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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Madeleine assured us that the boy in question was not going to the movies “with” her. He was merely attending the same showing, sitting in the same row, in the seat next to hers, after meeting her and a friend in the park outside the theater beforehand.  The word “date” was not used.

They were planning on Transformers 3, but the film broke, so they bought their separate tickets to Captain America instead.  We had seen it as a family the night before. Madeleine joined us out of boredom, risking the humiliation of being seen at a movie with her parents and little brother. She braced at the sight of an acquaintance in the line behind us.

I wasn’t expecting much either. The Golden Age Captain America was the ultimate nice guy, a squeaky clean do-gooder devoid of psychological depth. He started life as a knock-off of the first but now forgotten flag-costumed superhero, The Shield (Jack Kirby redrew Cap’s shield as a circle to deflect a lawsuit), and existed for one reason: To fight Nazis.  And sell comic books. His title was a top grosser during World War II, but even before Hiroshima the market was turning against patriotic violence. Captain America Comics converted to Captain America Weird Tales in 1949 and then was cancelled.

Marvel resurrected him in the sixties, but the universe had changed while he was away. Superheroes weren’t fighting a world war; they were preventing it. The Axis was gone. Heroes were throwing as many punches at each other. Captain America had to grow up too. After Watergate, he traded in his flag suit. He didn’t fight Iraqis after 9/11; he fought the Patriot Act. Comic books aren’t printed in primary colors anymore. They’re darker, grainier, a palette of gradations.

Captain America: The First Avenger returns its two-dimensional nice guy to his old haunts and somehow transforms him into a sweet and fun hero. But like anything nostalgic, the film also reinvents the past, sanitizes it. This Cap doesn’t fight Nazis. The villain’s minions are faceless, and their weapons evaporate bodies in a bloodless flicker of CGI. Even when standard issue rifles are fired, their victims crumple as politely as stage actors. Still better, the U.S. Army has been retroactively desegregated, and a woman can rise to a position of power and respect. Also there’s no sex. The closest you get is Cap’s love interest fluttering her confused fingers in front of his naked chest when he emerges from his transformation chamber.

My daughter had a similar reaction to the middle school boys she hadn’t seen for six months. Our family was in New Zealand during the crucial transformation scene. They’re taller, broader, deeper voiced. The boy who stepped into Captain America’s chamber looked just as gawky. Puberty is a clumsy superpower, a brief and bewildering universe poised between the sanitized past and a weird tales future.

Cap and his love interest never quite come together. They plan a night out, but he spends seventy years in a block of ice instead. When he wakes to another transformed world, he laments to Samuel Jackson: “I had a date.” I was braced for a nursing home reunion, but the credits rolled instead. The particular boy who did not not go on a date with my daughter has liked her for months, possibly years.  I don’t know how it ends, but it’s a sweet story. I recommend seeing it twice.

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