The final credit sequence of “Captain America,” the latest Marvel superhero popcorn flick, starts with an image of that iconic Uncle Sam poster, with the logo “I Want You for U.S. Army” (followed by an array of propaganda images from World War II). The film itself isn’t nearly as persuasive propaganda — it’s too formulaic, derivative and sanitized for effective political messaging. But it certainly reinforces plenty of old-fashioned American myths.
In the early part of the film, it actually makes fun of the “war effort,” lampooning the U.S.O. (when Captain America is a mere prop) and the star-spangled spectacles that tried to convince Americans to buy war bonds.
Hollywood products are filled with such contradictions. On the one hand, such naive nostalgia is ridiculed; on the other, it’s championed: When Captain America is transformed from spandex-clad “show-girl” to super-soldier, flinging his stars-and-stripes shield into the air and cracking heads, he is a propagandistic symbol, as blatantly jingoistic a caricature as when he’s on a U.S.O. tour. But the difference, of course, is that now he’s kicking ass.
For a film about one of the bloodiest wars in our recent history, “Captain America” is noticeably light on casualties. Sure, there’s plenty of people killed, but the filmmakers make sure to keep all of the bad guys masked and dehumanized for easy guilt-free annihilation. And when the Allies get slaughtered, they are vaporized with an innovative new weapon invented by an evil German scientist (and Hollywood screenwriters) that dispatches humans without the messiness of splayed guts, blood, or body parts. (It’s not unlike the masses of citizenry that evaporate into thin air when zapped by Decepticons in the recent “Transformers” movie.) Mass audiences enjoy mass death, but not in gritty detail.
As a recruitment tool for today’s Armed Forces, “Captain America” is likely to succeed less for its thrilling depictions of combat–these sequences contain several war-movie cliches (including a multiracial-multinational brigade)–and more for perpetuating old-fashioned myths of the American hero: “I don’t want to kill anyone,” answers the young “compassionate” and chaste Captain America when asked if he wants to kill Nazis. “I don’t like bullies.”
America, of course, is never the bully in mainstream Hollywood. And in “Captain America’s” view of WWII, the war ends not as a result of the U.S.’s firebombing and incinerating hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and detonating atomic bombs on Japan, but as a result of the Captain’s ability to defeat a madman with celestial powers. But, hey, it’s just a comic book movie, right?