This past week, Marvel premiered Captain America: The First Avenger, the studio’s fifth major comic book superhero film and the final building block for next summer’s much-anticipated ensemble movie, The Avengers. As a Captain America superfan, I can’t objectively evaluate The First Avenger’s effectiveness as a film or its capacity to entertain people who aren’t previously invested in the character. I found the film satisfying, if imperfect. But one chunk of the plot gave me pause: a sequence in which Steve Rogers, the man who would be Captain America, is assigned to perform in USO tours and propaganda films instead of being sent to the front lines.
Captain America, at the character’s comic book inception, was as much a propaganda tool as a narrative character. The cover of his very first issue, released in early 1941, featured the star-spangled hero socking Hitler across the jaw. It was a calculated political move, and not one without controversy, considering the isolationist streak that still ran through the American populace a year before Pearl Harbor. As the U.S. entered World War II, later issues of the comic implored child readers to buy war bonds and join Captain America fan clubs that required members to be vigilant and defend American values.
In the decades since the war, and particularly since his revival in the comics in 1964, Captain America has evolved significantly, becoming a nuanced character whose allegiance to the ideals of the American Dream trumps his allegiance to the fallible whims of the American government. But unlike fellow 1940s comic book heroes like Superman and Batman, his World War II origins have always remained the keystone of his back story, and it’s those origins that form the bulk of the current film.
The First Avenger, for the most part, does an excellent job of balancing the gritty reality of World War II and the over-the-top necessities of superhero action. By positioning the villainous Red Skull as the leader of Hydra, a Nazi splinter-cell, the film wisely creates a superpowered form of evil for its superhero to battle in a WWII setting without drastically changing the actual events of the war. But that balance is nowhere to be found in the USO sequence, which reeks of the influence of a cynical modern eye and a dismissal of historical realism, comic book necessity, and media effects.
In the sequence, the newly-transformed Steve Rogers, a formerly-scrawny kid from Brooklyn who has suddenly become the one and only super-soldier in the U.S. government’s arsenal, takes an offer to become a USO performer instead of remaining in a lab to become a guinea pig for possible replication of the super-soldier serum. Suddenly, in between filming movie serials and the production of the in-universe version of a Captain America comic book, he finds himself touring the country in an elaborate, Alan Menken-scored song-and-dance show, complete with special effects, patriotic chorus girls, and a man dressed as Hitler for Steve to punch in the face. Steve reads his lines awkwardly and uncomfortably, wearing a costume that is much closer to the comic book version than the one that will be used later in the film, and the entire affair is portrayed as laughable and cheesy, suitable only for the excitable children in the audience. When Steve and the chorus girls take the show overseas for the troops, the troops are completely unimpressed, hurling insults that question Steve’s masculinity and heterosexuality and begging for the chorus girls to return (for ogling purposes). This is the final straw for Steve, who soon afterward breaks ranks and goes off to become the soldier he was meant to be.
There are a number of problems with this sequence. Even on the surface, the discourse on masculinity is troubling, particularly in a film that has only two female characters with speaking lines – the love interest, Agent Peggy Carter, who is valorized because she can shoot a gun and knock out any man, and a secretary who tries to seduce Steve. Though the film purports to be about heroism in all forms, postulating that even the weakest person can become a strong hero, this heroism is cast definitively as a masculine heroism, a heroism of athletic feats, gunshots, muscles, and blood. Women exist primarily to be ogled or to be seductresses, and they don’t count as full human beings unless they work hard to replicate the masculine ideals. Steve Rogers’ USO appearances are feminized and consequently demonized, and it is only through strapping on military gear that he is allowed to come into his own as a superhero.
These gendered aspects of the sequence are unsurprising, if disappointing, in a film that is both an action film and a superhero film, two genres rife with examples of sexism. But what strikes me most about the USO sequence is the way it presents the idea that entertainment cannot bring about change. It isn’t just that militaristic, masculine heroism is presented as the only valuable form of heroism; it’s that media and entertainment artifacts are explicitly presented as silly, mock-worthy, and meaningless. While a throwaway line establishes that sales of war bonds increase after Steve’s shows, this is dismissed as a drop in the bucket, an insignificant victory. Meanwhile, the historical reality of the effectiveness of USO shows for boosting troop morale (even with male performers, like Bob Hope) is completely unacknowledged, revealing the cynical modern eye at work in representing a cultural artifact from the 1940s.
This lack of regard for cultural history is reinforced when the performing costume Steve wears is made to look deliberately ridiculous, and is later traded in for something less colorful and covered with unnecessary straps – a change made, according to director Joe Johnston, to help viewers to “take him seriously” and make the uniform more appropriate for a World War II story (more appropriate, apparently, than the costume actually designed in 1940). But beyond the disregard for actual history, the sequence serves to disregard the character himself, a character whose actual existence in the 1940s had an impact on popular culture and on World War II, and whose stories since have always reflected, anticipated, and at times intersected with cultural shifts.
As a media studies scholar, I’m wary of any claim that entertainment has no serious effect on the culture at large. But I’m especially wary when a piece of media itself attempts to make this claim. The First Avenger is a delicate film to produce in 2011, particularly when the global box office is so important and the name “Captain America” conjures up jingoistic, stereotypical images in the minds of the uninformed. By presenting the USO sequence the way they do, the filmmakers are actively working to distance themselves from any political impact or controversy their movie might create. After all, the story implies, a big entertainment spectacular all about Captain America is silly fluff, not to be taken seriously. By denying the impact of popular culture on real-world issues, Johnston & Co. create a fictional universe that explicitly attempts to distance itself from any potential controversy.
Only time and box office returns can tell if their plan will succeed.