Monday, March 28, 2011

Captain America Trailer; Or, How I Learned To Stop Hating and Get Behind The Shield

I've never had particularly strong feelings about Captain America, but historically I've written him off as another 'boy scout' superhero like Superman. These two characters, symbolic of Marvel and DC comics, have always bored me because they're just so damn wholesome. They're good guys because that's the right and just, and there's not much more to their characters than that.

Superman in particular has never interested me in his pure form, although he can be interesting when you start to mess about with his origins or situation. Mark Millar's miniseries, "Red Son," for example, imagined Superman if his spaceship had crashed in Soviet Russia instead of middle America. That change made for a hugely interesting read because it explored the character as a sociological object, originally created by and emblematic of America but now stripped of that identity. It was an incredible concept but it did fall apart as a narrative, collapsing under the weight of consistency and the need to similarly reinvent every other DC superhero (the Soviet Batman was particularly far fetched, though still interesting). Likewise I felt that the much maligned Superman Returns was intriguing for how it took Lois Lane away from Superman and depicted him struggling with the loss. This put the man of steel in a distinctly human position of frailty, caught between their feelings for another person and the reality that they have moved on. The result were some truly creepy shots of Superman floating outside Lane's house and using his x-ray vision to stalk her, but that was infinitely more interesting to watch than to see him struggle against an evil enemy only to inevitably come out victorious.

I know I'm in the minority, but I'd much rather watch a super-human being struggle with being human than beat the crap out of some other equally far-fetched entity. I never enjoyed comics for the "Kapow!" fights, I loved them because they put characters I could relate to in situations that spoke to my own life metaphorically. That's why I always loved flawed characters like Batman, and was completely disinterested in characters like Superman.

I always sort of assumed that Captain America was basically the Marvel equivalent of Superman. I never really read Captain America comics, but he was always mentioned tangentially in the other Marvel titles. Spiderman, for example, was always a hugely relatable character in that he continually struggled with human issues. He dealt with school, girls, bills, etc, and on more than one occasion he dealt with guilt over his own actions. In particular I remember a few times when Parker would express his shame by referring to Captain America as the epitome of moral righteousness, saying that "Cap' would have found a better way, but I'm just a man." Spiderman coped with his guilty by recognizing his humanity in the face of Captain America, the "unstoppable force" of goodness. The Cap' was literally so good that he was beyond mere humanity, he existed as a conceptual totem of justice, and that was exactly what made him so overwhelmingly uninteresting to me.

The trailer that was released last week for the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, completely changed my mind. Take a look at it below and then I'll explain how and why:

I watched this trailer and I thought, "Yeah... That actually looks kinda worthwhile...," which was a complete 180 from my previous stance of "Captain America, pfft, that's just another crap flick Marvel is crapping out in order to get to The Avengers, which is only worth thinking about because of Joss Whedon." I was prepared to ignore Captain America completely and probably would have, but something in this trailer changed my mind. At first I thought it was the novelty of seeing a superhero use a Luger pistol, but it's actually more than that.

Rob Bricken over at Topless Robot puts it best:
But the thing I like most of all is that line "Because a weak man knows the value of strength." That's something I never considered about Captain America before, something I never saw or realized reading all those Avengers comics in the '80s. The reason he's so compassionate and determined to help the weak and powerless is because he was weak and powerless himself.
The fact that Captain America was once weak makes him more than just righteousness incarnate, it makes him human. As soon as I heard that line Cap' stopped being a concept and started being a character. Moreover he suddenly started to be one that made sense in a way that was separable from his overt Americanness. Let me try to explain that last bit...

Captain America is known for his shield. That's his symbol, his "totem," if you'll excuse the reference. There's a meaning to that object that I never realized before but makes total sense in light of the fantastic line about weakness and strength. At one point in the trailer the pre-super Captain America is shown trying to defend himself from a bully in an alleyway, and he grabs a trashcan lid to shield himself. I initially thought the scene was just a throwaway reference to the Cap's eventual transformation, but the more I thought about it the more I like the scene for how well it establishes his character.

Captain America never forgets about what it means to be weak, which is why he tirelessly uses his strength to defend those around him. That trashcan lid Cap' grabs in the alleyway, and to a greater extent the famous shield he eventually holds, act as symbols of Captain America himself: they are objects of strength that protect the weak from those who prey upon them. That is exactly what Captain America does, that is his very reason for being a superhero: he stands in front of the weak and protects them. That idea is elegantly conveyed by the image of him as a weakling using a trashcan lid as a shield, and then brilliantly summarized by the line explaining why he of all people ends up being chosen to become the ultimate hero.

I still don't know very much about Captain America, but at least now I know he's worthwhile. Apparently he's also got some sort of "hero out of time" angle to his character that I am aware of but haven't rationalized conceptually, but frankly that doesn't much matter. I once thought Captain America was nothing more than a boy scout who symbolized American righteousness in the abstract, and to a certain extent I still do think that. But now I see that the Cap' is actually quite well fleshed out in terms of his design and character. He is a guardian of the weak, literally embodied by the shield he carries. The trailer has made me respect the character conceptually, and has gotten me excited to see the movie.

If that's not effective marketing then I don't know what is.

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