Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Captain America is set in 1942 during World War II. Before he becomes America’s captain, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – a gentle, but brave-hearted young man — is confronted by Bavarian scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine regarding his motive to fight in the war: “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Rogers’ response is telling: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies — I don’t care where they’re from.” Later, Rogers asks the scientist, “why me?” and Dr. Erskine replies, “Because a weak man knows the value of strength . . . the value of power.”
Two essential themes seem implicit in the scene: avoidance of nationalism and independent self-reliance. That a German scientist cautions Captain America to avoid hating his German enemies in the midst of World War 2 helped to quell most of my reservations about Captain America. It is the type of story that easily could have pandered to the worst forms of country-love.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis considers three forms of patriotism: (1) an affection for “familiar sights, sounds, and smells”; (2) an admiring attitude toward “our country’s past . . . as it lives in popular imagination . . . the great deeds of our ancestors”; and (3) the firm belief that “our own nation . . . has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.” Lewis believes the first two can function as healthy forms of patriotism properly qualified by Christianity. The third, however, was apparently asserted by one of Lewis’s friends, whom Lewis refers to as an “extremely lovable old ass.” However, Lewis says, it can “produce asses that kick and bite.” Thankfully, Captain America is consistently celebratory of Lewis’s first two forms of patriotism, and generally elusive of the third.
The film’s second central insight is all the more evident in the end of the film when the good Captain does battle with Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) — the world dominator aspiring to be an ungodly god. Just when it seems like Captain America has met his match, he is joined in the fight by his fellows; finding his source of strength from outside of himself trumps Red Skull’s towering self-reliance. Defiantly, Captain America says to Red Skull that there are “limits to what you can do.” The line should cause us to consider whether we actually tend more toward interdependence or self-exaltation.
Captain America avoids straw-man enemies, nationalism, and celebration of independent self-reliance. Yet, I can see why Steve Rogers lives in the shadow of Marvel darling Peter Parker. Nearly all of Captain America’s conflict comes from exterior foes — not from within himself. The hero becomes a bit boring when he is masquerading as Rocky Balboa on steroids and with a shield. But this doesn’t hinder too much a fun time at the movies (thanks to the chuckles elicited by the incomparable Tommy Lee Jones). Captain America is an attractive and entertaining movie by virtue of its vintage appeal to simpler times and selfless ideals. The film inspires a restrained patriotism that we can all feel good about.