Spoiler alert: America wins! (But seriously, spoiler alert.)
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a man masturbating with an American flag – forever. That is at least part of the message that I took away from Captain America: The First Avenger.1 The US is that unique superpower that will never fall, and as evidence for such a position withers, the way that the history of such a power is presented can make all the difference in the remaining number of true believers.
The film is set during the final years of World War II, when the US was kicking Nazi ass and preparing to become captain-in-chief of the post-war planet. In the 21st century, Nazis are incredibly useful storytelling tools. They were white, so you don’t have to worry about those annoying charges of racism and the hard work of checking for privilege in the script writing. They’re the nearest there is to a consensus when it comes to identifying real-life bad guys (so you don’t have to worry about alienating too many potential customers), whereas every murderous rampage since has been morally murky and not suited to superhero simplifications. And for an increasingly large majority of people, they are not known by memory, and can thus be embodied with whatever evil or comical characteristics suit the occasion (and of the minority who do remember, not too many go to summer blockbusters). If the country has been waging war in the name of peace since before we can remember, why shouldn’t we think that it will extend at least that far again into the future, if not indefinitely?
Whilst we’ve been continually retelling the story of our ‘finest hour,’ however, the world has, in fact, changed. Domestic dollars no longer provide enough of the monetary expansion needed, and while the proportion of the global population mired in poverty has scarcely changed (thanks to decades of neoliberalism and economy crushing depressions), there are still more opportunities abroad than in 1945. Just as the gangrenous News Of The World was severed by Murdoch, the filmmakers have cut out a lot of the overt pig-headed chauvinism embodied in a character who is so laughably named (aside from the occasional “there’s flags in MY future” comments; i.e., the American flag; i.e., the American nation). The script makes fun of cheesy wartime bond-selling efforts. It doesn’t mention the dictator Mussolini or his military even when a significant part of the plot takes place in 1943 Italy, separating that group of potential ticket holders from the “real” villains, the Nazis (a trick employed with more sophistication in the forward-thinking 1943 Humphrey Bogart film, Sahara).2 The story of German defector Abraham Erskine, an anti-Hitler scientist who develops the “super soldier” serum but is then immediately and unfortunately assassinated out of the rest of the series, is retained.
A Frenchman is given one line, and looked at funny for saying it in French. Unlike the actual army, Captain America’s handpicked team is integrated, yet the Nazis are apparently so well documented that the white supremacist nature of their threat is never even mentioned, lest we notice the glaring contradiction of Allied powers with legal systematic racism and centuries-old empires fighting for freedom. In fact, since the real baddies of the film are not Nazis but a weird fictional cult who don’t think the Nazis can manage the job, Germans are further assured that their money is welcome. At one point an English soldier says “Mind the gap” for no logical reason, purely for the amusement of American viewers, but hell, those limeys should be happy that they were even bloody well included.
Which brings us to the English love interest, patronisingly dolled-up for the modern era with a feisty right hook and some military knowledge. Despite such skills she, of course, falls for the muscleman in the stupid rubbery outfit and does her best to support him in his serious manly tasks. Like their involvement in American conflicts since at least the first Gulf War, the point of the UK soldier in this case is to serve as a fig-leaf for international co-operation. No matter the size of the deployment, they are generally presented as enough proof that the US is not the testosterone-fueled lone ranger serial killer that it secretly fears itself to be, and the adventures can continue. It is important to show that not only was the US the big dog of power even way back then (bigger than it actually was, extending the imaginary future), but that it was viewed and admired as such by select foreigners. Despite the desire of Churchill to involve the US in the war in the early years, that was a matter of practicality, not worship. At the time many English people viewed the US in the way Westerners view more recently freed colonies today: a quaint little pseudo-country, which can be tolerated as long as it doesn’t get too ambitious. You see, arrogance in declining imperial nations takes a generation or two to even begin to subside (as the US is now learning). But never mind accuracy — here, England is the lapdog. England has always been the lapdog.
Several other myths are dragged out of our grandparents age to serve the current agenda. America is the humble little shit who believes in justice and tries his best, then through ingenuity and new technology improves his situation and clambers to the top of the heap, where he deserves to be. Having gotten there, with many jealously still picking on him, he turns the other cheek and saves them in glorious fashion. Our enemies, the Islamo-/fascists, have the same destructive technology as us, but cannot be trusted to be responsible with it (whether super soldier serum or nuclear weapons). When Captain America saves New York from a suicidal plane by taking it down early and sacrificing himself, you can practically hear the writers soapboxing: this world of fictional history is around us today! September 11th is a one-dimensional tale of good versus evil and could have been prevented had we realised it in time! We don’t need to worry about the details and complexity that surround us or about our role in terrorism, because superheroes fight bad guys and always win! Just in case this isn’t obvious enough, the Captain is then frozen in ice and wakes up in the present day — in New York.
Yes, the character was created in 1941, and we should make some allowances for the prejudices and viewpoints of the day. Yes, Captain America is sent to the future to set up the next Marvel film, The Avengers (also laughably named. It would more suit an un-American group. Al-Avengers perhaps.) No, the observations made here were not necessarily the goals of the people involved. But that does not mean that the film is incapable of unwittingly pushing certain agendas or fitting certain convenient narratives. If you want to prolong an empire, keeping up the confidence of its inhabitants will ensure that they continue to work hard for it. The subheading for the film, character accuracy aside, should not be The First Avenger but The First Shots. It was during the mid-1940’s that the United States went for global domination while it had the chance, setting up the UN Security Council, IMF and World Bank to work in its favour3, and dropping nukes to tell the USSR to back off. The makers of this film are both desperate to return to this time of glory and reshape it to make Americans feel good today. When both the past and present are distorted, the future becomes an unnerving blur.
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), a film by Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures. Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving. Directed by Joe Johnston. [↩]
- See part of the impassioned speech that seeks to draw a distinction between wartime Germany and Italy here [↩]
- George Monbiot, How to Stop America, New Statesman, 9th June 2003 [↩]