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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Captain America

It was fun while it lasted, but let’s face it. The election is over. Why wait till November to vote? In fact, why wait till January for the Inauguration? We could get both out of the way this week.

At least that’s what they’re doing over on Earth-1610. Marvel Comics moved Inauguration Day to Wednesday September 26th.  And who’s that guy in the flag suit with his hand on the Supreme Justice’s Bible?

Write-in candidate Captain America of course.

The Earth-616 version of the character died four years ago, so it’s a hell of a comeback. It also says a lot about Presidential politics.  (Why, for instance, do candidates limit their flag-wearing to lapel pins?)

I’m not sure if Marvel is leaning left or right this election cycle. Their masked Commander-in-Chief has no party affiliation, and his earlier incarnations have bounced all over the political spectrum. In the 50s, he was a right wing Commie-basher. But he thawed into a liberal in the 60s, and even discarded the flag outfit briefly in the 70s.  More recently, he protested against Marvel’s version of the Patriot Act, but then surrendered rather than see his nation further divided. (Not the sort of high minded compromise we see much in our current Tea Party climate.)

Although DC elected Lex Luthor back in 2000, it’s rare for Presidential politics to bleed so deeply into comic book culture. Usually things flow the other direction. Americans love to talk about their politicians in terms of superheroes.

Look at Mitt Romney. Newsweek called him “Plastic Man” for his political shape-shifting (it didn’t help when his own campaign likened him to a human Etch-A-Sketch). The New York Times Magazines went with “all-business man, the world’s most boring superhero.” Rush Limbaugh drew the unfortunate Bain/Bane comparison during the Dark Knight Rises release. And, most recently, James Carville dubbed Romney’s running mate “Wonder Boy,” a thinly masked variation on Batman’s Boy Wonder.

Commentators throw plenty of leotards at Obama too. A New Yorker essay about the President’s family history was titled “An Origin Story,” and a June New York Times op-ed about his then flagging campaign appeared under the headline: “Captain America?”

Obama has provided a few of the superheroic comparisons himself. His ex-girlfriend Genevieve Cook told biographer David Maraniss that his desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.” While first campaigning for the White House in 2008, he joked at an Alfred Smith dinner that right-wing rumors about his birth certificate were true: “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth.” His website even featured a photograph of the Illinois Senator posed in front of a Superman statue.

Mitt Romney is a Superman fan too. When asked last winter which superhero he like to be and why, he went with the Man of Steel. He didn’t say why, and from his expression (and 1947 birthday), Superman may be the only superhero he’s ever heard of.

Obama had a fuller explanation for his other favorites. He told Entertainment Weekly: “I was always into the Spider‑Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers‑‑like Superman‑‑that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy. Whereas Spider‑Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil.  They get knocked around a little bit.”

Obama has been knocked around a bit himself, but like Captain America or any other good superhero, he’s back from the grave. National polls have him moving 4 points ahead of Romney, and his lead in the electoral votes promise a November blow-out.

But if you can’t wait that long, tune your Bat Dials to Brazil. Their October elections promise to usher in a horde of masked do-gooders. Campaign laws there allow candidates to use almost any name on a ballot, so how better to grab attention than throwing on a leotard?

My favorite is Piracicaba city council candidate “Geraldo Wolverine” and his slogan: “Vote for the guy who has claws!” There are five Batmen (Batmans?) running too. But fear not Obama fans, it looks like the President is going to win big down there too. Sixteen candidates are using his name. One copycat (“Obama BH”) explained:

“Barack Obama is more than a politician; he is an icon.”

That doesn’t make the guy a superhero, but it does look it will get him a second term in the Bat Cave.

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It was a big weekend. Obama officially launched his reelection campaign, the French equivalent of a Tea Party President lost his, and The Avengers swept box offices. The Monday was also the anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Coincidences? Obviously. But revealing ones.

The Avengers is a love-to-hate-you letter to Adolf Hitler. Marvel Entertainment is telling us that without a supervillain to focus us, America can’t reach its superheroic potential. And it’s not just any supervillain we need. The Cold War’s Evil Empire only gave us nuclear deterrents. Global warming just gives us something to bicker about. But Hitler, he gave us unity.

Nazi nostalgia is ingrained in the superhero formula, but director-scriptwriter Joss Whedon makes it explicit. Nordic ubervillain Loki declares his dictatorship in Germany, and the star-spangled Captain America is the first to sock him on the jaw. The World War II hero is the heart of the film, showcasing the “old fashioned” patriotism that launched Golden Age superheroes and still keeps them afloat.

But America has changed in seventy years. Our worst enemy isn’t a Democracy-stomping dictator. It’s ourselves. We’re like a bunch of superpowered leotards bounding off in contradictory directions. We waste our time smashing our hammers against each other’s shields. The Avengers are at their worst while Loki is chilling in his cell. No threat, no unity.

Once things start exploding though, we know how to rally. Democracy is messy, but when it really matters, it works. Even narcissists like Tony Stark, the ultimate 1%-er super-CEO, eventually fall into line. Those equally self-righteous religious types finally stop talking about Asgard and start taking orders from the American flag. Why? A cop on the street voices the question, and Whedon answers: anyone standing on the front line blocking bullets for you (or whatever those shiny blasts of energy are) is the guy to get behind.

Being truly democratic, the team also includes some of our darker sides on its roster. Black Widow reminds us of all the blood on our national ledger and our collective need to atone for it. And lest we think the ledger ended with the sexy Soviet Union, Hawkeye murders his victims right on screen. But it’s okay, he was brainwashed by a demagogue, so let’s not torture ourselves by counting up the number dead (in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq). It’s the lesson that matters: America is always angry, always capable of unthinking destruction, but we can learn to control that rage and use it for good.

The trick is how to inspire unity. Nick Fury learns that barking orders isn’t enough. You have to make us want to be a team. Sure, trading cards are dorky, but they’re about childhood. They’re about believing in simple truths. So what if Nick dipped them in blood for dramatic effect? He did it for the right reason. Which I guess means Whedon does too when he plays the 9/11 card at the end of the film. It’s okay to copy ground zero memorial footage as long as you show America coming together as a result.

Though it turns out disunity is important too. Fury isn’t just taking orders from upper ups. Some in-fighting is necessary. It’s evidence of our national health. In fact, it makes us stronger. So when the space portal opens and the legions of doom descend, we’ll be the best team possible. Not a government mandate, but a grass roots majority guided by its own (slightly manipulated) will.

Too much government is a will-devouring dictatorship, too little is nation-splintering anarchy, but The Avengers serves democracy just right. It’s the baby bear balance suitable for all political persuasions. It’s also a nifty way to earn $417 million in two weeks.

When the fight’s over, we splinter again, and that’s okay too. Because we’ve reminded ourselves and the universe that America is always secretly ready. Plus, now that we’ve proven we can pull together, we’ve earned the right to be free of government surveillance. Fury and Whedon turn off the cameras, and we all go home feeling good about being Americans. We can hardly wait for the next catastrophe to make us all feel even better.

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I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring term at Washington & Lee University, and Marvel very kindly scheduled The Avengers to fit on the syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their analytical verdict.

Ryan Scott: “Though The Avengers features many of today’s biggest film stars and relies upon state-of-the-art special effects, in many ways the film harkens back to the earliest superhero comics, especially in the level of violence carried out by the heroes.  Just as the original Superman of Siegel and Shuster flings his enemies into the sunset, so do the Avengers rack up an impressive body count in the film’s climatic battle.  And just as Bob Kane’s Batman packs a pistol in his first few appearances, so do Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury spend much of the film shooting their enemies.”

Lauren Woodie: “One of the main themes that I have observed in my reading of superhero comics is the superhero’s ability to act above the law. Superman constantly takes the law into his own hands and will sometimes even fight against the police. This theme is highlighted in “The Avengers” mainly by the fact that the Avengers operate under the control of an organization called Shield, which seems to transcend all governments much like the superheroes it encompasses.”

Mihai Cirstea: “To viewers like myself, who are not avid followers of the superhero genre, The Avengers was successfully appealing because of its constant humor that lightens up the heavier comic book influences. The scene that I found particularly amusing was when the Hulk smashes Loki back and forth against the floor like a rag doll. Stark’s humor, of course, also adds levity to the movie with his constant sarcasm. These moments of humor reminded me of the Superman comics, in which Siegel often offset the heavy plot with a snarky quip from his hero.”

Marie Spear: “To my surprise, I found that I had to stop myself from reading into all the different tropes and traits we have looked at class while watching The Avengers so that I could focus on the fun happening onscreen. I like how the director was able to bring in heavy undertones like god vs. science, such as with Thor, or the struggle of dual identities, and still have the movie be a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it is a little too long.”

Anna DiBenedetto: “Whedon’s The Avengers takes a comical stance on the powerful and almighty superhero triumph.  After the Hulk and Thor have a battle against one another on the starship, in a later scene, after they have both teamed up to defeat the flying, bad fish, they are standing over the dead corpse.  Then after a moment of silence, the Hulk punches out his left hand and sends Thor flying away.”

Paul Nguyen:  “The foremost appeal was the action and hilarity, but besides that, there was an intriguing use of superheroes of many types. None fell into the shadow of another. Captain America’s patriotism was well emphasized as well as his physical prowess. Thor’s god-like presence was well felt, but his obvious superiority to the others did not overshadow the overall awesomeness of the Avengers. Iron Man’s wittiness came through well. Hulk’s violent hilarity was strong, especially in his thrashing of Loki. It was about the superheroes as a whole rather than a single superior superhero.”

Anna Dorsett: “The Avengers, while thoroughly entertaining, does not skim over the darker portions of a superhero’s struggle. Dr. Banner, for example, overcomes his inner struggle and finds balance with his human self and super human self with the acceptance and support of the Avengers- he, as a human, found a positive purpose for his destructive power, which he formerly despised. Each character has incredible power, but also a weakness within- some form of humanity that works against them to give the storyline more drama and make the character more relatable. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Nick Lehotsky: “The Avengers proves entertaining, reflecting the reversed tropes seen in superheroes like Hancock. The indifferent, often aggressive attitude society maintains towards these “freaks” because of their massive property damage and pseudo-celebrity attitudes [I’m looking at you, Tony Stark] still resonates with audiences. It is as if we are continually perplexed by the superhero’s interactions with our society, and the hope that they shall always continue saving humanity. The Avengers is just what it is promised to be-a witty, action packed, Marvel stamped [via Disney] money making monster. I just hope the sequel provides more character depth.”

Adele Irwin: “I found the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the most intriguing. Each as individuals are likable characters with level headedness, senses of humor, and scientific intellect. Their friendship within the Avengers is appealing because they bond before the entire group comes together. Rarely have alliances between Superheroes been seen up to this point in our reading, making the collaboration between these two characters within the Avengers group entertaining and original to me, taking the superhero trope of selflessness to an entire new level.”

Shannon Nollet: “The Avengers, unlike some of the earlier superhero stories, gives a female a strong role. Not only is the Black Widow human, but she is able to fight the aliens just as well, if not better, than her male companions. No longer are the women simply the damsel in distress or doting love-interest. In Whedon’s The Avengers, women fully take part in the action.”

Chris Levy: “Each character has a well-defined fatal flaw, and these flaws almost lead to the failure of their mission. Tony Stark has major humility issues, threatening his ability to work with the others. Captain America’s long slumber has caused him to be somewhat outdated. Thor is not mortal, and thus does not truly understand human behavior. As the Hulk, Dr. Banner’s flaw is obvious, while the Black Widow struggles to put her dark past behind her. These characters are superhuman, yet still struggle with flaws like every other human.”

Zabriawn Smith: “My favorite character and message was Captain America. The time capsule jokes by Tony Stark were hilarious, but when it came time to battle it the old stars and stripes that led the way. I enjoyed the theme of returning to roots to move forward. He had a lot more edge than he did in the comics; seeing Captain America allow one of his teammates push his buttons was startling and eye-opening.”

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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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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