At the very outset, let me start by stating that Captain America is probably my least favourite superhero. He is too overly patriotic and too old fashioned for me, and his fighting prowess doesn’t do much to make up for his personality. That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is actually a good movie. Set in the early 1940s, Captain America is an experiment by the US government to develop a supersoldier in order to help win World War II. The period and setting of the plot explain the patriotism and the predominance of male characters. This stopped me from rolling my eyes and actually concentrating on the protagonist.
Captain America has all the trimmings of a traditional superhero, but he is different in one crucial aspect – the character was written as a part of US propaganda during World War II and hasn’t been able to shake off the remnants of propaganda since. This is because Captain America isn’t just another superhero or even just a great soldier. He represents the Idea of America. He is the image of the US that the latter wants to portray to the world. And the writers have kept this in mind while constructing the character for the film. Georg Lofflmann, a professor of US Foreign Policy and American Politics at the University of Warwick, has expressed this idea in his PhD thesis, “The Fractured Consensus: How competing visions of grand strategy challenge the geopolitical identity of American leadership under the Obama presidency.” He argues, “Captain America [in his costume of stars and stripes] doesn’t just fight for America, he also is America (emphasis mine).” Therefore, a close observation of the movie can help us get some insight into how the US wishes to be seen in the world.
Let us start with Captain America’s origins. Steve Rogers is the literal embodiment of the American Dream. Before he became Captain America, Rogers was just another kid from Brooklyn. He wasn’t born with Tony Stark’s privilege or didn’t grow up with Black Widow’s training. He certainly wasn’t a god like Thor. Rogers was written as a man who believed that he had the ability to become whatever he wanted if only he went after it and worked hard enough – the literal definition of the American Dream. In the film his passion and perseverance turn a scrawny kid into the light-haired, light-eyed supersoldier who had the potential to win the war for the US.
Next, let us look at the supporting cast. When he realises that he needs to assemble an army to fight the Nazis, particularly to defeat their deep science division, Hydra. The Captain’s army comprises of people of different nationalities, cultures and races. People who otherwise would have been treated as refugees, having just been freed from an enemy camp. But Captain America takes them all under his wing and they become a part of his team. The banding together of different peoples is a metaphor for the US being a melting pot of different cultures domestically, and a capable leader of different nations internationally. These are both images that the US wants to project about itself (at least in part), and the film does that effectively.
Lastly, Captain America’s superpowers are an explanation for American exceptionalism, the idea that the US is not like every other country in the world. The idea, according to Lofflmann stresses the “singularity, superiority and essentiality of the United States in the international system.” Captain America has his powers because he got injected with a serum, but the serum only amplified what was already true of Rogers, that he was a good man and a strong soldier. The same serum when injected in the body of America’s enemies turns them into monsters, like Red Skull, the principal antagonist of the film. Captain America’s powers are therefore a justification for maintaining American military superiority because it perpetuates the idea that the US has the values to handle power, unlike its enemies that will only use power for destruction.
So where does that leave us? Clearly propaganda cannot be separated from Captain America. What will be interesting to watch in subsequent films (particularly after this viewing and analysis) will be how the character who is the personification of America interacts with other characters with different motivations. In the films that follow, I will be paying particular attention to this factor.