The Moviegoer: How Captain America Does Patriotism Right

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.

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  • Ryan Holmes

    “Captain America avoids straw-man enemies, nationalism, and celebration of independent self-reliance.”

    From where do you glean this?

    Captain America’s main enemy, Red Skull, is a stereotypical enemy (like Megatron in Transformers). There’s nothing complex about him. He is evil. Works for Hitler. Wanted for war-crimes. One is hard pressed to find any good within this character. He is a simple 1-dimensional character, or to put it another way – a straw-man. Easy to dislike, easy to categorize, easy to write-off. The thrust of Captain America is to defend the American way against this 1-dimensional evil.

    Captain America’s name = nationalism. It’s right there in his name. You can’t avoid it.

    Captain America forges into the battle alone in order to save his friend…once this mission is successful they throw a couple guys around him to show off his “team-friendly” nature, but they border on extras in the movie – not even secondary characters. Now you can argue that all Marvel is doing is setting up for “The Avengers” which is Captain America as a team, but I don’t think that’s the thrust of this individual movie. (Marvel has been setting up The Avengers for nearly 5 years – Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Cpt America).

    The very nature and time that Captain America was developed was a time of nationalism, patriotism, the American-way, and a celebration of what America could do which is capitalized by the individual. I saw exactly the opposite when I saw the film. Captain America (staying somewhat true to the original comics) embodies nationalism, a nature of independent self-reliance and fights a 1 dimensional enemy.

    And I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment that Steve Rogers lives in Peter Parker’s shadow. Characters that are wholly good or wholly evil are rarely, if ever, deeply engaging. That’s just not where people live. Most have a combination of internal and external conflicts pushing and pulling on them – some good, some bad. And it’s within that tension that truly intriguing characters are born.

  • Hey Ryan! First, I appreciate the thoughtful comment.

    Let me try to explain my perspective a little better.

    One of the first things I saw about Captain America (the film) was a Stephen Colbert bit that coupled Captain America with Atlas Shrugged. It was pretty funny, and I had my concerns that CA was going to be all of the things you say in your comment – in a bad way.

    That is, I went into the movie expecting the nationalism and various American ideals to be laid on really thick. This expectation was not built on familiarity with the comics – I’m a Batman guy. So I’m going solely on this movie.

    I guess the best way to describe what I’m getting at above is to say that I thought the movie *undermined* the negative side (or, the excessive side) of some of these ideals. When I use the term “nationalism,” I mean it negatively in an idolatrous sort of way. So I was interested in what ideals Captain America represented. And I could see how this could be easily confused because nationalism can mean national identity, but it can also mean an individual finding his identity solely on the basis of what country he’s born into – over against all else. I think the ideals that Captain America represents transcend national boundary enclaves – the ideals he represents are, in a sense, more human than they are “American.”

    So I take it to be undermining of a bad kind of patriotism – or, nationalism – to have one of the most significant influences on Captain America be a German doctor – particularly, as you note, during a world war when patriotism of a stripe is at a high. This German doctor makes sure that Captain America is not going to simply “kill Nazis” and he also encourages him to remain weak in spirit. I take these two things – together – to against the tide of the negative forms of patriotism/nationalism.

    I see what you mean about Red Skull’s being a “straw-man” enemy (as indicated by my evaluation of Capt. America himself, I would agree with your assessment) – I should have been more clear. In keeping with the nation theme, I meant to imply that Germany is not held up as a straw-man enemy for America. Again, the good Dr. undermines this tendency to view the “other” with generalized disdain.

    Finally, I get what you’re saying about CA going it alone to some degree. However, I just take his line to Red Skull to be emblematic: “there are limits to what you can do.” Red Skull is the one who is totally self-reliant to the point of self-sufficiency. CA, while certainly the leader, and certainly aided merely by “extras,” nonetheless needs reinforcement in order to defeat Red Skull.

    Again, this is not to say that the American ideals you mention are not there, but I’m merely saying that I was pleasantly surprised to find that the excesses of these ideals were undermined rather than played to, if that makes sense.