Captain America and the Representation of Entertainment

July 23, 2011
By | 10 Comments

Captain America movie posterThis 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.


Tags: , , , , ,

10 Responses to “ Captain America and the Representation of Entertainment ”

  1. Evan Davis on July 24, 2011 at 10:48 AM


    I must disagree. To say that the film’s central conceit is to devalue the transformative power of entertainment in popular culture in favor of masculinist action and “heroism” is perhaps a facet of interpreting the sequence, but I don’t think it gives the whole picture.

    The film is generally interested in creating a constructed past, a history that reflexively depicts the way the media and popular culture have processed American involvement in World War II. The polished CGI imagery which comprises the vast majority of the mise en scene seems indicative of this. It doesn’t seem like historical accuracy would be at the forefront of a superhero movie where the villain is a megalomaniacal Nazi with a bright red skull.

    The montage of Captain America selling war bonds seems to be a commentary on how entertainment propaganda was very much needed in 1942 and 1943, and how the hero of the film is a product of political propaganda as well as a “hero” of the square-jawed, Hitler-socking variety. Its negative coloring only serves to let Captain America fully embody his comic book origins, but I don’t believe that means it fully rejects the position of theater the character also serves.

    As far as sexism is concerned, the film once again is dealing with an historical moment where such gendered representations would be commonplace. The film’s interest in reflexively imagining a constructed vision of America in the early 1940s would have to depict that sexism in some way. And it’s no small thing that Carter is in fact an intelligence agent who enjoys knocking out misogynistic Army recruits with a stiff left jab.

    These are some hastily scrawled notes based on a single viewing, and I welcome any and all counterarguments!

    • Jessica on July 24, 2011 at 11:27 PM


      I hardly think it’s fair to give a film released in 2011 a pass on sexism because it’s set in the 1940s. Depicting time-period-accurate sexism is one thing; having barely any women with speaking roles, one of whom has no purpose but as troublesome seducer, is something else entirely.

    • Jonathan Gray on July 25, 2011 at 9:03 PM

      This raises a longtime concern of mine, though: when a movie or TV show is set within a historical record that’s already been played with for the purposes of fantasy, a precedent has already been set that history can be changed quite radically, and thus are all bets off (or only some, and how do we decide what’s on and what’s off) with regards anything else in that historical record? By asking that, I don’t mean to suggest that, yes, all bets are off; but it’s harder to say, “that’s just the way things were” when the film is quite definitively not the way things were on other levels.

      • Jennifer Smith on July 26, 2011 at 6:04 PM

        Exactly, Jonathan. From the film — and from Evan’s comment — it seems like the film is hiding behind the wall of “historical accuracy” for the sexism, while blatantly flouting it in the soldiers’ reactions to USO performances (not to mention the actual fantasy elements, obviously). They try to have their cake and eat it too, but in my opinion the filmmakers made poor calls in both directions.

        (The presence of period-appropriate sexism is fine, for me — the acknowledgment that Peggy would have worked very hard and faced a lot of closed doors to get to where she was felt totally appropriate — but filmmakers still ultimately choose what to show and what not to show. They clearly chose not to have any other female characters of substance (no nurses, WACs, etc.), and they chose to place gendered insults in the soldiers’ mouths instead of any other kind of mockery.)

        • Eric Dienstfrey on July 27, 2011 at 12:50 PM

          Jennifer, I like your analysis quite a bit! Though to quarrel with one small point, I don’t think the film makes the argument about media and culture that you claim it does. The depiction of the USO as ineffectual is historically licensed, sure. But it feels tenuous to suggest this single plot event is best read as a statement that entertainment and media in general have no serious effect on culture. As Evan rightly points out with respect to the war bonds sequence, if the film does in fact make an argument (or worldview) about the relationship between entertainment and culture, it would need to be much more complicated.

          And as for sexism, I’m having a tough time not recognizing the film’s poster as Captain America with a young girl in a short red and white striped skirt…

  2. Kristen on July 25, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    I too must disagree. I found this film was an extremely potent reminder to me of the role that Captain America played in the war effort *because it showed him campaigning for war bonds. I didn’t take away from it that entertainment to promote war bonds was “silly” at all! I think that the longing to be on the front lines of battle made sense for the character. The point was that even with all his powers – all the great physical things he could do – he was willing to do his part raising the money the war effort required. In the end he couldn’t leave his friend behind enemy lines while had the chance to do something about it, but that didn’t take away from the value of entertainment which the film took pains to demonstrate. It reminded me that back in the day this was part of the artists’ mission and it drove home to me that a comic book character can save real lives in a way I hadn’t thought of before.

    • Jennifer Smith on July 26, 2011 at 5:58 PM

      I would have loved to see the sequence that way, but so much of it was framed as ridicule that I had a hard time doing so. The way the soldiers taunt him, the way Tommy Lee Jones’ character taunts him — every character we know and are meant to approve of, including Peggy and Steve himself, agrees that the performances are dumb and mockable and representative of Steve being a “trained Monkey.” Meanwhile the guy who got Steve to do the performances was portrayed as greedy and sleazy. Reading the lines from behind the shield and the mockery of the costume (which came through in how ill-fitting it was, but is reinforced by the extratextual information of the director’s quotes in interviews) all combined to create a sense that we were supposed to laugh at the entire USO sequence and find it ridiculous — and the people in both theaters I saw the movie at certainly seemed to agree.

  3. Brad Schauer on July 27, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    While as an action film CAPTAIN AMERICA obviously privileges physical strength, it also goes out of its way to stress the importance of ingenuity (the flagpole scene) and selfless sacrifice (the grenade scene). As a sidenote, I’m a little uneasy with the equation of “athletic feats” and physicality with masculinity for a number of reasons, most pertinently because it seems to negate any potential for a feminist superhero text. But since I know you’re a superhero fan, I’m probably misunderstanding your point here.

    Anyway, for me the most intriguing larger question raised by this analysis is: to what extent should we interpret the treatment of historical events in a superhero text as generalizable commentary on those events? By nature, the superhero genre presents a fantastical, hyperbolic alternative to the real world that allows its audience to indulge certain power fantasies. So what should we take from incredibly contrived scenarios like the USO sequence in CAPTAIN AMERICA? We have a super-soldier who, for reasons poorly motivated by the plot, has become a song-and-dance man in the middle of the war. This is, by any standard, a waste of his ability. Increased sales of war bonds IS a drop in the bucket within the context of the film, in which Cap is depicted as someone who could practically win the war singlehandedly. The situation is so overdetermined, it’s impossible to find a legitimate real-world correlative.

    I agree that the USO sequence is played for laughs, but it’s not as clear to me that the film is dismissing the value of the real USO, or even the USO in the film. I thought the song-and-dance routine was a (pretty good) pastiche rather than a parody. Also, I didn’t detect any cynicism in that shot near the end of the film where kids play “Captain America” in the street with a garbage can shield. Rather, it struck me as a poignant tribute to Cap’s legacy — so all that Cap propaganda was, in the end, good for something after all. Just because Cap was wasting his time with the USO doesn’t necessarily mean the USO was a waste, or, going much further, that media has no effect on culture.

    Another brief example to support my point: everyone was eager to read THE DARK KNIGHT as a defense of the Bush administration’s surveillance tactics. This of course, presumes a correlation between George W. Bush and Batman that most people would probably reject. In the world of THE DARK KNIGHT, Batman is a (relatively) unimpeachable force for good, therefore his use of surveillance, no matter how the film tries to complicate it, is ultimately acceptable. Most people wouldn’t say the same about the U.S. Government. Of course, I’m not saying we should never look at superhero stories as allegories or trenchant political critique, but applying the Manichean logic and “stacked deck” moral scenarios of traditional superhero texts to the real world can obscure their primary value, as wish-fulfillment.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  4. […] If you want to read more of Jennifer’s thoughts about the portrayal of USO in the movie, you can find her essay here: Captain America and the Representation of Entertainment […]

  5. Scott Ellington on August 15, 2011 at 1:54 PM

    I’ve always found it profoundly unfortunate that Steve Rogers has never been Jewish.