I wasn't quite sure what bothered me about Captain America. It took me forty-five minutes to really warm up to the thing, and even as I left the theater with a handful of moments that screamed do not forget about this film in December!, something else stuck around to nag at the back of my mind. At first I thought it was because the film lacked moral dimension, but no--it's a Saturday morning serial straight outta 1944. It's supposed to be operatic, goddamn it, and it certainly accomplished that. But my inability to comprehend that first act soon forced me to question the parts that I did enjoy--even as I recognized it as a faithful mock-up of Allied propaganda, I couldn't help but think, "Didn't Inglourious Basterds already dissect this kind of wartime fiction?" Walter's review helped immensely in understanding and appreciating the film, but a second screening was inevitable, and I soon knew that my reluctance could be traced back to a single moment. Halfway through the movie, the Red Skull denounces Hitler as his cronies belt out an emphatic "Hail HYDRA," throwing out their arms in a ridiculous parody of the Nazi salute. The first time through, I giggled derisively, because seriously, what is this Mickey Mouse shit?
My friend Bob Chipman made the excellent point that Joe Johnston and Captain America didn't need to expound upon the mytho-religious implications of the Cosmic Cube because Thor had already done that job for them. (To which I responded that I would now only accept Thor as a direct prequel to Cap.) His astute observation eventually made me realize that the universe was my problem. Continuity was my problem. Now, I still firmly believe that Iron Man 2 erased any and all need to throw The Avengers at us, but this time the fictional timeline interferes with our own. Before I recognized Captain America for what it was, I wasn't sure how to feel about Marvel sidestepping the Nazis in favor of its own villainous organization. But why? People have been doing this for years. This company's been doing this for years--Adolf Hitler met his end in Marvel Comics when the Human Torch burned his ass to death in the bunker... only to be resurrected as the "Hate-Monger" some twenty years later. That's fiction for you, man, and I've argued over and over and over again that superheroes are capable of handling the headiest of topics. But Captain America appeared to be somewhat gun-shy when it came to the icons of Nazism. As Walter mentioned, the Red Skull states that he "no longer reflect[s] Hitler's ideal of Aryan perfection," and you'll see plenty of armbands and red flags and what have you, but swastikas are mostly obscured--HYDRA's tentacled skull is the fetishistically omnipresent symbol in this universe. Cap spends the majority of the war on a campaign against HYDRA, and I couldn't help but think, "So the actual war is still on, right? We're still fighting the Axis?" You can call it an attempt to keep the movie viable on the international market, but in the wrong hands, it could have been twisted into an extreme example of what bothered Jefferson about Dead Snow: at first glance, Captain America seems too squeamish to truly approach ideology or iconography.
Thankfully, Johnston knows what he's doing. What makes Captain America such a great movie is how it understands the components of propaganda, and, moreover, the power they carry. I got that the first time through, but the second time forced me to really contemplate it: the ultimate soldier becomes a film star/comic book hero/inspirational symbol before he feels compelled to join the action--to live up to his name, his image and his potential--with an "A" helmet stolen from a USO showgirl. The symbol gathers up a few more trinkets from popular entertainment and becomes tangible. Watch how Cap's role changes between newsreels and wonder how many layers of fiction and documentary we'll have to traverse before we finally make it to 2011, to the present-day schmoes sitting in a movie theater. You want a moral dimension? Johnston doesn't ignore the influence that Goebbels and Riefenstahl had over the Third Reich--he simply refuses to give the Nazis any more power by indulging them in their cult of icons. I'm reminded of Oliver Hirschbiegel's bemused reaction to those Downfall parodies on YouTube: "The point of this film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like." If an icon is to defeat another icon, it must be accomplished metatextually. Despite all indications that the man is basically a walking flag/bullseye, Captain America can sneak around a HYDRA base with impunity; meanwhile, the swastika has difficulty showing its face in the war that it instigated. But even with all that in mind, the dangers inherent to this identity are never ignored. (Consider how the image can swallow the individual whole--how often Steve Rogers is addressed as "the Captain," even when it's not a particularly relevant point.) Call it a moment of patriotic self-awareness born from seventy years of retrospection. Great stuff, man. Can't wait to see it again.