Captain America and What Makes an American Hero

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September 11, 2015 by Devin

It is hard to not like Captain America, as a guy. He is decent and upright, and he always seeks to do what is right. And, despite all the cynicism and weight given to that term, he is truly an American hero.

In fact, I would argue that each of the films he has been in so far, from The First Avenger to Age of Ultron, have him define what being an American hero is in under new contexts. Captain America is a cypher onto which values and motifs are put, and while his character has been consistent, how those values and motifs are explored changes with the times.

He starts at possibly the most glamorous time for American heroes: World War II. War is a nasty, messy business, and wars usually reveal themselves to be nasty, messy affairs with very little to be truly gained. Heroes from wars are usually only heroes from a distance, and usually not for what they did but what they survived.

But World War II was different. It was a war against a literal Hitler, and history has made clear the extent of the atrocities committed under his reign. In other words, few would argue that defeating Nazi Germany was a bad thing or even a morally gray area.

Captain America in the film, Captain America: The First Avenger embodies everything good about the soldiers going off to war. Even if you argue that there is no such thing as a just war, which may very well be true but is a conversation for another time, it is hard to argue that Steve Rogers was doing anything less than being a hero for truly heroic reasons. He didn’t even want to kill Nazis; he just didn’t like bullies.

Pictured: great guy all around

Throughout this film we see how power is wielded and abused, which, I believe, is a strong commentary on what America is and what America should do. Dr. Erskine, when he gives Rogers the Super Soldier Serum that gives him the power to do all the amazing feats he does, warns Rogers of the corruption of power and how it can be abused.

I think connecting this idea to a commentary on America is not too much of a stretch, especially when the titular character is named after the country. By the end of World War II, America had established itself as a dominant superpower in the world, one capable of influencing how the world works. The difference between America and Germany, as represented by the two characters who represent each country, is that America understood the corruption of its power while Germany did not, which let it abuse the power against innocents.

The message, therefore, was that America, at its best, uses its power to help others but must constantly be aware of the corrupting nature of the power it has.

(I understand that is simplifying the politics and issues at play a great deal, but, in broad strokes, I think this is what the movie was arguing)

So what is an American hero according to The First Avenger? He is an American soldier who may have the fanciest toys but focuses only on protection, even at the expense of his own life.*

But what about in the modern day? What happens to this American hero ideal in The Avengers?

I’m going to make a claim that I don’t think is very bold but may seem bold at first glance: The Avengers is explicitly a 9/11 film.

I do not mean that it uses 9/11 imagery. Lots of films do, often poorly. I mean that it is a film that is about 9/11 and its effects on people.

Look at it this way: it is a film about an attack on New York from a foreign menace that comes shockingly quick and even though it only takes place in part of the city, feels momentous and earth-shaking.

Even the aftermath in the extended universe feels similar. Iron Man Three deals with the trauma that resulted from that attack while Daredevil approaches it from the standpoint of a city trying to rebuild itself.

The film itself even uses imagery, beyond buildings being destroyed, that are meant to evoke 9/11.

Take a look at this picture of the missing person boards in New York.

Click photo to view source

Now take a look at these images from the end of The Avengers.

Avengers-End-1

Avengers End 2

The former image shows a board of notes eerily similar to the missing person board, and the latter image shows candlelight vigils in honor of the people who passed away in the attack, something I am positive many people did after that fateful day (and may continue to do so).

So if we understand that The Avengers is a 9/11 film, where does that put Captain America? How is Captain America representing the American hero?

I think that answer is pretty obvious.

In The Avengers, Captain America is not a soldier or crime-fighter, but rather a first responder.

What is heroic about Captain America in this scene?

Is it that he can beat up aliens? Sure, he can do that well, but that is not the whole picture. Captain America takes the time out to make a plan to save civilian lives. That is his goal before anything else. That is why he is heroic.

There is a shocking lack of military personnel in this film, which is strange ever since Transformers popularized military bros against menace in 2007. I think this was a deliberate choice to reframe the conversation. Too often these big city set pieces are really about giving good guys and bad guys a cool setting to fight in, but The Avengers makes the city attack just as much about the city as it is about the things attacking the city. The military is about eliminating threats. First responders are about saving people.

This approach even gives greater context to the characters of Hawkeye and Black Widow, two characters who can do much less than Iron Man or Thor. Just like the men and women firefighters and police officers, they cannot stop the menace. They cannot stop the threat. No matter what they did, those men and women could not stop the planes from crashing or the towers from falling or aliens from invading. What they can do is save everyone they can, which is why these Avengers spent a large part of the attack on the ground working with civilians and coordinating rescue efforts.

So all those snarky comments about how Black Widow and Hawkeye are just two people hanging out with gods? That is kind of the point.

If you have kept up with my blog over a long time, you probably know I am skeptical of the need to “Never Forget.” I am fine with forgetting the hurt and fear that event caused, but thinking upon this film, I realize that there are some things maybe we should never forget. If we always remember the heroic actions of those first responders, many of whom gave their lives, to defend the innocents of America, I would be okay with that. I feel like maybe that is something worth thinking about.

In the words of the other great American hero named Mr. Rogers:

If you like this post, feel free to comment below and share with your friends. And if you want to stay updated, make sure to subscribe either through WordPress or by entering your email in the box in the top right corner. Plus, make sure to follow me on FacebookTwitter (@D_A_White) and now at How to 20-Something.

And hey, if you people liked this post, maybe I’ll do one on Winter Soldier.


*I’m using gender-specific language here because I think that’s the image the film projects, even though Peggy Carter is fantastic in it.

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One thought on “Captain America and What Makes an American Hero

  1. […] armor cannot also have nuance and meaning, and while that argument may seem ridiculous, I get it. Costumed men beating up bad guys does often have meaning beyond it feels fun, and interactive entertainment can lead to deep conversations about choice and narrative that other […]

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