Superhero movies, especially those produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios, are a cornerstone of American culture. That is demonstrated by the nationwide box office total of $8.7 billion that the Marvel films collectively made from 2008’s Iron Man, the first Marvel film, through 2019, a year in which the company released three films.
The movies, “whiz-bang” spectacles, do not faithfully reflect of our own world. Instead, they are comic book panels delivered on celluloid in which humans and sometimes aliens, armed with magical powers and advanced technology, battle an array of greedy, vain, and fascistic villains from earth and beyond. Still, attributing the success of these films solely to their capacity to rile up audiences is too denigrative of a major aspect of American culture. There is a reason why the Marvel sagas and their superheroes resonate more than other pieces of “popcorn entertainment:” The Marvel movies use storytelling and archetypes to engage with the country’s sociopolitical challenges.
This interaction is clearest in the films and associated TV show built around one of Marvel’s longest-established heroes, Steve Rogers—aka Captain America. Picture said Captain America dressed in red, white, and blue wielding a shield and punching Adolf Hitler: Even if you’ve never held a comic book, odds are that you can visualize the iconographic cover in your head.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, sons of Jewish immigrants, created the character in the year before the United States entered World War II. For Simon and Kirby, Captain America epitomized the moral justness of U.S. leadership and the need for America to join the war effort. The storyline was propaganda, but its aim was not to whip up hatred of foreigners. Instead, it embodied the aspirational idea that the United States could engage in real-life wars for noble purposes.
Steve Rogers, the metaphor for a country emerging from its isolationism to become an engaged superpower, was not born with any special powers. Instead, he received them by volunteering for government experiments, then accepting the title “Captain America” from the U.S. government. While Rogers was given superhuman strength, he remembered what it felt like to be the underdog. Central to his appeal is not his capacity to throw a punch but his ability to choose—which battles are worth fighting and who is worth fighting for. He doesn’t even fire a gun or kill people: He uses a shield emblazoned with the American flag to protect his colleagues and disarm enemies. His actions, together with his memory of what it was like to be bullied, lend his character moral clarity, synonymous with American principles at their best.
The initial Captain America movie, The First Avenger (2011), illustrates these ideas with a pastiche of 1940s serial films.
Skipping over pulpy plot details, Captain America in the present-day movie is a soldier out of time in a more complicated world. The Captain America films released since 2011 have been not so much flag-waving symbols of national dominance as reflections of our country’s anxieties. Captain America confronts surveillance state overreach, disputes over American power versus multilateral governance and, most recently, whether a Black man can or should choose to be Captain America. In each film, Captain America grapples with the dilemma of how to use his power in the face of the injustice presented by our reality.
The 2013 intelligence leaks by CIA analyst Edward Snowden turned the paranoid fantasies of 1970s spy films like Three Days of the Condor (1975) into reality. The plot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is an homage to this film and earlier movies like The Manchurian Candidate (1962). (The star of Condor, Robert Redford, appears in Winter Soldier as a duplicitous bureaucrat.) Just as films like Condor and All the President’s Men (1976) expressed the distrust in government following the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Church Committee, Winter Soldier is built around modern techno-anxieties: Captain America doesn’t travel abroad in search of enemies but instead defends the American public from Hydra, a corrupt fascist cartel of neo-Nazis and U.S. government deep-state traitors who plot to oppress everyday Americans using algorithms embedded in mass surveillance.
OK, the plot is farfetched; but the underlying anxieties on the left and right are real. The United States just had a President who infamously claimed there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis demonstrating in Charlottesville in 2017, and we are now wrestling with the dominance of technology corporations that use algorithms for both social engineering and increasing their own power.
In the movie, Captain America refuses orders from his superiors in the U.S. government. Viewers trust his judgment not because he is the movie’s protagonist but because he is fighting the same villains that viewers themselves feel they face. The film’s emotional climax comes not from an explosion or the death of a supervillain but from the moment when Captain America, after he has been falsely called a traitor, asks his fellow soldiers to trust him in the fight against their shared enemy within.
The modern threats Captain America faces come from internal division and the power-hungry at home. His example lies in understanding when it is necessary to risk everything for the sake of unity and higher purpose.
The sequel to Winter Soldier, Civil War (2016), is based on a conflict between Captain America and his allies. After an international intervention by Captain America and his fellow Avengers results in civilian casualties, the United Nations proposes a multilateral agreement to put these superheroes under global governance. Captain America chafes at the new regime: He trusts his own judgment over that of politicians, and the previous film’s conflict has left him with lingering mistrust of authority. While the film includes the requisite villain and cinematic fireworks, the central conflict involves a debate about whether Captain America, emblem of righteous and unilateral American power, should bow to international consensus. Tony Stark, Rogers’ superhero colleague and an Elon Musk-like techno-billionaire, argues for regulation: He has his own insecurities, not to mention a flawed past as a military contractor.
It’s clear by the movie’s end that neither Rogers, the idealistic public servant, nor Stark, the messianic capitalist, is wholly correct about global restrictions on the superpowered—and this mixed message fairly reflects our own current uncertainty. Trump voters took a muscular view of American military action while rejecting international responsibility; progressives emphasize the need for domestic investment while regularly relitigating whether President Obama went too far in intervening in Libya but not far enough in intervening in Syria. Maybe it’s appropriate that, at the end of Civil War, Captain America is a fugitive in hiding.
In the 2019 film Avengers: Endgame, Captain America passes his mantle to his colleague Sam Wilson, a black veteran who is neither superpowered nor super-rich. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), the related Disney+ streaming series, focuses on Wilson and pushes the boundaries; its villains include a sympathetic terrorist fighting on behalf of refugees. The show’s central conflict involves a Black man deciding whether the United States deserves him as the new Captain America.
After Wilson confronts a jingoistic pretender to the Captain America role, empathizes with the terrorist’s sense of disempowerment, and delves into stories of the American government’s sins against African-Americans, he concludes that his role is both to represent the American ideal and to push the country to do better. This inspires him to pick up the patriotic and heroic mantle. He can represent American values at their best: He knows what it means to be an underdog, knows what it means to be betrayed by his country, and he still believes in its potential. As he finally presents himself to the world as Captain America, he confronts a Senator and bunch of global bureaucrats in front of television cameras about their inhumane use of power. He is a Black man speaking truth to power, demonstrating that in America, resistance and a belief in the country’s ability to improve are what patriotism looks like.
Today, the number of political divides seems to multiply endlessly; shared national touchstones are few and far between. No media company understands better than Disney how to appeal broadly to the American median. Therefore, Disney’s inclination to inject politics and American self-introspection into its product, even in small doses, indicates a belief that the themes in Captain America will resonate with the public. And, despite Captain America’s politics, there have been no widespread calls to boycott the series as “woke” or belonging to the Left.
While we try to develop a new shared sense of patriotism, the vision in the most recent Captain America—demanding that the country be honest with its citizens and that citizens urge it to act humanely—may prove a useful and popular mythology that maintains the values of the character who first inspired the country at the time of World War II.
Mike Fox, co-chair of American Purpose’s Circle of Friends, is a foreign policy and politics professional with experience in the U.S. government, NGO sector, and electoral politics.
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