Patriot games: Is Captain America too American?
In March 1941—nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor impelled America to enter the Second World War—one colorful American hero already had joined the battle: Captain America.
The famous front cover of “Captain America #1” showed its titular hero punching Hitler straight in the face, sending the ridiculous looking Fuerher tumbling backward.
With that single unforgettable image, the Nazi ideal of the Aryan ubermensch was dealt a fatal blow, as was what remained of the once respectable American “isolationist” movement.
As the first comic book character to enlist in World War II, Captain America was an instant success, selling nearly 1 million copies per issue. In a way that’s not surprising, considering the character’s pedigree. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, second-generation Jews who made no secret of their source of inspiration.
The character of Captain America, Simon said, “was our way of lashing out at the Nazi menace.”
In that first issue of the Marvel comic, readers meet the superhero’s “everyman” alter ego, Steve Rogers. A sickly Depression-era child, Rogers loses his parents at a young age, then tries to enlist in the military. Too feeble to join the regular forces, Rogers volunteers for a top-secret military medical experiment known as “Operation Rebirth,” being overseen by one Dr. Reinstein. (Note the character’s Jewish name, one that sounds suspiciously like “Albert Einstein.” In 1941, Einstein was a wildly popular—if little understood—cultural icon in the real world.)
In need of a human “guinea pig” to test his formula, Dr. Reinstein injects Rogers with his Secret-Soldier Serum. Unfortunately, a Nazi spy infiltrates the experiment and kills Dr. Reinstein, leaving the newly empowered Rogers as the serum’s sole beneficiary.
Hailed by the U.S. military as a superhuman savior, Rogers dons a patriotic costume of red, white and blue, with a star on his chest and stripes on his waist. Captain America is quickly dispatched to his most important early assignment: destroy his evil “super soldier” counterpart, a Nazi agent called the Red Skull.
Fast forward to 2011: This summer, Captain America returns to the big screen. Unfortunately, the spirit of 1941 (let alone 1776) is a long way off. In an era of anti-Americanism—at home and abroad—the movie’s director and star have been playing down the character’s American identity.
Director Joe Johnston insists that “this is not about America so much as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing.” Chris Evans, who plays the title character, echoes the sentiment, saying that “I’m not trying to get too lost in the American side of it. This isn’t a flag-waving movie.”
This isn’t the first time Hollywood has eagerly de-Americanized superheroes, sometimes by undercutting traces of “corny” patriotism with doses of winking irony. Take the 2006 film “Superman Returns,” which has Clark Kent’s boss cynically describing Superman as fighting for “truth, justice … all that stuff.”
Or take the 2009 movie based on a hugely popular toy from Hasbro. The film’s title, “G.I Joe: A Real American Hero,” was trimmed down to just “G.I Joe,” the toy’s iconic logo with the American flag was removed, and the storyline transformed the title character’s American anti-terror squad into an international peacekeeping task force that apparently took its marching orders from the United Nations.
The fact is, Hollywood movies today live or die based on worldwide ticket and DVD sales, and in a world in which American flags are burned regularly from Paris to the Punjab, received wisdom has it that anything too “American” is international box office poison.
Anticipating anti-American blowback, Paramount and Marvel Studios actually offered distributors the choice of marketing the new movie using its real title—“Captain America: The First Avenger”—or opting for simply calling it “The First Avenger.”
Most distributors say they are going with the original title, eager to take advantage of decades of “Captain America” brand recognition. However, three countries—Russia, Ukraine and South Korea—have decided to promote the movie as “The First Avenger.”
By literally cloaking their character in patriotism, Kirby and Simon displayed unabashed love of, and confidence in, the United States. Like many Jewish Americans during World War II, such as the heads of Hollywood studios, they felt duty bound to use their creativity in the service of their country.
Alas, times have changed. Hollywood is now more concerned with international box office numbers than national pride, never mind respecting the obvious wishes of the two artists without whom Captain America wouldn’t exist.
Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author whose latest book is “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century.” He also chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the Pratt Institute in New York.