Obviously Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) belongs in this series. The US of A sees itself as the embodiment of freedom (whether other countries agree with that or not). And seeing as the new Captain America film The Winter Soldier (2014) is in cinemas right now, this discussion might provide some aspects to look for in that movie as well.
It should not come as a surprise that Marvel’s Captain America has been around for a very long time, and not just because he has spent 70 years as a Capsicle. The character itself is actually more than 70 years old: Steve Rogers made his debut as the hero of his very own comic series in March of 1941, nine full months before America officially declared war. That very first issue of Captain America famously features the patriot knocking Adolf Hitler to the ground on the front cover. A pretty clear message if you ask me. Many other comics picked up this message as well, mainly because the comic book industry was almost entirely dominated by artists of Jewish descent. They could sway the public opinion through their art. Comics were a popular form of telling stories in this period, which was slap bam in the middle of the Golden Age of comics (1930-1950).
Today, film is one of the most popular media for telling a story and as such it is not strange to see Captain America as the protagonist of his own feature film. But what about that message, is that still there? There is quite some discussion on this topic. I would say that the film can be interpreted as a propaganda vehicle, especially when you take into account that any picture about any war needs to be vetted by the Pentagon. It even has the power to veto certain aspects of a film’s script. To me, there were a few sequences that stood out to me especially as glorification of war, a form of propaganda. The main one is when we see a supercut of the Captain in various missions to destroy HYDRA’s factories. There’s a lot of slow motion and no deaths are ever shown. It´s just Cap being awesome. And the end credits promote this notion even more blatantly, kicking off with Uncle Sam’s “We want you!”-poster. Linked to that: Captain America was shown in an exact same poster as well. I think that this character might be the most blatant propaganda tool Marvel has created so far.
But to what purpose? I don’t think it appropriate to diminish the entire Captain America-franchise to mere propaganda, especially when it comes to these modern adaptations. The film also asks some intriguing questions, questions that aren’t always easy to answer. For instance, early in the film Rogers is in a cinema which screens a brief propaganda clip before the main movie starts. The narrator states that “the price of freedom is never too high.” I understand that propaganda is all about simplifying a message, but this still nagged at me for quite some time. I believe there is such a thing as too high a price, and I believe that the goal does not necessarily justify the means. If you go down that road, you risk becoming that which you’re fighting. This is why Winter Soldier is such an important film. Its directors have explicitly stated that this film can be read as a critique of certain unsavory practices green-lighted by President Obama:
[A]ll the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience (…). That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us (…). And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president’s kill list, preemptive technology.
The enemy is no longer an eccentric German, it’s our leaders and their ideas. And I have to agree that the idea of a pre-emptive strike list does not sit very well with me. It’s something that links to another quote from The First Avenger, from Dr. Erskine (who created the formula to make super soldiers): “Today we take not another step towards annihilation, but the first step on the path to peace.” You might question him in this sentiment, seeing as they are basically creating one of the most powerful weapons in the American arsenal.
That idea was already introduced in Antiquity: “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” which is usually translated as if you want peace, prepare for war. Other than mobility as a form of freedom, I believe that freedom also equals peace. Whether that’s personal peace or peace on a bigger scale does not really matter. Sadly, it seems we have to give up some freedoms to earn more freedom. In Marvel’s Iron Man (2008) we see Tony Stark struggling with the same thoughts: he wants peace, but he provides the American government with weaponry. Eventually, he decides to no longer supply weapons as such, although the Iron Patriot could definitely be seen as a weapon as well. It seems it’s impossible to turn the other cheek these days, as Steve Rogers says: “You start running [which in this case means the same thing as stop fighting], they’ll never let you stop.”
The Four Freedoms series focuses on films covering a form of freedom (or lack thereof). It tries to link the discussion to historical context and current relevance. On the 24th of May, the Four Freedoms will be awarded to the determined laureates. Find all posts in this series. What film should be covered next?
More information on the Captain America comics / more American propaganda in comic books / more information on the Pentagon and film / more background on The Winter Soldier (I strongly urge you to check this one out!)