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Captain America: Then, Now, and the One In-Between

Reprinted from coachnobody.com–April 10, 2014

The Captain America I grew up reading woke up from his deep freeze in the late 1960’s.  The hero today’s kids watch slept through Vietnam, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II.  I think that matters.  I think it matters a lot.

*Author’s Note:  As of this reprinting, I have not seen the new Captain America film.  Give me a couple more days…

I started reading Captain America comic books when I was in seventh grade. In the first issue I picked up (#250) at the old Rexall drug store which was literally on Main Street in my home town, Cap almost considered running for president. I still vividly remember how John Byrne’s proportionally balanced artwork depicted the super soldier as a majestic figure, somehow neatly projecting both intimidation and reassurance.

I became so enamored with the character that, when my middle school held a Halloween dance, I actually went as the star-spangled Avenger himself. Using nearly a full bale of red, white, and blue felt, my mom converted a blue sweatshirt, a pair of generic blue-jeans, some of my dad’s throwaway work boots, and the white lid to a 5-gallon bucket of joint-compound into Steve Rogers’ alter-ego. When I came home from school the afternoon before the dance, Mom had the entire get-up on full museum-quality display across my bed.

It was, objectively speaking, a stunning display of creative thinking and design back in a time when there were no Walmarts nearby and certainly no cheap, ready-made super-hero costumes for anyone over age eight. Since I was a “tweenager”, however, I didn’t take the time that afternoon to appreciate the detailed labors of her love. All I zeroed-in on were two misplaced icons: the good captain’s “A” was in the middle of the shield, and the star was glued to the forehead of the mask. Instead of laughing off her honest mistake (this was, after all, years before the movies, back when only the real fans knew all the details of Cap’s world), I freaked out.

Mom handled it all with poise, told me to calm down, and fixed everything…just as all good mothers do. When I saw the corrected uniform, I drew a deep sigh of collected relief.

If you’re thinking to yourself right now, “Doesn’t he know he will never get any girls dressed up like that?” the answer is, no. I didn’t. In fact, with my costume fully intact, I had convinced myself that I was going to have a virtual harem of eighth grade females fawning at my feet.

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Years later, after the longest of waits, Marvel Studios finally put my hero on the silver screen in 2011’s The First Avenger, and I left the theater that hot July evening entranced. Like its predecessor this year’s The Winter Soldier proved equally impressive, in several ways more so. Many of the reasons are same as those already written in dozens of reviews. In fact, all of the arguments we’ve read praising the sequel for its departure from the heavy CGI, multi-universe formula so pervasive in the rest of the Marvel franchise…they all bear acknowledgment, but they don’t need repeating. So, while I share the enthusiasm for the 1970s-esque spy-thriller throwback style adopted by the Russo brothers, I was more powerfully moved by the personal impact the cinematic Captain had on me.

Most commentary about the films focuses on the notion that two Caps exist: the man of his time (WWII) and the man out of his time. But I see three Captains: the two already mentioned and a second, earlier version of the man-out-of-time motif, the Captain who was re-animated by Marvel comics in 1968 (Captain America #100). When I started reading the comic book, Reagan was in the White House, and Steve Rogers had logged over a decade of life in the new world under his proverbial super-belt. Despite all that adjustment time, however, early-1980’s America struck him as a very disturbing time (I can only guess what he must have thought about the 1970s). That Captain America (what I like to call “My Cap”) essentially just missed the Vietnam War, but showed up just in time to see the nation reel from the political, social, and moral implications which followed it. Growing up in my own household, our family wasn’t officially “over” Vietnam until 1986…July, 1986 to be specific, after a family vacation to Washington, D.C. and a visit to the then recently minted memorial wall. Like Steve Rogers, I just missed the war myself. I was born in 1969, but my mother’s brother was killed in May of ’67, and the shadows of his death covered us for years. Because my grandfather served in the Big Picture (in the China-Burma-India Theater), I understood his Greatest Generation wisdom. And because I was old enough to absorb plenty of pop-culture, I understood the rift that existed between that WWII crowd and the Boomers who followed. So, it’s one thing to send Captain America forward in time to the world of his great-grandchildren, but to send him forward fewer than 25 years? To move him chronologically from one side of the greatest cultural/generational feud in American history to the other? Profound.

My Cap was thawed out when Nixon tested the limits of the Constitution, and the Constitution won. Today’s Cap woke up in world where the Constitution only matters when it’s convenient.

In that time, Cap struggled with Reganomics and with America’s emerging fixation on materialism (not the full-blown need-driven version that Chris Evans’ embodiment copes with). Kids in My Cap’s time “wanted” their MTV, but today MTV wants the kids. My Cap was thawed out when Nixon tested the limits of the Constitution, and the Constitution won. Today’s Cap woke up in world where the Constitution only matters when it’s convenient. My Cap even engaged in a windy debate with his then-Brooklyn date, Bernie Rosenthal, about the shallow nature of Indiana Jones’ character and the trivialization of WWII in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Captain America #268). Today, Chris Evans’s Captain is Indiana Jones.

As I watched the film, I kept asking myself, “Which Captain had it worse?” When My Cap woke up, the Greatest Generation was a group of middle-aged blue-collar workers devastated by what they saw as a collective act of values-betrayal by their children. And the Baby Boomers were equally enraged, equally convinced that they had been metaphorically (and in some case literally) stabbed in the back. Sure seeing America still tearing itself apart even as late as 1982, had to be emotionally jarring, but we were at least putting ourselves through hell because we cared about the direction we were taking the nation. It was turbulent, and it was raw, but it was also very real.

Evans’s Captain America, therefore, lives in a deeply, profoundly more depressing form of isolation than My Cap did. Not only are all the people he knew either dead or too old to reason for longer than fifteen minutes, but he’s surrounded by a world populated by Huxley’s nightmare come to life, people who can’t be bothered with something as tacky or inconvenient as independent thought. Seeing Evans’s character stand for the real version of freedom, the kind that comes with serious risks the minute we step outside our front doors, was almost encouraging, but it’s a message few are willing to listen to. Just give us our action scenes and our cool villains with metal arms. Whatever you do, don’t make us think.

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About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap, a contributor for both NUVO News and ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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