He’s a character from a comic book, the genre that epitomizes simplified plots and uncomplicated dialog. Yet Captain America may tap into something truly and uniquely American, the spirit we as a nation found during World War II, the spirit that enabled us to come together, to fight, to win. Maybe that’s a little much to put on a comic book character who has become, in turn, an action-movie icon. Maybe, but let’s study on it a little.
Cap started out as a young man named Steve Rogers. Steve was 4F, a Selective Service classification meaning physically unfit for service. He was also the quintessential “98-pound weakling.” Steve got into fights he couldn’t win, with opponents bigger, tougher, faster; he got knocked down, but he kept getting up and returning to the fight. He also kept going back to the draft board, hoping he could finagle his way into the service, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t be rejected. Steve had a big heart, and that heart wanted to serve his country in time of need.
Finally Steve gets his chance. It seems there was a scientist who developed a miraculous serum that was the basis of a process that would rewire the young man’s brain and rebuild his body. The serum turned Steve Rogers into what an earlier time would have called a demi-god, investing him with superior strength, agility, reflexes, endurance and durability.
Steve Rogers got his wish, and more. He became a super soldier.
He was supposed to be the first of many, but Dr. Erskine, the scientist who developed the serum, was assassinated, the project laboratory destroyed. Steve Rogers, the first super soldier, would now be the only one of his kind.
This is the origin of Captain America, the 98-pound weakling who becomes a super-soldier. What can we make of that in terms of symbolism?
Maybe we could look at the real US of A in 1940. In truth, in many ways, our country was a 98-pound weakling on the international stage. In 1940, we had the 19th largest army in the world — after Yugoslavia. We had a good Navy, but our Air Force was still called the Air Corps. In 1940, indeed, through 1941, it couldn’t have matched the Nazi Luftwaffe or Britain’s RAF. When war came in December of 1941, our Air Corps, undertrained and poorly equipped, tried valiantly to oppose the Japanese. But at that time we were a 98-pound weakling, and like the weak everywhere, we got our butts kicked. Sure, we had the potential. We had the best workers, the best brains (look at the Manhattan Project!) and the most money. But the US was still way, way behind.
The US was Steve Rogers, before the serum.
The country’s “special serum” was Pearl Harbor. Few events in history have mobilized a nation the way the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did. Every World War II veteran I’ve ever spoken with mentioned that as a factor in wanting to join up.
We’re looking at symbolism, though, so let’s stay with Cap.
What about the “Super Soldier Program”? I contend one might see this as a metaphor for that ancient rite of passage called “basic training.” It takes time and a tough drill sergeant to turn civilians into soldiers. Lots of civilians went through this during World War II. Maybe there weren’t “super soldiers.” Sure as hell they were the next best thing.
That silly, gaudy costume Cap wore. Think of Captain America as the action-hero version of a symbol that’s been around for a long time: Uncle Sam. Then think of every recruiting poster from World War II, especially those of the Marine Corps if they showed Marines in their dress blues. A lot of those recruiting posters might remind you of Captain America.
A symbol has to be a little more universal in its appeal. Not just to future Marines, but to all of us. That’s Cap.
In our cynical times we tend to see Cap as a little too much of a Boy Scout. People like that, we think, are suckers, easily deceived and taken advantage of. Just what are those qualities, though? A Scout, as I recall, is trustworthy, loyal, brave, courteous, reverent, truthful, and someother qualities I’d have to look up in my Boy Scout Handbook to remember. What’s wrong with being trustworthy, courteous and truthful? It’s worth remembering now that those qualities were pretty much taken for granted as a standard for behavior in the 1930s and 1940s. Even the bad guys acknowledged that was what the “good guys” stood for, even if the bad guys – gangsters, Nazis or whomever – laughed at them for it. Cap is straightforward, unsubtle and uncomplicated: what you see is what you get. That made Cap vulnerable to deception, since fundamentally honest and uncomplicated people have to learn by bitter experience about the capacity for deception in others. Then they have to learn something even harder: the fact that, in deceiving others, regardless of purity of motive, you run the risk of deceiving yourself and becoming the thing you fight. Deceiving yourself renders you more and not less vulnerable to deception by others, especially when those others know your self-deceptions. In deceiving yourself, you lose sight of something precious: who you really are.
If you don’t believe that, watch some of the cowboy movies that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s. Better yet, read the novels of Zane Grey. Zane Grey also understood the American psyche. His cowboy and gunfighter heroes would have known Cap as a kindred spirit immediately. They probably would have joshed him about the costume, though: “Pard Cap, why don’t yuh just wear a white hat? At least it’d keep the sun out of yore eyes.”
The organization Hydra and its leader, the Red Skull, are masters at the art of deception. They hide their true nature like the Red Skull uses a mask to hide his own misshapen appearance. Of course, if we knew who he really was, would we go anywhere near him? But that ugly red skull is itself symbolic, conveying the true nature of the Nazis, or, perhaps, the Soviets, or whatever enemy is hiding and betraying in our midst at the present time.
So what have we got? Steve Rogers and Captain America are part of the American psyche, and still have the power to resonate within us. Hopefully they remind us about what is best in America and warn us about what could destroy that spirit. If we become our enemies, by adopting their deceptions and tactics as our own, who wins? The motto of Hydra, after all, is “Cut off one head, two spring up in its place.”
It was a mythological hero who slew the Hydra. Maybe my hero Captain America taps into something of that same ancient force. I’d like to think so.