When I was eight, I lived out in the Nebraska countryside, where the winter wind had no block for a hundred miles in every direction. Boys swapped horror stories about the dense blizzards that could blind you and confuse your sense of direction on the walk home from school, sending you wandering out to freeze to death in some lonesome cornfield. So it took some courage to make the 50-foot walk to my family’s mailbox in the winter. One particularly brutal February day, I walked back inside with frozen tears on my pink cheeks and eyelashes iced together. I dropped the mail inside the front door and was inconsolable until my mother held up something from the pile that had arrived for me.
“Does this help?” she asked. It was my first issue of Captain America. She had bought me a subscription.
I went to my bedroom without a word, eyes wide with wonder, comic gripped between numb fingers. He graced the cover, shield in one hand and American flag in the other, surveying some invisible danger, confident of victory against any enemy. I wiped my tears and bit my lip shut.
I’d never seen anyone I wanted to be like so badly—and he certainly didn’t look like anyone who would cry over a little cold weather.
The First Avenger
Why exactly Steve Rogers became my favorite superhero is hard to say. He’s not a particularly imaginative hero—no mutant powers or radioactive bug bites. Without the costume, he’d stretch the term “superhero” severely thin. He also lacks the antihero swagger of Batman or Punisher, next to whom he looks positively dorky. He dresses in an American flag, his only weapon is a shield, he has wings on his head and he’s forever lecturing his enemies on the virtues of democracy and equality. He seems like the sort of hero Mike Huckabee would dress up as for Halloween.
Which makes it a tricky time for Marvel to give this particular hero the multi-million dollar treatment. Patriotism may have been at lower ebbs in the past, but the fact that fringe political movements have attempted to completely co-opt it has almost made it a dirty word outside of their ideological walls. When we express any sort of love of America, we might feel the need to qualify it under a layer of snark and disillusionment, lest anyone mistake our patriotism for sympathy with extremist groups many of us don’t identify with at all.
But it’s not that the rest of us hate our country. It’s just that almost everyone feels like we’ve lost our way somehow. Squandered our potential. We grew up believing we could make the world a better place—cure AIDS, bring peace to the Middle East, save the rainforests, walk on Mars, give equal rights to everyone—but those things haven’t happened.
A Real American Hero
And into all of this dives another Captain America movie. With trust in our government dipping and cynicism about our entire political process soaring, Marvel unleashes the hero whose entire persona oozes (and whose costume features) stars and stripes. His roots go deep into World War II, at the country’s fever pitch of nationalistic zeal; the cover of his first comic book appearance in 1941 featured him fearlessly firing a good old-fashioned American right hook to the chin of the Führer himself. Captain America is our square-jawed, fearless champion of all that we hope we are, sometimes against substantial evidence to the contrary.
And my 10-year-old self believed that fervently. Wandering around my backyard with a trash can lid strapped to my arm like a shield, I had the impression that Captain America was important. He represented something I felt was much bigger than myself. It wasn’t that I identified with my country’s military aspirations or economic management. It wasn’t how much I admired the current president or agreed with our foreign policy. I hadn’t the foggiest idea about any of those things.
My love of my country was tied to Captain America, and my love of him was tied to how much I wanted to be like him: brave, honest, dependable and dedicated. These are admirable traits, no matter your nationality.
I wasn’t much like Captain America. But I wanted to be. And I may have been on to something.
Maybe patriotism doesn’t have to be so closely tied to how few of our own pet projects get drafted into the State of the Union. It may be patriotic enough to believe in potential. Our greatest patriots have surely been ones like Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks, whose desires for America were not driven by what they admired about our country, but by what they hated about it. Someone who blindly follows his country into any national agenda whatsoever would only be considered a patriot in Orwellian dystopias and Spartan army-states. True patriotism lies not in irrational devotion, but thoughtful discontentment. It’s not believing your country is the best in the world. It’s believing your country can—and should—be better than it is.
It will be interesting to see how directors Anthony and Joe Russo deal with their subject matter’s hyper-American vibe. The first film in the franchise pitted Captain America in World War II, where aggressive patriotism was a given. This one follows our hero’s continuing adventures into the modern era, where love of country is a far more nuanced, complicated beast.
That’s just one more issue in a movie that’s potentially full of them. Can Captain America hold interest in a glut of movies full of heroes who can fly and read minds? Will he work as a symbol of America in a time when identifying ourselves as American seems so … un-American?
These are questions you can be sure are keeping Marvel Studios execs up at night. This one’s a risk, no doubt. In an age where our bad guys operate in the shadows, our trust in government is hovering near an all-time low and our national identity has become fragmented, Captain America looks hopelessly out of touch.
And that may just be why we need him now more than ever.