latest incarnation of Captain America, starring US actor Chris Evans

The nerds have inherited the earth and their obsessions now dominate mainstream Hollywood cinema. As a card-carrying nerd, I don’t have a problem with that.

But what will civilians—ignorant of and unconcerned with the decades-long mythology behind Captain America—make of this film?

Most of Captain America: The First Avenger is set during the Second World War. In 1942, puny idealist Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), “just a kid from Brooklyn”, wants to enlist and fight fascism but is repeatedly turned down by the army.

Unfit for service, he volunteers for a secret government project which gives him a perfect physique.

Rogers should be the first of an army of super-soldiers. But events conspire to ensure he’s a one-off.

Considered too valuable to use in combat, Rogers is dressed up in a customised version of the US flag and turned into a propaganda vehicle as Captain America.

But he gets sick of touring theatres and staring in cheap film serials exhorting the public to buy war bonds, and joins the war effort as a combatant.


This sets him up for a confrontation with the Nazis’ version of a super-soldier—Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

From this point on, the film is like one of the war films the BBC used to screen on wet Sunday afternoons, but on steroids.

Captain America is driven by the admirable ethic that if you start running from bullies they never let you stop.

He spends the rest of this enjoyable film fighting the impossible technology wielded by the Red Skull and his Nazi sub-cult, Hydra.

The whole enterprise recalls what French Marshal Pierre Bosquetto said on witnessing the Charge of the Light Brigade: “It is magnificent, but it is not war.”

The film is the latest in a wave of comic book superhero movies that have helped renew their popularity.

The appearance of Superman in a 1938 edition of Action Comics first transformed comics into a mainstream craze. Around 90 percent of US children read them in the early 1940s.

Every publisher tried to imitate this success. In April 1940 artists Jack Kirby and Joe Simon came very close when they created Captain America for Timely comics.

Socialists are probably the last to warm to a patriotic character dressed in the US flag. But the initial stories were, in the context of their time, quite progressive.

Kirby and Simon were from poor Jewish backgrounds in New York. They hated the Nazis.

Captain America was overtly political. The first issue’s cover showed him punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

It sold millions and attracted hate mail from pro-Nazis.

During the war, Captain America was pure propaganda. Children were told to buy war bonds: “Remember! Your dime may pay for the bullet which will finish off the last Jap!”

After the war, superheroes fell out of fashion. Captain America was cancelled in the 1950s.

There was an attempt to revive him in 1953 as a McCarthyite “Commie-smasher”, but it didn’t pay off.

Timely changed its name to Marvel Comics in the 1960s and did for comics what Motown and the Beatles did for music.

Captain America was revived in the Avengers comic in 1964 as a character who had literally been in cold storage since the war. He got his own comic, depicted as a man out of his time who was completely alienated from modern US society.


But Marvel’s comics were shot through with crude anti-Communist propaganda.

This lessened as the 1960s advanced and their readership radicalised.

Kirby later apologised for the politics of his work during this period. He came out against the Vietnam War and called young anti-war demonstrators “the best thing this country has ever produced”.

He left Marvel in the early 1970s and the Captain America strip lost its way.

It experienced a revival under writer Steve Englehart, who responded to the Watergate scandal with a story about a super-villain who was a thinly disguised Richard Nixon.

Disillusioned by the betrayal, Captain America put aside his patriotic costume to become Nomad—the man without a country.

But the character was back in his usual clothes in time for Kirby’s return in 1976, America’s bicentennial year.

A special was produced in which Captain America travelled through 200 years of US history—his costume paradoxically providing the inspiration for the US flag.

Kirby tired of the character, and eventually left Marvel.

Come the “war on terror” the character returned to propaganda.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld posed with two portly actors dressed as Spider-man and Captain America in the White House in 2005 to celebrate a Marvel comic produced as part of the war drive.

And Captain America and friends fought terrorism—under the direction of George W Bush.

This new film treats the character with respect and tries to reflect some of its original idealism.

It’s good fun. But at the end of the day, Samuel Johnson was right: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

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