Whether he’s starring in a pulpy WWII adventure or a techy conspiracy thriller, Captain America can adapt.
Captain America is a cipher. As a character he is particularly one-note, but the drama is generated by taking his old-fashioned point of view and putting it up against its polar opposite. Throw in some fisticuffs and a bit of shield tossing and you got yourself an exciting adventure or a tense thriller on your hands. And so it goes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What better genres in which to showcase Captain America’s versatility than ones synonymous with American cinema?
This is what makes Captain America the most versatile of the current crop of Marvel heroes to make it to the big screen. His straight-down-the-line personality and idealism give him the clearest motivations of any of the Avengers. His solo films are the most consistently satisfying, even though they differ so wildly genre wise. The reason for this is all in the name. He is the quintessential American superhero – along with Superman on the other side of the aisle – who represents the clearest and most honest of American ideals. So what better cinematic genres in which to showcase his versatility than ones synonymous with American cinema?
To give Captain America the context he needed moving forward in the MCU, his origin story, Captain America: The First Avenger, is a wild, cracking World War 2 pulp adventure about secret Nazi experiments, with a crazy diesel-punk aesthetic. The film sits comfortably within the American cinematic tradition of the ‘men on a mission’ war films (see: The Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes) and the Indiana Jones films of Spielberg and Lucas.
The character is also synonymous with Word War 2 itself, as the comic book was used during the conflict as a propaganda tool. In March 1941, Captain America Comics #1 hit the stands, depicting on the cover the Star-Spangled Man punching Adolf Hitler square in the jaw. He came to represent everything America imagined itself to be about: truth, honour, righteousness and manifest destiny. So the character has become intertwined with that era, not only fictionally, but historically too. What better way to introduce Captain America to the wider American audience than to embrace his comic book roots as well as milk the cinematic and historical milieu from which the character sprung?
The Winter Soldier couldn’t draw on the 1940s war picture, so instead jumped into the murky pool of the conspiracy thriller
The introduction of the MCU version of Cap still represents the clear, uncorrupted idealism that the character embodied, and in the black and white morality of World War 2 he is the shining beacon of liberty his creators (both inside and outside the comics) intended him to be. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, however, finds Cap fighting a new enemy, this time from within SHIELD itself, and the morality of the world is no longer black or white or even grey. It is just an ever-present fog where good guys and bad guys all appear as indefinable shadows – it is only up close that the villains’ true identities are fully revealed. Captain America, welcome to the 21st century.
In order to play around with these ideas, Marvel knew it couldn’t rely on the gung-ho patriotism of the 1940s war picture, and instead jumped head first into the murky pool of the conspiracy thriller, another quintessential American genre. To further this aim, Marvel even hired Robert Redford, who is familiar to audiences as the star of 1970s conspiracy thrillers such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.
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The film The Winter Soldier most resembles, however, is John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller Seven Days in May, which finds Kirk Douglas as a military attaché who discovers a dark conspiracy at the heart of the Pentagon, involving his boss, General Scott (Burt Lancaster). In fact, Frankenheimer’s fingerprints are all over The Winter Soldier – the persistent paranoid dread, barbed conversations between men in power and well-choreographed and intense car chases are all hallmarks of his oeuvre.
Marvel will continue to upturn Captain America’s status quo in his third solo outing – maybe a noir/detective story setting?
It appears Marvel will continue to upturn Captain America’s status quo in his third solo outing, so what will be the next quintessential American genre that can best represent a man of fixed ideals fighting a world he never made? If Cap is going back to basics, then he would fit perfectly in a noir/detective story setting. His adventurist spirit will be at total odds with the back alley stand offs and moonlit rooftop stakeouts. Cap will need to adapt to navigate the murky fog rather than charge through it. Perhaps Black Widow could teach him a thing or two.
What Captain America demonstrates as a character in the post-9/11, post-PRISM world is that America and the MCU of the 21st century no longer resembles the clearly defined good and evil dynamic of a bygone age, where compromises were made for a noble cause and not just business-as-usual. But Cap still does represent these honourable notions, and by refusing to change to fit the new world order, he will become a mirror to reflect its true face.
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