"A Weak Man Knows the Value of Strength": The Glorious Propaganda of Captain American: The First Avenger" (2011): a Blu-ray review

Is Captain America: The First Avenger propaganda?

Most definitely yes, and yet, as a no doubt brainwashed American, I still very much liked it. Raised on anti-war films like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Paths of Glory (1957), I feel weird enjoying a movie that uses devious rhetorical devices to endorse the US army. How does director Joe Johnston make such manipulative content engaging? Let me count the ways:

1) Through the subtle characterization of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). We first see little Steve in the midst of watching a propagandistic early 1940s newsreel in the theater. With its authoritative male voice mimicking the March of Time movie reels (parodied early in Citizen Kane (1941)), the newsreel extols the virtues of the fighting soldiers and the sacrifices of children for the war effort. When a heckler starts to yell out that he wishes the newsreel would end, Steve defends the film to the point of getting beaten up by the heckler in the alley soon after. No sooner do we meet Steve than we learn that he will suffer anything for the war. In spite of his asthma and his small stature, he has tried repeatedly to volunteer for the army because it is the least he can do for his country. There's even a scene at the World Expo where Steve tries his best to fit within the mirrored reflection of a group of soldiers in a recruitment poster, literally trying to situate himself within a propaganda image.

One could consider Steve a bit naive in his gung ho support of America's national interests, but he's also likably selfless, brave, troubled in a way that reminded me of Peter Parker's vulnerabilities in Spiderman 2 (2004), and engagingly determined. Later, after Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci (!) with a humorous German accent) arranges to have Steve join the army as a prospective serum-enhanced "super-soldier" in the Strategic Scientific Reserve, Steve further proves his worth by jumping onto a (fake) hand grenade when all of the rest of the recruits run for cover. When everyone else in his platoon fails to climb up a pole to get a flag (in a scene that visually suggests the famous photograph of the soldiers erecting the flag at Iwo Jima), Steve calmly unlatches the pole so that it falls over, thereby easily obtaining the flag.

Given these personality traits, Steve could easily be an insufferable patriot, but the movie keeps finding ways to make him sympathetic, especially in the way he retains his understanding of weakness. He admits that he doesn't want to kill anyone because he hates bullies.

Before Dr. Erskine transforms Steve into a superhero with his super-soldier serum, he tells Steve that he was chosen because a "weak man knows the value of strength," and he should never forget his smaller self. Steve replies by toasting "the little guy." Later, after his transformation into a physique worthy of an Abercrombie and Fitch model, Steve tells his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) that he got that way because "he joined the army." Amiably enough, instead of immediately going to war, Steve also agrees to join the USO as a patriotically costumed figure of strength to help sell bonds for the war effort, which brings up the second way the filmmakers make propaganda engaging.

2) Through satire. Given how much Captain America plays it straight, the highly ironic USO sequence stands out for its self-reflexivity, and its mockery of public relations techniques. As Jennifer Margret Smith points out:

"In the sequence, the newly-transformed Steve Rogers, a formerly-scrawny kid from Brooklyn who has suddenly become the one and only super-soldier in the U.S. government’s arsenal, takes an offer to become a USO performer instead of remaining in a lab to become a guinea pig for possible replication of the super-soldier serum.

Suddenly, in between filming movie serials and the production of the in-universe version of a Captain America comic book, he finds himself touring the country in an elaborate, Alan Menken-scored song-and-dance show, complete with special effects, patriotic chorus girls, and a man dressed as Hitler for Steve to punch in the face.

Steve reads his lines awkwardly and uncomfortably, wearing a costume that is much closer to the comic book version than the one that will be used later in the film, and the entire affair is portrayed as laughable and cheesy, suitable only for the excitable children in the audience. When Steve and the chorus girls take the show overseas for the troops, the troops are completely unimpressed, hurling insults that question Steve’s masculinity and heterosexuality and begging for the chorus girls to return (for ogling purposes). This is the final straw for Steve, who soon afterward breaks ranks and goes off to become the soldier he was meant to be."

Smith goes on to criticize the sequence for the way it feminizes and therefore "demonizes" the entertainment, and for the way "the media and entertainment artifacts are explicitly presented as silly, mock-worthy, and meaningless." All of this helps the filmmakers distance themselves from any "controversy" in the process.

Smith makes several excellent points, but I liked the USO song-and-dance sequence. By satirizing the USO's efforts to raise money for bullets, the movie illustrates how often American efforts boil down to shameless huckstering and public relations. Steve does admit that he has raised a significant amount of money in the midst of being what he calls a "performing monkey." In the process of being winkingly ironic, Johnston and Co insert some fancy propagandistic images of Steve holding three young women astride a motorcycle in the air as papier-mache tanks shoot volleys of confetti into the air. Later, after Steve finds success and heroism in battle, he confesses that the whole Captain America shtick has grown on him some, so the irony cuts both ways: cheesy patriotic images are both mocked and celebrated. With this big dose of sarcasm early on, the filmmakers prepare the way for the viewer to stomach subsequent patriotic hoorah guilt-free. When making propaganda, the key is to get the images on the screen regardless of the context; irony doesn't matter.

Later, Captain America will sneak into a Hydra enemy factory with his stars and stripes still ludicrously on display on his back. After he frees some POW soldiers, he starts to run off to continue fighting, but the freed soldiers ask him, "Do you know what you're doing?" Captain America replies, "Don't worry. I've punched Hitler over 200 times." His USO efforts have now (semi-ironically or not) prepared him for the battlefield. Afterwards, Steve arranges for Howard Stark to design a new shield and uniform that still carries some of the red, white, and blue (stars and stripes) for the rest of the movie.

4) Johnston and Co. also make propaganda palatable through nostalgia. By setting the film during World War II, the US Army looks good fighting in this last unambiguous war, even though later the Captain America comics were more ambivalent about their hero's involvement in Vietnam. Through stylistic commonalities with the Indiana Jones movies, Captain America celebrates a seemingly more innocent time, and even Hitler's historical complexities get purified and simplified when one of his officers, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) becomes the principal villain of the movie.

5) In its playfully pulpy way, Captain America keeps visually alluding to classic movies that I would enjoy in any case. Thus, perhaps, the film buff's appreciation drowns out any qualms about manipulative ideology. The meticulous 1940s fashion and set design kept reminding me of The Godfather.

More specifically, Johann Schmidt opens the box that carries the energy-intensive tesseract in a way that strongly resembles the glowing, possibly nuclear box that Lily opens in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

The secret Project Rebirth lab in Queens has uniformed workers facing machinery that reminded me of the workers in the underground world of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

When Captain America mournfully tries to get drunk at a small table in some bombed-out cafe in war-torn Europe, and as his chastely-loved girlfriend Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) tries to comfort him, I couldn't help being reminded of Rick's drunken sorrows in Casablanca (1942).

The multinational Howling Commandos struck me as a more stereotypical assortment of POW soldiers in the vein of The Great Escape (1963) or Grand Illusion (1937).

When Captain America spots some mini-bombers with the names of American cities written on them inside of Red Skull's Stealth-esque Hydra Orbital Bomber, I couldn't help thinking of interior-of-the-bomber scenes in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

6) Lastly, Johnston & Co end the movie with a credits sequence that makes many visual allusions to classic World War II propaganda posters (see below). Their iconographic use of color and imagery influence and enhance the entire movie in a way that I enjoyed regardless of weaknesses in the screenplay or the ideological problems with a blanket admiration of the American military.

The original 1941 Captain America comic was mostly concerned with persuading isolationist Americans into fighting Nazis. If one examines the ideological complexities of, say, the helicopter Ride of the Valkyries sequence in Apocalypse Now, one can uncover multiple attitudes towards the war that range from the gung-ho excitement of battle, to a recognition of war's absurdities and horrors, to a depiction of how the innocent suffer, to an acknowledgement of the deceptive tactics of the enemy, and so on. Given today's military-industrial complex with its budgetary bloat, its on-going ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and its long history of "collateral damage," we should be aware of what lies behind what Captain America sells.


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