This is a guest post from Steven Attewell. You may have heard he has a new book out.
So this filled me with an instant rage this morning; works better than coffee. Apparently the problem with Captain America in Winter Soldier was that the protagonist in a superhero story was…heroic, or so says Abraham Riesman of Vulture.com:
One would be hard-pressed to name a single false move the title character makes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not only does he save the world and the American dream, he does so while remaining flawlessly kind, endlessly moral, and effortlessly charming at all times. Even Superman might find all that perfection to be a bit much.
But with perfection comes blandness …Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Captain America has the potential to be much more interesting — but only if he’s a jerk.
Instantly I felt plunged into nostalgia gone rotten, as if we’d learned nothing from those dark days in the 90s when everyone in the comics industry learned the wrong damn lessons from Watchmen and thought that the way to make comics “adult” wasn’t to have characters grappling with tough moral decisions, or to use comics to bring up important questions about our society, but to throw in a lot of murder, rape, and have all of the heroic protagonists act like assholes all the time, distinguished from the villains only by their lesser degree of sadism.
It was bad enough that we had to suffer through 20 years of “grimdark” masquerading as “maturity,” but why inflict that on the wonderful lightning-in-a-bottle success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially when they’re proven that one of the key elements of their success vis-à-vis the DC movies is their willingness to embrace a sense of lighthearted fun rather than be limited to painting in Christopher Nolan’s dark grey palette?
Because apparently according to Abraham Riesman, “Being a bit of a prick fits perfectly with the Captain America origin story.” Absorb that for a second, let it roll around on your tongue like antifreeze. The aesthetic core of Captain America, the secret ingredient that will make him an interesting character on the big screen, is that Captain America’s secretly a prick. And what kind of a prick? If you read my last piece on Captain America, you might have a sinking feeling you already know the answer:
Imagine someone frozen in the 1940s being dropped into the 2010s with no experience of the intervening decades. Someone still high on ’40s social norms, righteous wartime adrenaline, and super-serum. Would he be the gentle, sensitive man we see in Marvel’s films and comics? It’s certainly possible. But isn’t it more likely — and more interesting to imagine — that we would find him difficult and reactionary? That he’d be uncomfortably macho and out of touch with modern values? In other words: Wouldn’t he be more John McCain than Barack Obama?
This isn’t unchartered territory. Cap has been portrayed as a dick in comics in the past (although rarely), and it always yields compelling results.
Undoubtedly the best example of a Cap-as-jerk tale comes from the Marvel film franchise’s biggest single comics influence: Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates,
So there you have it folks, the best way to represent Captain America is a comic book that failed completely to understand who Steve Rogers was and what he represents. And it’s a political best way – apparently jingoistic conservative assholes have “the moral conviction” that “more progressive characters” lack; apparently “weaponized homophobia” is the best way to fight invading aliens; and apparently “respect for authority” is “unique to Captain America and his specific origin story.”
Allow me to rebut: Abraham Riesman doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Steve Rogers isn’t a jingoistic conservative asshole and I have evidence to back that up. Unlike many other patriotic characters who derive their virtues from the American heartlands, Steve Rogers grew up in the cosmopolitan multi-cultural world of New York City. To quote myself for a second:
“he came of age in New York City at a time when the New Deal was in full swing, Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor, the American Labor Party was a major force in city politics, labor unions were on the move, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was organizing to fight fascism in Spain in the name of the Popular Front, and a militant anti-racist movement was growing that equated segregation at home with Nazism abroad that will eventually feed into the “Double V” campaign.
Then he became a fine arts student. To be an artist in New York City in the 1930s was to be surrounded by the “Cultural Front.” We’re talking the WPA Arts and Theater Projects, Diego Rivera painting socialist murals in Rockefeller Center, Orson Welles turning Julius Caesar into an anti-fascist play and running an all-black Macbeth and “The Cradle Will Rock,” Paul Robeson was a major star, and so on. You couldn’t really be an artist and have escaped left-wing politics. And if a poor kid like Steve Rogers was going to college as a fine arts student, odds are very good that he was going to the City College of New York at a time when an 80% Jewish student body is organizing student trade unions, anti-fascist rallies, and the “New York Intellectuals” were busily debating Trotskyism vs. Stalinism vs. Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal in the dining halls and study carrels.
And this Steve Rogers, who’s been exposed to all of what New York City has to offer, becomes an explicit anti-fascist. In the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, he first volunteers to join the army to fight the Nazis specifically. This isn’t an apolitical patriotism forged out of a sense that the U.S has been attacked; rather, Steve Rogers had come to believe that Nazism posed an existential threat to the America he believed in. New Deal America.”
Captain America didn’t “share 40’s values” – a reductive label assumes that everyone alive in 1940 was either a racial bigot, a misogynist, a homophobe, and an unthinking militarist, and handily ignores the people of color, women, gays, and left-wing activists who were hard at work to change American society for the better – he exemplified from the beginning the ideal that America could be. Thus Steve Rogers led the Invaders (a multispecies and multinational Allied superhero force) into Europe to fight fascism, he fought with Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos, a racially integrated fighting force from the beginning, and fought with the French Resistance rather than snidely repeating anachronistic cheese-eating surrender monkey jokes.
Thus when Captain America is unfrozen in the 1960s, he’s not freaked out by the changes in racial progress – instead, he forms an instant partnership with one of the first black superheroes, the Falcon, who movie audiences just met for the first time, and the two of them go toe to toe against an insane imposter Captain America who’s obsessed about communists under the bed. The analogy cannot be more pointed: the real Captain America stands for racial equality and civil liberties, the Captain America who believes that the government needs to “smash” reds by any means necessary is a fraud. In the 1980s, Steve Rogers runs into a childhood friend, Arnold Roth, who happens to be gay – and Steve Rogers defends his friend from bigoted violence, because Steve Rogers is a good man.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when Steve Rogers is unfrozen in the ice in 2011, he’s not here to be startled by our progressive values. He’s here to judge us for falling short of his – and that’s the entire crux of the plot of Winter Soldier. When Steve Rogers wakes up in post “New York” America and sees SHIELD preparing a giant fleet of sniper drones that’s going to be used to cull the human race based on meta-data that supposedly predicts the bad things people might do in the future, he immediately calls this out as inherently incompatible with the Constitution and the ideals that Steve Rogers fought and essentially died for. He puts his faith on ordinary soldiers and rank-and-file officers to do what’s right, not the corrupt or blinded authorities personified respectively by Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson. And his solution to SHIELD/HYDRA’s plan for world domination through mass murder is not only to sacrifice himself to save the world (again), but also to release all of SHIELD’s secrets to the world.
In Abraham Riesman’s world, Steve Rogers would feel a mighty swelling of American pride at our can-do technological genius and trust that the authorities knew what they were doing and the movie would be over roughly a half-hour in. In other words, Abraham Riesman thinks that the Nazi HYDRA agents who thought up the program to crush individual liberty in the name of perfect order are right – or at least that that makes for a better story. Thank god the people running Marvel aren’t listening to him.
Oh, and by the way, Riesman? “Respect for authority” runs counter to more than 50 years of Captain America continuity. In the 1970s comics, when Captain America uncovers the Watergate scandal, which involves secret aliens and Nixon committing suicide (because it’s Marvel Comics, after all), he resigns rather than be complicit in a cover-up. He’ll do it again in the 80s to protest the government cover-up of a new covert Super-Soldier program that led an insane Vietnam veteran named Nuke (complete with American flag tattoo over his face and Vietnam revisionism in his heart) to attack New York City. When Steve Rogers puts on the costume, both times after defeating a false, right-wing jingoistic Captain America, he does so on the explicit premise that he’s here to uphold an ideal, not a government.
That’s what makes him a superhero.