Magazine | August 16, 2010, Issue

Captain Post-America

You can imagine the fist-pumping and broad grins that went around Hollywood when it was announced they were making a movie about Captain America — and the subsequent dismay when they learned it was not about Peter Fonda’s character in Easy Rider. Seriously, Captain America . . . as in, Captain America? The pitch must have been a hard sell, and perhaps an investor offered script advice: How about he’s a robot in the future who finds a comic book in the ruins of New York, which was nuked by white supremacists, and he becomes an unthinking patriot until a hip, streetwise hacker reprograms him to organize communities?

No, the producers must have said, actual Captain America. But don’t worry. It’s a dark, gritty reimagining.

Sighs of relief. Okay, then. Is he a Gitmo guard who’s exposed to radiation and takes on the government on behalf of the people? Sorry, sorry, it’s your baby. Run with it. Here’s $200 million — you did say dark? Okay, here’s the money.

Pure fantasy, of course, but ask yourself: Would it have been possible to greenlight a Captain America movie in the Bush years and make him a patriot? The very word is a dog whistle for freaky Bible-thumping Birther-Birchers! You want to apply it to someone, use the guy who founded WikiLeaks! But even if you don’t care much about the politics of Hollywood, you’ve seen enough superhero movies to know that the top military guy (William Hurt) will be icy, cruel, and obsessed with using Cap to destroy democracy in order to save the country. Also, he will be a smoker.

Then you hear the movie is set during World War II, and you relax. That was the Good War, after all. It has the Tom Hanks seal of approval (the European part, anyway). Sure, Eva Braun will probably look like Sarah Palin, and Hitler will probably tell the rest of Europe they are either with him or with the Bolsheviks, but it’ll be okay. We have permission to be patriotic about World War II.

Sorry. “We’re sort of putting a slightly different spin on Steve Rogers,” said Joe Johnston, whose past directing credits include Jurassic Park III and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. “He’s a guy that wants to serve his country but he’s not a flag-waver. We’re re-interpretating, sort of, what the comic-book version of Steve Rogers was.” Johnston further explained: “He wants to serve his country, but he’s not this sort of jingoistic American flag-waver.”

#page#What a relief! They waved flags at the Nuremberg rallies, you know. The fact that he mentions the absence of waving flags twice suggests he’s nervous about the project’s inherent problem for Hollywood: How do you make a movie about Captain-frackin’-America without affecting international box-office?

The Forties had lots of characters like Cap: big guys with Ipana-toothpaste smiles punching horrible racial caricatures or oh-so-haughty Nazis. Here’s another helping of a knuckle sandwich, Fritzie old boy! Yank special! Want some more? They were aimed at ten-year-olds reading the comics, metabolizing the news of the day through the exploits of nationalistic archetypes. Most faded away, but Cap came back. Marvel revived him and brought back his arch-foe, the Red Skull, as a Commie. (He was a Nazi in his previous incarnation.)

But there are alternative versions. Here’s one, as summarized on Wikipedia:

Red Skull is the illegitimate son of Captain America and his girlfriend Gail Richards, conceived before the Captain’s presumed death during WWII. . . . As a final symbol of his rebellion against the system that created him, he assassinates President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

It is satisfying to some to believe that JFK was whacked by Captain America’s son, certainly more so than believing a Castro-symp Communist did it. (But the former is true on a metaphysical level, no?) The Red Skull is in the new movie, and he’s a Nazi. Everyone hates Nazis. (Especially Illinois Nazis.) This will help the world bond with Cap and forget his regrettably American origins. In 2007, the producers were asked about “anti-American sentiment” hurting the box office, and one of them answered:

Captain America stands for freedom for all democracies, for hope all around the world. He was created to stop tyranny and the idea of stopping tyranny is important today as it was then and unfortunately it’s not going to change because that’s how the world works. So I think that we will have some interesting challenges but at the end of the day if the movie is terrific and the movie talks to the world, it’s not about one place, it’s about the world.

By “stopping tyranny” we can assume Cap was going to the League of Nations to make an impassioned speech about letting sanctions work against Hitler. No unilateralism here. But then a wonderful thing happened: Obama! After his election, another producer commented, “The idea of change and hope has permeated the country, regardless of politics, and that includes Hollywood. Discussions in all our development meetings include the zeitgeist and how it’s changed in the last two weeks. Things are being adjusted.”

This is how you know the movie will be a mess: They adjusted the story of a World War II hero to reflect the imminent shift in the international zeitgeist. And for all that, he’s still not waving a flag.

If they can’t wave a flag in the Age of Hope and Change, they never will. But that’s no surprise. A few years ago, the prudes began airbrushing out Churchill’s cigars and FDR’s cigarettes; you wouldn’t be surprised if they removed the flag from the photos of Iwo Jima. Flags are scary. An empty pole stands for everyone. Doesn’t it?

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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