By Ashlee Bagnell
This blog is about the Rhetoric of Captain America. No, I have not lost my mind. (maybe a little bit, college is hard) Steve has something to say to the world other than “Hello, I am strong and no longer a capsicle!”
So, I figured for the sake of time and my argument, I would stick mostly to the parameters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and not expand fully into the world of the comics. This goes directly against the suggestions of my peers. They are wise and know that by not addressing the comics, I leave a massive portion of his story out of the conversation. (This is me addressing my flaws and moving forward with my argument)
**Disclaimer** Since this setting is a fictional one, there are some ideologies present in this world that the real world doesn’t maintain. However, that isn’t to say that we can’t relate these the real world. Just thought I would probably mention that before we jumped into this analysis.
Captain America has been a symbol of patriotic pride and strength for the United States of America since 1941. His story began during WW2 right before the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Peter Sanders of Britannica, Steve Roger’s first issue was written by Joe Simon and illustrated by Jack Kirby. After the United States joined the war, Captain America and the Howling Commandos (including Bucky Barnes, whom I will discuss later) took on the Axis powers as well as supervillains including the Red Skull. If you want to see a time line of Steve’s Life (in the MCU) click here!
In the Beginning
In the MCU we meet Steve Rogers trying his best to join the army to do his part for his country. It’s not until Dr. Erskine, a German scientist helping the Allied Powers in the war, overhears this conversation between Steve and Bucky. If you want to skip past the Stark Expo, the scene I am referring to starts at 2:00.
Dr. Erskine chooses Steve for his inner strength to go through the super soldier experiment because the serum amplified the strongest qualities of the recipient. This is also what caused Johan Schmit to become the Red Skull. This fact plays into the American “Golden Age.” The country’s bravest men went to war and fought for freedom. Steve wants nothing more than to be apart of the action and take a stand for his country. He feels a strong sense of patriotic duty because of his parents’ death. Both were killed in action leaving Steve and orphan with Bucky Barnes as his only friend in the world. After becoming a super soldier, however, Dr. Erskine is killed and the serum is lost and Steve is turned into a propaganda machine. In real life and the 2011 film, Cap used his position to reach the public on issues concerning WW2.
An article on The Fishbowl Blog speaks of Steve’s involvement in propaganda. “In obvious contrast to the bloody realities, the war was romanticized into something glorious. Captain America came to have a very tangible effect on the actual war, even avidly encouraging kids into purchasing war bonds.” The image of a strong, American, Everyman put the public’s image of the war into a nice red-white-and-blue bow of patriotic martyrs laying down their lives for the good of the country. In the 2011 film, Captain America: The First Avenger it’s not until Steve witnesses the contrast between the public and the soldiers that he realizes his role in the war is still not what he set out to achieve. He is not fulfilling his true purpose as set forth by Dr. Erskine, to change the war.
Captain America was a symbol of hope for Americans but he needed to be a symbol of hope for the troops as well. So, when he took action and became actively involved in the war they were able to bring down Hydra.
However, and importantly, the Allies still won the war after the “death” of Captain America. He was mourned and idolized but America had a strength outside of Captain America. He acted as a catalyst for a new ideology for the nation. Super Soldiers have a positive impact on the military and political issues in this fictional America. I have made a list of all of the artifacts that have come out of this ideology, you can find it here.
Steve sacrificed himself for the safety of everyone else and this led to his later struggles after he wakes up. That, and the fact that the America that Steve Rogers wakes up in after 70 years in the ice is not the same one that he left behind.
A New America
Steve wakes up in a Post- 9/11 America that has a fragile sense of patriotism, extremely different from the America of the 40’s. Timothy Boyer addresses patriotism in his essay Proud to Be an American by saying “is neither constant through space nor is it constant through time. Simply put, what constitutes patriotism depends on who is defining it. The United States of America has often been described as being a patriotic country and yet the idea of Patriotism continues to be a divisive and controversial ideal in America.” Yet, it is clear to see that there is a significant difference in patriotic duty between the 1940s and the present.
Just as a side note even when “caricatured” by Loki in Thor: The Dark World, his core values are the center of Loki’s banter. If you skip to the 0:40 mark in this video, you will see what I mean.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Steve has (slightly) adjusted to life in the 21st Century. He has a routine and a team outside of the Avengers to run S.H.I.E.L.D missions with. However, he is struggling to come to terms with the way that S.H.I.E.L.D is being run. He believes in trusting the people he is working with. (Go figure). When he confronts Nick Fury on the subject, Fury decides to show him the super secret project that he had been working on.
Steve is realizing that everything that he fought for is crumbling around him. America isn’t the “land of opportunity” anymore. It’s the land of “If we kill them before they do something wrong, then we won’t have to go to war.” The values of freedom are being destroyed and Steve witnessed first-hand the deaths of those that died for that freedom during WW2.
Of course, it isn’t enough that the values that he fought for are no longer a priority in the present. Hydra, the organization that Steve brought down with his “death” is alive and well. They have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D to it’s highest level. Steve and his very few allies have to work together to bring them down once more. This places Steve in a very dangerous mindset. His actions during the war are proven to have been for nothing and he starts to question his value. This isn’t helped when he realizes that his oldest and dearest friend Bucky is alive and brainwashed by Hydra.
In his video Captain America — The Corrupted Symbol of Goodness Tyler Mowry discusses the black and white morality of Steve Rogers. From the start, the man has been able to clearly choose between right and wrong. But when Bucky comes back into his life, he is left in a moral gray area that sends him spiraling. This gray area leads to the events of Captain America: Civil War Not only does this movie create MASSIVE amounts of stress for me, it also addresses a very real-world problem of government control and what is morally right when it comes to the aftermath of war. John Gray states “the Captain embodies principles and virtues that are timeless and universal. In fact, the Captain is shaped by moral ideas and beliefs that are historically highly specific.”
Steve’s morals and his patriotism drive his character to reject the America he now lives in.This should be a huge warning sign for us today. By allowing corrupt governments to run our country, we are destroying it from the inside out, just like Hydra. It doesn’t matter which party you belong to, it is obvious that we aren’t the America that Captain America wants to fight for anymore. So, consider what patriotism means to you and what kind of America you want to live in. Home of the Free? Or Home of the Corrupt?