Friday, September 2, 2011

Captain "America"?

by Dr Vincent Gaine

Editors' note: This week we present a first for Superheroes on Screen: a guest entry for the blog, in the form of a review of the recent Captain America: The First Avenger by Dr Vincent Gaine, providing an additional viewpoint on the film to those expressed in previous posts which considered it in relation to, for example, US Superheroes in Global Markets and Iconography and Aesthetics. Gaine here looks at the narrative of the film in order to consider its internationality.

One of the challenges and great opportunities of superhero narratives is their applicability to different historical contexts. Whereas Iron Man was first formed in Vietnam, the 21st century film places his origin in Afghanistan. Spider-Man and Superman have been updated several times for contemporary events, while the recent screen incarnation of Batman carries many allusions to the War on Terror. The very name “Captain America” suggests an America-centric ideology, the character implied as an embodiment of American ideology, a problematic notion especially in the contemporary era of globalisation, with non-American audiences forming a significant potential market. Notably, the new screen version Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) shows a significant engagement with globalisation, making Steve Rogers a hero for the world and not just the USA.

Captain America, like many a Hollywood war movie as well as other films such as the Indiana Jones franchise, uses World War II as its dramatic backdrop. This creates an almost mythic time when an international clash between good and evil can be presented simplistically, rather than the myriad shades of grey today. Captain America takes pains to present its conflict as even more clear cut, as the supervillain Johann Schmidt/the Red Skull is even more evil than Hitler and plans to conquer the Nazis as well as everyone else with his super weapons. By making the threat wider than the war but the culprit more specific than the Nazis, the film presents Captain America as a hero for all humanity, not one just fighting for the American way. This is made more apparent by placing much of the film’s action in Europe, with Cap fighting specifically against the Red Skull’s organisation Hydra. Furthermore, the serum which transforms the emaciated Rogers into a super soldier is designed by a German exile, Dr. Erskine, while Cap has a team of Allied soldiers with him, including Americans, British and French, while his love interest is British agent Peggy Carter. Fighting the Nazis, and more especially Hydra, is an international effort even if its leader bears the name “America”. Even the subtitle, The First Avenger, links Cap with the broader narrative of the Avengers franchise, in which figures such as the Incredible Hulk and Thor travel to or from non-American environments. As Nick Fury tells Cap upon his awakening, they are trying to save the world.

Despite the seeming internationalism of Captain America, the centrality of the United States remains apparent. Two of the key action sequences involve Captain America protecting the US specifically. The first occurs when Doctor Erskine is killed by a Hydra agent and Cap uses his new powers for the first time to capture him. The second is the film’s climax when Cap battles the Red Skull aboard his bomber, which will target US cities. As the climax of the narrative and the spectacle, the sequence is intended as the most exciting and the most significant, a direct threat to America being the most dramatic scenario possible. The stakes are raised further by the sequence being one of only three scenes in which Cap is actually hurt, the others being (consistently), when he fights the Red Skull. Not only is America threatened, but our hero might actually lose this time. The allied international forces work together to save the world, but the stakes are highest when the US itself is in danger. It will be interesting to see if the threat in The Avengers has a similar global dimension.