The Education of Captain America
It is first important to note that the film, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which opened up recently to rave reviews, owes its pedigree to an older branch preceding what has been termed the "Marvel Universe." Having emerged from the fruitful minds of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940, this All-American superhero was a byproduct of a simpler time, as was the unabashed patriotic nature of all Golden Age comic books that had yet to fall under Post-Modernity’s contemptuous eye. To be sure, Cap and Bucky were perhaps, at best, two-dimensional renderings of American patriotic ardor wedded to a righteous cause. But who could deny their nobility?
The “First Avenger,” as he is now billed, is himself an optimistic byproduct of Promethean science and American ideology drafted into the service of winning wars. Back then, the dark downside of human technology had yet to be processed in that generation’s naïve heart, which still knew nothing of gas chambers or atom bombs. For them, the horizon still seemed positive and largely uncharted for the amalgamation of Science and Yankee know-how. And so Captain America, that magnificent soldier possessing superhuman strength, uncanny agility, dogged determination, and an unwavering loyalty to both Homeland and his fellow warriors, exemplified what was deemed best and highest in the American character. It would take his reawakening after decades frozen in suspended animation for the inevitable cynicism to set in. That same cynicism, so characteristic of our contemporary world, would soon educate those guileless eyes that had slept so soundly since 1945.
If we contrast Cap with many of the heroes who would comprise what is known subsequently as the Silver Age of Comics, we find that the radiant sheen of the future had by then lost much of its luster. Almost invariably, the origin of Silver Age superpowers would flow not from the bounty of scientific knowledge, but from its nightmarish legacy. For the Incredible Hulk, we find that a brilliant scientist’s mass exposure to Gamma-rays at an atomic test site yields a pitiable monster capable of uncontrollable and near limitless rage and destruction. For the Fantastic Four, it is unforeseen cosmic radiation in space that drives their origin. And for the mutations that birth the X-Men, it is a mélange of radiation (combined with the detritus of scientific pride and human evolution) that transform these unhappy creatures into reluctant demigods. But whether it is the fateful bite of a radioactive spider or the chance ingestion of nuclear waste, there is hell to pay as characters must make the best of their own separate tragedies. So characteristic of the Silver Age Hero (and later) is the meme of science and evolution gone terribly wrong – typified by a young girl named Rogue who cannot chance an ungloved human encounter, lest she kill or maim with a simple kiss. The ruling theme that readers of this genre distill is a longing for normalcy: a pipe dream that may never come true for these heroes and villains. With great power comes great responsibility – and alienation.
But for Steve Rogers, the once ninety-five pound weakling that led the shattering of the Nazi ubermenchen as Captain America, the stars have fallen from his eyes after many decades of sleep. In many ways the world has remorselessly moved past him, just as it has us. And on the whole, the future appears to him as an accelerating blur of light and darkness incrementally sliding towards the abyss.
Upon rising Lazarus-like from his tomb of ice, Captain America must now face the incontrovertible truth that everyone and everything he once loved is now dying or dead. His sparkling music of the Big Band era has been eclipsed by the indecipherable malevolence of rap music and the understated mannerisms of a diligent working class country have been transformed by the ostentatious consumption that goes hand in hand with double-edged progress. The emancipated American soul, having for the most part discarded even the pretense of piety and humble restraint, has not worn the cloak of empire well. In effect, the American Century that arguably sent forth “the greatest generation” to shatter tyranny has unwittingly feasted upon evil’s autocratic seeds – and pronounced them good. The greatest irony is this: America seems ultimately doomed to become what she in fact once resisted.
Who amongst us, in sharing Cap’s same trusting innocence, could have foretold that Socialism in the United States would soon no longer hide its face by ruse of spy or artifice? As we turn into the third millennium, who would have guessed that a “deep cover” Alger Hiss would be as unnecessary as a fifth wheel on a donkey cart? In the great central seats of American government, traitor and opportunist now walk undeterred without fear of derision or civic contempt -- and all openly plead their case as advocates of their own ideology, conscience, or constituency. And more importantly, who in the exalted media centers cries foul anymore when our august covenant of governmental restraint is slowly being ripped into shreds by the effeminate hands twice sworn to uphold its honor?
In both fiction and reality, there is now an unsettling realization that Captain America and Conservatism are battling the same relentless gravitational pull of extra-governmental organizations -- Entities enmeshed in the movement towards globalist control through coercive force. In the shadow world of clandestine alliance and patriotic pretense, it is indeed difficult to know who has your back. For the soldier in 1943, politicians of every political persuasion were firmly united in warring down Hitler and Tojo. Today, a vast contingent of Democratic lawmakers are openly antagonistic to the fighting man’s interests, and there are even some with an “R” beside their name that have gone rogue and are embracing the current Islamicist contagion. How disorienting it is to arrive at the revelation that the once great Land of the Free is being surveilled through camera and keystrokes by agencies that hold no proper allegiance to our Constitution or creed; and moreover, that have forgotten that their first commission was to defend the rights of a free and sovereign people. It would seem that this country is being held hostage to ideologies that were once thought discredited and defeated. That such malevolencies have been resurrected and nurtured is something that Captain America would never have fully comprehended -- except perhaps as the remnant of a scourge that must be crushed by necessity.
But alas, there will be no Captain America to be found as we look around us. Were he not the abiding relic of an age of greater moral clarity, he would not now exist in our cultural imaginations: since no self-respecting contemporary writer or artist would dare compose a character so “hackneyed.” We abide in a time of corrosive irony whose soul-sickness mars most everything it alights upon; and this is evidenced by the countercultural smirk that Peter Fonda elicited in Easy Rider with his character's nickname, “Captain America.”
Right now as you are reading this, a soldier whose blood I proudly share is attending SERE training, the military’s grueling Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course for high value targets. I am assured he will be abused, slapped around, deprived of food and water, psychologically tortured, and made to endure the nastiest of experiences in service to his country. His entire adult life, starting three days after he graduated from high school, has been dedicated to our country -- and he is amongst the finest that West Point has produced. Though he cannot run ten miles in thirty minutes or crash through plate steel doors with his shoulder, he is to me the embodiment of Captain America, although he has no shield---because he is himself our shield. And lying in bed at night praying through his too many tours of duty in hostile places, I often wonder if the government that sends him to serve its interests abroad is anymore worthy of such sacrifice.
At the tail end of the film, an enemy scientist gloating over their latest creations offers this ominous pronouncement:
It’s not a world of spies anymore. It’s not even a world of heroes. This is the age of miracles, doctor. There’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.
The miracle that technology has bequeathed into the hands and minds of spiritual Cro-Magnons is indeed horrifying, and the deviant political schemes that proceed from even the greatest minds are often hatched because men have despaired and strayed from their sanity. As a result, grim humanity offers the world stones in lieu of bread. Knowing this, there is still time for reformations and revolutions: salutary adventures that can turn the hearts of the children to their fathers. In awakening unto a bad dream, much like Steve Rogers, we can be heroes to those future generations which are yet to awaken.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at www.stubbornthings.com and on Twitter.