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Captain America (2011) – A Star-Spangled Slave?

August 11, 2011

0. A Capsule Review

Despite concerns about both the character and the decidedly uneven quality of Marvel’s cinematic output, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger reveals it to be one of the most engaging superhero films to grace the silver screen since Sam Raimi’s masterful and genre-defining Spider-Man 2 (2004).  Aside from engaging central performances from Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving as Captain America and his nemesis the Red Skull and a perfectly serviceable script by Narnia alumni Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, the film benefits hugely from an impressive directorial turn by Johnston himself.

Johnston began his career as concept artist and special effects technician George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) before going on to win an Oscar for his effects work on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  From there, Johnston graduated to direction but while none of his previous films stand-out as particularly worthy of praise, his work on period superhero flick The Rocketeer (1991) clearly stood him in good stead when Marvel went looking for a director to deliver Captain America from the depths of comics obscurity and into the centre of the media frenzy that will be Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers film.

As might be expected from a director who worked on both The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Johnston delivers a film that walks an elegant line between rich period detail and fantastical anachronism. Unlike the Wagnerian belle époque of Branagh’s Thor (2011) or the muscular modernism and Gee-whizz Californian cool of Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Johnston’s Captain America fails to break new ground but is all the more visually engaging for it.  We have seen these sorts of gizmos and sets a dozen times before but Johnston does it better and more beautifully than most.

Aside from its impressive visuals, Captain America also benefits from a well-paced plot buttressed by some well-shot action sequences that help the film’s somewhat excessive 124 minutes slip by almost unnoticed. In an age where every Summer blockbuster feels the urge to edge further and further past the 120 minute-mark, Johnston delivers a film that wears its extended run-time like a well-fitted demob suit.

While all of these ingredients contributed to my enjoyment of the film, what really won me over was Captain America himself. Prior to the film, my experience of the character was limited to (a) the old animated series,  (b) a few issues of Cap’s collaboration with the Falcon and (c) Ed Brubaker’s entirely over-rated run on the comic. Taken together, these created the impression of a character completely ill-suited to the modern world. Indeed, Brubaker uses Captain America’s origin story as a means of re-inventing the character as an isolated figure whose memories of the past alienate him from the people around him.  However, returned to his original timeframe, Captain America’s old fashioned heroism somehow seems strikingly original and fresh.

Indeed, Captain America: The First Avenger features an origin story whose complete absence of angst is nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, Captain America is the first cinematic Superhero to not be a slave.

1. The Euthyphro Dilemma

Set in 399 BCE, the Platonic dialogue known as The Euthyphro finds Socrates debating the issue of piety.  Having exchanged a few early definitions with an expert in religion, Socrates suddenly hits upon a question that would later prove central to the development of Western thought.  The so-called Euthyphro Dilemma is first articulated in the following terms:

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

We can re-articulate the question as follows:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

This question has proved incredibly thorny for religious thinkers because both horns of the dilemma are quite uncomfortable.  If, on the one hand, one believes that God commands things because they are right then one is allowing for the existence of moral codes independent of God.  This not only opens up the possibility of a moral but Godless universe but it also suggests that God is a subject of the moral law, which is problematic if you believe that God is omnipotent.  If, on the other hand, you believe that things are right because it is God that commands them then you allow for the possibility that God is little more than a supernatural tyrant who uses the threat of Hell to bully humanity into obeying a set of arbitrary rules.

While early Christian thinkers such as Anselm, Aquinas and Augustine dodged the issue by suggesting that God’s unique nature allows him to evade both horns of the dilemma, the issues raised in The Euthyphro apply in every situation in which de facto power invokes the justification of de jure authority.  Nowhere is this issue more evident than in the history of superhero comics.

Superhero comics arose at a time when people were more accepting of the existence of a Patrician class.  Whether it was in politics, religion or culture, people were quite happy with the idea that some wealthy and powerful people simply took it upon themselves to use their power and influence to do good. It is hardly accidental that many early superheroes such as Doc Savage, The Spider and The Shadow were also wealthy industrialists and playboys as the morality of the early superheroes was closely modelled on that of the Victorian and Edwardian do-gooders: men in top hats equipped with money and a desire to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, as time went by, it became increasingly clear that while moral crusades could summon extraordinary political powers, there was no guarantee that these powers would in fact be used for good. Moral entrepreneurs, it would appear, could build death camps just as easily as they could build orphanages. The history of the 20th Century proved that the City on the Hill was, more often than not, built of bones and shoes. Time and time again, our belief in the political power of moral renewal was shown to be misguided.  We no longer believe in the myth of the powerful man who simple wants to make the world a better place.  This poses a huge challenge to comic book writers.

Many of the most powerful comics of the last thirty years have acknowledged the enduring relevance of the Euthyphro Dilemma by reformulating it thusly:

Are superheroes the good guys because what they do is morally right, or is what they do morally right because superheroes are the good guys?

Comics such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Warren Ellis’ The Authority deconstruct the superhero ethos by willingly impaling themselves on both horns of the dilemma:

Moore’s Watchmen impales itself on the second horn by suggesting that superheroes are little more than costumed tyrants who take it upon themselves to ‘fix’ the world with no guarantee offered that what they are doing is right or likely to work.

Conversely, Warren Ellis’ The Authority features a group of super-powered heroes who take it upon themselves to dabble in the world’s political problems. However, while these people undeniably possess the power necessary to take the world by the scruff of the neck and shake it, the disastrous consequences of their actions reveal that they are just as subject to the moral law as anyone else. In fact, The Authority are revealed to be a group that can ‘save the world’ but probably shouldn’t.

 Some critics have argued that the recent boom in superhero films has been fuelled by the unravelling of the American empire.  As Afghanistan and Iraq have proved, possessing a desire to ‘save the world’ and the military might to do so in no way guarantees that the world will in fact be saved. Superhero films tap into this political zeitgeist in two separate ways: Firstly, they offer the escapist fantasy of a world that can be fixed thanks to a morally righteous use of overwhelming force.  Secondly, superhero origin stories allow American popular culture to address America’s diminished moral character and pose the question of how a superpower such as America can maintain the levels of moral authority required for it to ‘save the world’ as opposed to simply dominating it using brute military and economic strength. It is this second issue that I believe to be the more important of the two.

With the exception of such recent countercultural titles as Watchmen and Mark Millar’s Kick Ass, superhero films have tended to draw upon characters with histories that predate a lot of Western cynicism about political and moral ideology. Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Thor, Green Lantern, Iron Man and Captain America are all characters that were created at a time when popular culture still allowed for the existence of unaccountable moral entrepreneurs. However, popular culture no longer accepts heroes at face value and so filmmakers have found themselves having to create elaborate origin stories that not only introduce us to the characters but also explain why it is that these people are the good guys in the first place.

Arguably the most influential cinematic account of why it is that superheroes are the good guys can be found in Sam Raimi’s hugely successful Spider-Man (2002). Upon discovering that he has superhuman powers, Peter Parker begins by using his powers for such purely selfish ends as settling old grudges and making money. However, Parker sees the error of his ways when the crook he refuses to apprehend winds up murdering his uncle. Reflecting upon one of his uncle’s finger-wagging sermons, Parker realises that having power also means having a responsibility to do the right thing.

Spider-Man effectively solves the Euthyphro Dilemma through humility: Peter Parker accepts not only that there is a moral order to the universe but also that his powers make him even more subject to the moral law than most people. Thus, Spider-Man’s moral authority flows not from his power but from his meekness given that he is a man who possesses the power to be radically free but in truth is less free to do as he please than most people.

This attempt to ‘reground’ superhero morality in submission and servitude as opposed to nobility of character and freedom of action has proved to be astonishingly influential.  In fact, it is difficult to find a contemporary superhero film that does not echo Spider-Man’s use of Christian sentiment.  Consider, for example, the ending of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) where the arrogant hero proves his hard-won humility by choosing to sacrifice himself in order to save the life of an innocent. This narrative of submission and humility is made even more explicitly Christian in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), where Superman is initially deemed to be surplus to requirements by a human race intent upon assuming responsibility for its actions. However, when the human villain Lex Luthor constructs a new continent using alien matter, Superman proves his utility with an act of self-sacrifice leading to a new covenant with humanity (and the birth of a son). Again, Superman’s moral character flows neither from his power nor his upstanding moral character but from his willingness to endure suffering in pursuit of the moral good.

2. Slave Morality

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche deals with this issue in the first essay of The Genealogy of Morals (1887).  Nietzsche argues that the ancients solved the Euthyphro Dilemma by intertwining the concept of morality with that or aristocracy:

The Latin word bonus [good] I believe I can explicate as “the warrior”, provided that I am correct in tracing bonus back to an older word duonus (compare bellum [war] = duellum [war] = duen-lum, which seems to me to contain that word duonus). Hence, bonus is a man of war, or division (duo), as a warrior. We see what constituted a man’s ‘goodness’ in ancient Rome. – Section 5.

As Nietzsche also puts it:

“Noble” and “aristocratic” in a social sense is the fundamental idea out of which “good” in the sense of “spiritually noble”, “aristocratic”, “spiritually high-minded”, “spiritually privileged” necessarily develops, a process which always runs in parallel with that other one which finally transforms “common”, “vulgar” and “low” into the concept “bad” – Section 4.

According to Nietzsche, this identification of moral righteousness with the values of an aristocratic warrior elite was overturned by Judeo-Christian religion, which instructed that:

“Only those who suffer are good; the poor, the powerless, the low are the only good people; the suffering, those in need, the sick, the ugly are also the only pious people; only they are blessed by God; for them alone there is salvation – By contrast, you privileged and powerful people, you are for all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lecherous, the insatiable, the godless; you will be the unblessed, the cursed, and the damned for all eternity!” – Section 7.

In order for superheroes to maintain their appearance of moral righteousness, it was necessary for filmmakers to ensure that we identified them not as masters, but as slaves.  Traditionally, according to Nietzsche, actions were judged retroactively on the basis of the impact of their actions.  However, because slaves tend not to have much power, it makes little sense to judge their actions by consequence alone.  As a result, Judeo-Christian morality turned to judging actions by the intent behind them. By establishing that superheroes are wielders of slave- rather than master-morality, filmmakers and comic writers downplay the importance of consequences: It does not matter if Batman’s actions lead to the deaths of hundreds of people because Batman acted out of humility and submission to the moral law.  It is this submission that distinguishes him from the Joker.

It is interesting to note that American foreign policy has always involved a rhetorical submission to the moral law. America intervenes in foreign lands not in order to further her interests or to build an empire, but because she had no choice but to defend herself or to act on the opinions of the international community.  America may behave like an aristocratic bully, but she presents herself as a submissive forced into action against her will.  For a concrete example of America’s adoption of slave-morality, look no further than the debate surrounding the War in Iraq; the morality of the war hinged not upon the eventual outcome of the invasion (tens of thousands of innocent deaths, corrupt government and a destroyed infrastructure) but upon the reasons for the war.  Was America forced to act by the threat of WMD? Was America acting on behalf of a coalition? Was America merely seeking a secure and reliable source of oil? America’s moral authority depended not upon the eventual outcome of her actions but upon the question of whether she acted out of genuine submission to the moral law (because of the threat posed by WMDs) or whether she acted out of vulgar and aristocratic self-interest (because America needs oil).

Part of what makes Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) so effective is their willingness to engage with these sorts of issues.  For example, at the beginning of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is explicitly referred to as ‘The Prince of Gotham’ and his decision to leave the country in order to train results from Wayne’s childhood friend pointing out that his lack of understanding is due to a lack of suffering.  It is only by spending years on the streets, living as a criminal and being trained by an order of mystics that Wayne acquires the humility required to do good.  In fact, the plot of Batman Begins can be framed as a struggle between Ra’s Ghul’s master-morality and Wayne’s slave-morality.  Nolan even goes so far as to explore the limitations of an intent-based morality in The Dark Knight, where Wayne’s decision to ‘do good’ leads to an escalation in the cycle of criminal violence that threatens to engulf the entire city.  Again, it is only through an act of submission and self-exile that Batman can sustain the audience’s sympathy and a perceived moral righteousness.

3. Captain America – Nationalist Icon

Created in the early 1940s as a symbol of American patriotism and a propaganda tool arguing for American involvement in foreign wars, Captain America is about as far from being a slave as you can imagine. Produced as part of a secret American military program to create the perfect soldier, his moral character flows from the symbol on his chest as much as it does from the infamy of his opponents.  If we cast our eye over some of the pre-Silver Age Captain America comics we see the question:

Are superheroes the good guys because what they do is morally right, or is what they do morally right because superheroes are the good guys?

Answered as:

Captain America is a good guy because he is an American and because he fights the Nazis.

Clearly, in this day and age, such an answer cannot hope to be satisfactory. In fact, as comics such as Watchmen and Unknown Soldier demonstrate, a willingness to serve American interest abroad is frequently used by comic writers as a sign of moral decadence. Even if filmmakers did attempt to use America’s moral authority and Captain America’s symbolic nature as a solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma, the need for blockbusters to pull in global audiences would mean that such a solution would entail significant financial risk. It is one thing to expect American audiences to accept that Captain America is a good guy because he’s American but it is quite another to expect mass audiences in Europe and Asia to accept the same conceit.

Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger deals with the issue of nationalism by fully acknowledging Captain America’s origins as a propaganda tool. Indeed, the character of Steve Rogers assumes the mantel ‘Captain America’ because that is the name of the character he plays in a series of propaganda film and theatre skits designed to help sell war bonds. Clearly, as far as this cinematic incarnation of Captain America is concerned, nationalist symbolism is simply a show-biz affectation and has no bearing on the source of Cap’s moral authority.

4.  Captain America – An Inverted Origin

It is interesting to note that, despite their obsession with ‘origin stories’, most superhero films begin by demonstrating that their characters are already in possession of a set of superhuman attributes. The ‘origin’ in ‘origin stories’ generally does not refer so much to the origin of a character’s powers as it does to the origin of their heroic status.  Apparently anyone can be powerful but it takes a special individual to become a hero.  For example:

Iron Man’s Tony Stark is an alcoholic washout who spends all of his time tinkering with toys and dating supermodels while his father’s associate runs the company that keeps him in booze and muscle cars. It is only when one of Stark’s weapons gets into the wrong hands and he winds up injured that Stark comes to realise that his wealth and genius confer upon him a responsibility to do the right thing.  This realisation comes at he hands of Afghan warlords who chain him up and force him to build a bomb.

Thor begins the film as a swaggering daddy’s boy whose position in the Asgaard royal family granted him access to weapons and powers that enable him to live the life of a hero. Hurtling round the universe with a gang of feckless hangers on, Thor’s arrogance and selfishness soon wind up causing an inter-planetary incident that result in his being exiled to Earth, where he learns the importance of humility and sacrifice.

By systematically having their characters fluke their way into a set of powers that they then have to ‘earn’, superhero films reinforce the image of the superhero as the submissive victim of an existing moral order. Thor and Iron Man both have to submit to the moral order precisely because, much like Raimi’s Spider-Man, they are unwitting recipients of superhuman characteristics. Captain America reverses this formulation by having Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) actively fight to receive his powers.

Rogers begins the film as a puny little runt. Afflicted with dozens of illnesses and conditions that make him completely incapable of military service, he moves from state to state trying to enlist under a series of fake names and identities until he is hand-picked for a secret military programme.

Rogers begins the film with no powers other than his moral character, a moral character that does not tolerate bullies and which refuses to back down from a fight.  Any fight. In other words, Rogers begins the film having learned his moral lessons off-camera.  Captain America’s ‘origin story’ is not so much an act of submission as it is an act of elevation as it is Rogers’ character that makes him the perfect candidate for Dr. Abraham Erskine’s (Stanley Tucci) experimental super-soldier serum.  In this film, it is not power that seeks humility but humility that fights in order to achieve power.

Rogers’ story is neatly mirrored by the story of the man who goes on to become his arch-nemesis the Red Skull.  Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is a brilliant scientist, a cunning general and a visionary mystic. Beneficiary of the same super-soldier serum as Rogers, Schmidt began his life as an arrogant and supremely powerful Nazi and his acquisition of superpowers only serves to make him even more powerful, even more arrogant and even more evil. Having seen at first hand that power can corrupt even the most brilliant of minds, Erskine fled Nazi Germany and went to work for the Allies where he steered his programme towards using a humble man like Rogers as its first test subject.

Because most superheroes begin with power and are forced to learn humility, most cinematic superheroes can be thought of as recovering antiheroes whose origins lie not in the pursuit of something they have always wanted but rather in angst-ridden attempts to reformulate their identities in order to encompass a newly awakened sense of moral responsibility. What makes the cinematic Captain America such a compelling character is the fact that his acquisition of powers does not change him at all. The humiliations and hardships that are heaped upon him as part of his journey to heroic status are not there in order to humble him but rather to demonstrate his qualifications for the job. Captain America: The First Avenger is an old-fashioned hero’s journey and its unapologetic sincerity is surprisingly powerful.

5. Captain America and The New Sincerity

In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1993), the late-lamented author David Foster Wallace suggests that there is something rebellious and heroic about sincerity:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

What makes sincerity so rebellious is the fact that it runs completely contrary to the vision of the self that has dominated literary culture since the Second World War. Since the 1950s, intellectuals have tended to see the self as a fragile artefact that is consistently under attack from the outside world. Under this view, it is heroic to be authentic and true to oneself because authenticity involves sacrificing happiness in order to protect one’s principles. Ask any teenaged boy with a clearly defined rebellious streak about going to parties and you will most likely hear that they are far too principled to ever stoop so low as to have fun or to try to fit in, this is because the teenager prizes his authenticity over his sociability. Sincerity, on the other hand, is all about actively seeking out and enduring the disapproval of the masses. Indeed, for a sincere person, the self is a robust entity that is proudly displayed to the world. Disapproval and public ridicule do not undermine the sincere self but rather serve to strengthen it.  The best place to be authentic may be when you are on your own but the best place to be sincere is before an audience.

By locating Captain America’s moral righteousness not in the conclusion of a journey of self-discovery but in Rogers’ fundamental character, Captain America: The First Avenger is turning on its head the normal means of establishing a character’s moral authority. Captain America is not a good guy because we have seen him submit to the moral law, he is a good guy because we believe him to be in possession of a noble character. Indeed, when asked why he wants to enlist, Rogers simply replies that he dislikes bullies.  He offers no caveats or justifications, he simply defines that which he considers noble and expects others to live by it.  Captain America’s sincerity lies in his capacity for creating value and embodying that which is noble and battling against that which is base. By having Captain America embody American values almost by accident (Rogers was selected for the part on the basis of his looks, not his moral character), Captain America is inching towards what Nietzsche called a master-morality.

Captain America’s sincerity and complete lack of angst or self-awareness allows Nietzsche’s master-morality to exist in an age of extreme moral subjectivism. The problem with traditional master-morality is that it was usually dispensed at the tip of a sword but Captain America’s master-morality is reactive rather than pro-active.  He is sincere about stopping the moral bullies who would impose their values on others. Besides constituting a radical shift in the ways in which superhero films ground the morality of their characters, this sort of sincerity has a novelty value all of its own. Maybe we should all be a lit less angsty and a little more sincere? As David Foster Wallace say: “Who knows”.

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