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If you have seen Director Joe Johnston’s recent trailers for Captain America: The First Avenger you no doubt recognize what a big a blockbuster Marvel Entertainment and Disney are planning for July 22, 2011. Yet before marching off to the theatres to see actor Chris Evans’ portrayal of the character, you might want to consider what you’re going to see. A super hero dressed up in patriotic colors in a WWII setting; what more is there to know? The answer should be plenty.
Created six months before Pearl Harbor1 in 1941, Captain America or Steve Rogers was a symbolic representation of the American spirit, yet some historian’s must be baffled by how this super hero came to embody so many fantasies that would later become or mimic recognizable historical fact in the actual world.(1) The overwhelming number of coincidences seems too remarkable to have “just happened” or just incidentally occurred.
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Given a serum to make him a super soldier, how could co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby have known infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was in fact trying, by way of horrific experiments, to manufacture a master race of super soldiers on his own. (2) German National Socialists claimed the Jews were destroying the German community of the time. Yet, Captain America’s eventual transformation into the super soldier appears to be enabled, in the trailer and the original comic story, by a Dr. Abraham Erskine (a not very veiled depiction of a likely Jewish scientist) played by Stanley Tucci.
Known to be of Irish decent in the comic, Rogers would ironically come to resemble Holocaust victims in a time of otherwise rampant Anti-Semitism. In Nazi occupied Europe, to enable immediate identification, Jews were frequently forced to wear “stars of David” badges on their arms.(3) Cap wears a star from the US flag right on his chest. Jews in Auschwitz, where Mengele began working after 1943, wore blue striped prison uniforms to distinguish them as religious minorities. Also derived from the American flag, Cap wore red vertical stripes on his uniform. (4) No, neither example is an absolute resemblance but aren’t these coincidences uncanny given the fact that the full ramifications of concentration camp life weren’t even known to the public before the end of the war?
And maybe one of the oddest physical resemblances of the character to the Jews was the character’s original physique. Though some might claim he has a closer superficial resemblance to Hitler’s Aryan ideal than what we might expect, Rogers puny and emaciated physique prior to the super serum looks a lot like the physical depictions of so many war ravaged concentration camp interned Jews after the war. How is any of this possible given the character was created long before we were fully informed about any of these atrocities??? And no the fact that the creators were Jewish does not solve this paradox entirely. Despite the racial origins of his creators, the character has always been extremely popular with all audiences since his inception in comics.
Speaking of the physique, this was one of the few aspects of the trailer that did not please this reviewer. Sure the CGI used to transform Rogers from the scrawny small statured individual to the more classically heroic looking Rogers was fantastic and fully represents the physical descriptions presented in the original comic book. But do these scenes resonate at a cost? Do period films really need to transport our thinking back to the physical prejudices of the original period of the movie to have any chance of being effective?
The physical transformation of the character is highlighted over and over again in the trailer’s scenes. Rogers gets beat up by a bigger and nastier colleague. Disgusted army doctors rejecting him as unfit. His eventual partner James ‘Bucky’ Barnes (played by actor Sebastian Stan) doubts his seriousness. All of these events occurring in relation to Tommy Lees Jones’s character Col. Chester Phillips’ voice over about how wars are won by men rather than weapons. All these vignettes seem to convict Steve Roger’s as being a tad bit unmanly.
Despite the Charles Atlas ads of the 50’s depicting how scrawny guys are prone to get sand kicked in their faces at the beach,(5) guys don’t always get back at the sand kicker by enrolling in the local gym. Some get better jobs and hire the sand kickers to do their yard work. Some are likely to tell their brawny chauffeurs to just stay in the Benz until they get back. And many who are attracted to smarter women just might not be at the meathead beaches in the first place.
So many recent movies describe the way intelligent men fight boneheads even when the odds are stacked against them, movies like Schindler’s List, Valkyrie and Inglorious Basterds are fairly explicit about describing how thinking men fight without resulting to Ramboisms.
Yet this may be a small point, obviously starting a movie this way or suggesting a narrative beginning in a trailer sets the filmmaker up for a big challenge. Many in the audience understand the cliché “it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight but size of the fight in the dog” that matters. Today soldiers like women, who were originally thought to be unfit for service, are typically decorated for demonstrating courage under fire. In our time of Viagra, Rogaine, and Ritalin, Johnson has set the bar really high to demonstrate that Steve Rogers is more than just a drug store super hero. Is his passion for military service as big and sculpted as his new body or are all of his solutions a matter of calling the pharmacist (and weapons engineer)? In fact, since most of the audience knows little of the character’s motivations, I would say the fate of the whole film depends on what audiences think of Roger’s character exploration or real heroic exposition.
- For more information about Steve Rogers comic book history please see: http://www.comicvine.com/captain-america/29-1442/
- For more information on Josef Mengele please see the documentary from http: firstrunfeatures.com, “The Search for Mengele”.
- For more information about holocaust badges please see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/badges.html
- For more information about concentration camp uniforms please see http://www.holocaustsurvivors.org/data.show.php?di=record&da=photos&ke=83.
- For a discussion of comic book derived discussions of masculinity http://www.cagle.com/hogan/features/atlas.asp