Captain America: The First Avenger could not have possibly been more pro-American—in the best sense of the term. More than just being set during World War II, Captain America captures the same patriotic spirit of war movies that were actually made then. And it could not possibly show greater respect for the character whose story it tells. In some ways, it seemed less like a superhero movie than a History Channel bio pic or Ken Burns documentary about one of our nation’s greatest champions of freedom.
The primary source of the good will this movie generates for the U.S.A. is actor Chris Evans’ portrayal of Steve Rogers, the man behind the mask of Captain America. Evans’ performance had the exact combination of earnestness, determination, humility, guilelessness and unfaltering commitment to serving the greater good that I consider the defining traits of the character. It’s these attributes, and not the superheroic persona and outfit he eventually adopts, that make him a perfect embodiment of how Americans, and the rest of the world, once saw this country. As Evans said in an interview, “The movie is about values, morals, and someone standing up for the right thing. It’s about someone fighting for justice who puts himself last and compassion first.” Once Steve Rogers is transformed from 98-lb. weakling to super-soldier by Dr. Abraham Erskine (wonderfully played by Stanley Tucci), as Captain America he uses his military might less like the world’s policeman than its big brother, coming to the rescue when other nations are getting pushed around by Bully States. And like a good neighbor, he never butts in where he isn’t invited or overstays his welcome.
As I see it, Captain America: The First Avenger is nothing short of a nostalgic love letter to our country: not so much the way it is, or even the way it was, as much as the way we’ve always wanted it to be. It celebrates everything good about America—from its desire to spread democracy to its scientific innovation—but ignores everything bad, like the racial segregation of the military or internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (even though it includes African-American Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) and Japanese-American Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi) among the Howling Commandos who join Captain America in his wartime escapades). But given the nature of this film, I don’t fault it for praising America’s achievements so highly, or for ignoring our misdeeds during WWII (see Part 2 of my four-part series on Captain America for another example). Ironically (and unexpectedly), my only major criticism of the movie is that it ignores the misdeeds of our enemy.
Captain America is defined as much by what he stands against as what he stands for. As I explain elsewhere, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created him in response to the specific circumstances of their times. There’s a reason they chose Adolf Hitler to be on the receiving end of their character’s first blow for democracy on the 1941 cover of Captain America #1 (I was thrilled to see this iconic cover cleverly incorporated into the movie). The Third Reich and Nazi Party carried out evils unlike any the world had ever seen. As Jews, Simon and Kirby would have a very personal stake in showing Captain America symbolically destroy Hitler’s forces in the pages of a comic book that at its height was selling a million copies a month. It would be inconceivable to make a movie about Captain America’s earliest adventures, or any movie about World War II for that matter, without the Nazis playing a prominent part. And yet, director Joe Johnston pulled it off—for reasons I can’t begin to understand.
The evil empire Johnston pits Captain America against is Hydra, a fictional terrorist network in the Marvel Comics universe. This is no doubt to set the organization up as a recurring adversary in future Marvel Studios films. Here it’s described as a Nazi research group that combined occult powers and advanced technology to create wonder weapons for Hitler’s stormtroopers. What I found disturbing was that the Nazi part of the organization was downplayed to the point of virtual invisibility. Although Hydra’s tentacled skull symbol got about as much screen time as the stars and stripes, I don’t recall ever seeing a swastika (although I’m sure the few that must have appeared in the movie just went by so fast I missed them*). I might understand, at least theoretically, choosing to minimize references to Germany out of a sensitivity to present-day Germans (although, as Dr. Erskine points out in the film, “the first country the Nazis invaded was their own”). But whose feelings could the filmmakers have been trying to spare by taking Nazis out of the picture? Even more incredible than the lack of swastikas in the movie, was the total absence of any mention of the Holocaust (as far as I can remember, it wasn’t even hinted at). Besides being a seemingly misguided attempt to sanitize history, it also diminishes the importance of Captain America’s conflict with the film’s main villain.
Hydra’s leader is the Red Skull (played menacingly by Hugo Weaving), a character who debuted in the same 1941 comic book as Captain America and has been the arch nemesis of the “Sentinel of Liberty” ever since. The Red Skull is the living embodiment of everything Hitler and Nazi Germany stood for—Aryan superiority, racism, antisemitism, homophobia and blind obedience to the State to name a few. The Third Reich personified, he excels at and revels in the practical application of Nazi theory—unprovoked military aggression, torture, political repression and mass murder. But in the movie, the Red Skull abandons Nazism for a more vague, generic super villain desire to rule the world. The problem I have with this is that he never explains why this is his goal, or how a world under his control would differ from the one he’s already living in. To put it in actor terms, I don’t understand his motivation. It’s clear that he is cruel and arrogant, which makes him Steve Roger’s opposite in terms of his basic character. But in comic books, the Red Skull was created to be Captain America’s opposite.
Based on their depiction of Steve Rogers’ pre-Captain America training, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were obviously influenced by The Adventures of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty, a 1991 four-part miniseries by storytellers Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire, retelling Cap’s origin in commemoration of the character’s 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, I get the impression Markus and McFeely never read the last book in the series, where a captured Captain America is taken to the heart of Nazi Germany and forced into an arena to battle the Red Skull in ritual combat before Adolf Hitler and an audience of Wehrmacht soldiers, Gestapo officers, and the concentration camp prisoners who were so conspicuously absent from the film. Of course, this intended demonstration of Aryan superiority does not turn out as Hitler had hoped. Now that’s something I would have loved to have seen on the big screen.
By removing any trace of Nazi philosophy from the Red Skull in this film, his final battle with Captain America becomes nothing more than two comic book characters slugging it out. Instead, it should have been an allegorical clash of ideologies: totalitarianism, intolerance and brutality versus freedom, acceptance and compassion. This is not just a war over territory but an epic war of wills that has been waged since the dawn of civilization—the Will to Power versus the Will of the People. For me, the failure to make clear the moral high ground in this fight kept a merely good movie from being truly great.
* A case in point: Even though the movie poster above recreates the cover of Captain America #1, the swastika band that was originally on Hitler’s right arm has been moved to his left, thereby hiding the Nazi symbol from view.