Moving Pictures

Sex, War and World Domination

Captain America pits nationalism versus globalism, equates sexual frustruation with physical violence and the end result is the most ideologially American superhero flim in ages.

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It probably shouldn't have caught me by surprise—the main character is wrapped in a flag, after all—but I was pleasantly shocked to find Captain America: The First Avenger to be one of the most stridently ideological American films in recent memory. After the glib emptiness of Iron Man and the nonsensical shrieking mush of Thor, I wasn’t optimistic about a Disney/Marvel Studios movie ever doing anything very interesting at all. But Captain America is a fascinating piece of work. Director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, under the vigilant eye of producer Kevin Feige (a strong hand in every Marvel production), have crafted a compelling fable about channeling sexual frustration into violence, and about waging war for the sake of nationalism qua nationalism, against modern globalist impulses.

The film's surface plot is fairly straightforward. Fervent patriot and 94-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans' head weirdly CGI'd onto a tiny, skinny body) is transformed into a science fiction super-soldier (Evans with his own body) who first treads the boards as a traveling war mascot and then becomes a real-life war hero performing secret super missions during World War II. His alternate number is the Red Skull, a German super-soldier turned ugly and evil, whose master plan involves harnessing cosmic energy and using it to obliterate the capital cities of the world. Cap and the Skull fight, Captain America wins, the Red Skull is sucked into the cosmos, and Cap sacrifices himself to take down the Skull's death-plane over the Arctic before it hits New York City. Instead of dying, Cap is frozen in the Arctic until being thawed out 70 years later by Samuel L. Jackson just in time to co-star in this summer's installment of Marvel's sprawling multi-title film franchise.

At first blush, a pretty plain and predictable comic book movie. But along the way, strange twists abound. The film spends an inordinate amount of effort making it clear that Captain America lives and "dies" a virgin. It gives him a love interest who is solicitous but abstinent, and who reacts with violence at the suggestion of sex; key action sequences in the film are immediately preceded by moments of sexual tension between the two of them. And perhaps most curious: though set in Europe during World War II, none of the action sequences involve fighting a single Nazi.

In what seems like a blatant bid to de-politicize itself by actively avoiding engagement with the reality of Nazism and World War II, the film instead radically politicizes itself in a different direction. In a telling early scene, the German scientist who gives Captain America his muscles laments, "So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own." Aside from a generic comment about "bullying," this is the only direct reference to a wartime action by the German army, and it serves primarily to distance Germany as a nation from the transgressions of its army. The film then takes this distancing a step further, removing the Nazis themselves from the conflict.

While the Red Skull originates from within the German army, the film wastes no time making him a force unto himself. He runs Hydra, an organization begun as a science-fiction research lab for the Third Reich, but which splinters off to follow only the Skull. ("Hydra could go no further in Hitler's shadow," the Skull proclaims.) Every battle scene in the film involves Hyrda's troops rather than German ones, putting Captain America in the bizarre position of spending an entire WWII movie fighting no actual Nazis.

When genuine representatives of the Third Reich do appear, it isn't as antagonists to our hero. Instead, they serve as the first victims of the Red Skull's ultimate weapon. The big reveal of the Skull's villainous plan is made when three Nazi commanders look at a map of world capitals the Skull plans to obliterate, and realize Berlin is listed as one of the targets. The Red Skull then unveils his newfound cosmic power by slaughtering the Nazis, sending them screaming to their deaths. His assistant, Dr. Zola, portrayed as something of a sympathetic patriot, is horrified by the fates of his countrymen, and is hesitant to switch his cry of allegiance from "Heil Hitler!" to "Hail Hydra!" The Red Skull's real villainy, the scene suggests, is not in being a Nazi, but in rejecting his national identity, and the strictures of nationalism altogether.

"You could have the power of the gods!," the Skull lectures Captain America, "yet you wear a flag on your chest and think you fight a battle of nations. I have seen the future, Captain. There are no flags."

This line sparks the film's ultimate moment of heroic violence, as Captain America, horrified by the notion of the dissolution of national borders, cries, "Not my future!" and hurls his flag-embossed shield into both the Red Skull and his cosmic power source, destroying it. Captain America's battle ultimately has no bearing on the war between America and Germany, but rather is a fight to defend the geopolitical conditions that allow that war to take place. As a result, the Nazis are made into an almost honorable foe by comparison, a very strange choice for a mainstream American action movie.

But enough about Nazis; back to the sex. The struggle of nationalism versus globalism may be the Captain's ultimate battle, but the film's primary interest is in exploring the relationship between sex and war, particularly how the power of the former may be harnessed and perverted into the latter. Early scenes in the film establish very clearly that Steve Rogers has no experience with women. Multiple times, he's framed in such a way as to appear even smaller than normal when standing or sitting next to a woman. In contrast, his war-bound soldier pal Bucky is portrayed taller, manlier; when Steve bows out in the middle of a double date, Bucky shows no trepidation about continuing with both women by himself. The double date ends when Steve turns his back on the women who tower over him and sees a dramatically lit recruitment poster, from which Uncle Sam beckons to him with his familiar slogan. In the context, the full unspoken message might read, "(Women Spurn You, But) I Want You!"

Once admitted into the army, Steve is given a love interest in the form of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a superior officer. She’s introduced by decking a soldier who makes a lewd sexual remark, thus setting her up as a "strong woman" but also as an opposing force to sexual impulses. Steve first gains her company by winning a contest among the soldiers in his unit as to who can grab a flag from the top of a pole. While the other soldiers passionately climb on top of one another to try and reach for the flag, Steve calmly undoes the pinions holding the pole up, sending it crashing to the ground. His reward for dispassionately reversing the phallic erection of the pole is to ride in a jeep with Peggy. Later, as Peggy delivers him to the operation that will turn him into Captain America, their bond is formed over Steve confirming his virginity and declaring an underlying philosophy of abstinence until marriage. ("Asking a woman to dance always seemed so terrifying," says Steve, "I figured I'd wait." When Peggy asks what he's waiting for, he replies, "The right partner," to which she smiles broadly, approving.)

Once this bond of mutually delayed sexual gratification is formed, it becomes central to the action throughout the rest of the film, Peggy consistently operating as chaste sexual instigator of the Captain's violent feats of derring-do. The film's first big action set-piece is muddled thematically, as it comes when a Hyrda spy kills the paternalistic scientist who has just birthed Captain America's muscles. You could argue the Captain's first fight is one of a son's revenge. However, the action launches almost immediately after Peggy confronts Steve's new sexually charged muscle-bound body. She instinctively reaches to touch his bare chest, then recoils sharply, as if sternly applying a fetishistic self-control. After the spy strikes and is attempting escape, the Captain pushes Peggy out of his way, shoving her to the ground, in order to chase after the villain. This begins the film's motif of choosing violence over sex and also acts as a sadomasochistic reply to Peggy's self-restrictive gesture in the face of the good Captain's ample flesh.

After this scene, the film detours away from action for a montage of Captain America travelling the country selling war bonds through a stage show. The act starts out with a clearly uncomfortable and nervous Captain surrounded by scantily-clad dancing girls. As the montage goes on, Cap becomes more comfortable on stage, surrounded by women. The apex of the montage is a two-part sequence. In the first part, Captain America is signing autographs, and a young woman approaches him and delivers a breathy, sexually-tinged, "Hi." Immediately, a flashbulb goes off, filling the screen with bright white light, temporarily blinding the Captain, who stands dumbfounded that a woman is paying him sexual attention. From there we smash-cut to the second part of the sequence, the big climax of the stage-show montage, which features a now sexually confident Cap holding up a motorcycle with three women on top, surrounded by phallic tanks that ejaculate fireworks. If ended here, the stage-show montage would be a story about a former wallflower joyously discovering his sexuality. But the stage show makes one more stop which reverses that attitude towards Cap's newfound confidence: the front lines, where soldiers jeer at Captain America and demand that he "bring back the girls!" The Captain walks away, dejected, his sexual power having no coin in the military realm.

Re-enter Peggy Carter, who shows up to demean the Captain's war-bond performance, calling him a "dancing monkey." When Cap finds out his best friend Bucky is trapped behind enemy lines, Peggy provides him with a helmet and an airlift, encouraging him to take extra-legal violent action. Crucially, before Cap parachutes into enemy territory, he misunderstands dialogue between the pilot (Dominic Cooper's devilishly charming Howard Stark, father to Robert Downey Jr.'s equally charming Tony Stark) and Peggy, mistaking them to be in a sexual relationship. The wave of discomfort and anger across his face is palpable, and it is clear that the frustration he feels from being cuckolded will be delivered through his fists to the awaiting Hyrda soldiers. Whereas in some narratives, a revelation of sexual betrayal on the eve of a battle might cripple the betrayed warrior, here it clearly functions to make him a better and more energized warrior. Peggy's role is established: she stokes the fires within the Captain, and then turns him loose to release his tension on the enemy.

After the rescue mission succeeds, Cap is rewarded by Peggy appearing in a blazing red dress. Dressed to excite, Peggy complicates their mutual understanding of abstinence with a promise of sex at the war's end. ("I might even, when this is all over, go dancing.") Significantly, though he attempts to compliment and solicit her, she pointedly ignores Bucky, who as of yet has had no action scenes of his own, but will become a master sniper, his own sexual desires now repressed and perverted into violence.

The relationship between sex and violence runs both ways for Peggy and Cap. In the film's strangest scene, Captain America is seduced by an army secretary. The seduction is mild by general American media standards, but it stands out as the most brazenly sexual act of the entire film. The blonde secretary advances on a stammering, petrified Captain America as the music grows notably ominous. By the time she grabs him by the tie and drags him behind a supply shelf, you'd be forgiven for inferring from the soundtrack that she's about to murder him rather than kiss him. As the Captain surrenders to her sensuous embrace, Peggy rounds the corner, and discovers them. In the next scene, she acts on her feelings of betrayal by unexpectedly firing several shots from a handgun at him, under the guise of helping him test out his new shield. Her reactions have in turn left Cap sexually confused and frustrated, and so of course a lengthy montage of action sequences follows directly.

Captain America and Peggy's relationship remains chaste and platonic until the climax of the film. Perched on top of a speeding car which is chasing after the Red Skull's plane, Captain America is poised to leap onto the landing gear, and embark on what those who know his story understand is a suicide mission of sorts. Before he jumps, he finally shares a kiss with Peggy, which supercharges his sex drive, creating more fuel than ever for his super heroics.

At the end of the battle, the Captain decides to sacrifice himself in order to down the Skull's plane. Curiously, more likely due to sloppy storytelling than anything else, it’s never made clear why Cap has to sacrifice himself. He’s already disabled the Skull's bombs and eliminated the cosmic source of their power. And if he can control the plane enough to force it to land, why can't he merely turn the plane around? Captain America is not sacrificing himself for a practical purpose; his sacrifice is the logical extension of the perversion of his sex/life energy into war/death behavior. As he pilots the plane towards the icy ground, he talks to Peggy over the radio, describing their future sexual relationship he knows in reality will never happen. ("I still don't know how to dance," he says, and she replies, "I'll teach you.") He uses the fantasy to talk himself into the ultimate violent act for nationalism: self-destruction in the name of his country.

The final scene of the film then plays like a cruel joke on the first Avenger. Having woken up in the 21st Century, Captain America stands in Times Square, surrounded not by flags but by symbols of international corporations—LG, HSBC, Corona and McDonald's. The Red Skull was right about the shape of the future. America may have won World War II, but ultimately, Captain America wasn't fighting World War II. He was a soldier in a different conflict, one that was long ago decided against him.

Snippets of phrases from video screens and billboards send coded messages: "Shocking New Evidence!" "Your 15 Seconds of Fame!" One Broadway billboard calls him a "Phantom." On one side, what looks like an ad for the Army cuts between the slogan "Innovating for the 21st Century" and an image of a soldier holding his daughter; the new form of the same old selling of militarization the Captain was once a part of. Underneath it, a strange, pulsating video screen shows suspicious hypnotic patterns. Behind Colonel Fury, a prominent billboard for "Planet Hollywood," evoking the multinational corporate network that has birthed this very movie, seems like an extra-diegetic taunt the Captain could never comprehend.

Colonel Fury asks Cap if he's going to be okay. Captain America looks around and, in what may be taken for a moment of clarity, delivers the sad, yearning, final line of the film: "Yeah, just... I had a date."

We get one moment of wistful music before Uncle Same crashes back in, screaming "I Want You!" and assuring us that this has all been in good fun, that no animals were hurt during production and that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. By the time we see Captain America again after the credits, he's taking out his frustration on a punching bag. He's back in the game, and in for the sequel. But will he ever learn to dance?

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