With the release of the recent “Captain America: First Avenger” movie, I compelled myself to consider the impact that superheroes have on the American male. Since the vast array of superheroes make it impossible to examine the entire genre in one blog post, I will preemptively label this the first in a series on the subject.Back to Captain America. Full disclosure – I have not seen the most recent movie yet. However, there are a few common traits to the character that I will attempt to examine below. Mind you, this is by no means a complete documentation of the many versions of the character, but a distillation of some of the most important and ubiquitous traits that set the Captain apart from other superheroes.
Captain America’s powers derive from his human perfection. Simply put, all of his physical characteristics are consistently described as the peak of human abilities. He is the strongest, fastest, most endurable body that can still be considered human. In the same universe where demigods, aliens, and the Hulk stroll through New York City on a frequent basis, that last distinction is important.
While Captain America’s strength pales in comparison to Thor, Spider-Man, or any “superhuman”, he remains essentially human. This allows other humans, both in the Marvel universe and our own, to relate to him in a way that isn’t possible with the X-Men or the Fantastic Four. Captain America stands tall as the epitome of what our bodies are capable of, not to mention a convenient study of “America as the strongest possible.”
Yet, he is still a man, in the mortal and gendered sense. Captain America remains vulnerable to the many, many things that befall humans: fire, disease, self-doubt, social stigma, and bullets. But, beyond the strength and frailty of the human conditions, he remains a man. The super soldier serum that gave Steve Rogers his fantastic body apparently did nothing for his emotional, mental, or spiritual capabilities.
Fortunately, Captain America has few, if any flaws in those departments. His stories lack the emotional drama, social stigma, and tragic pasts that plague many other superheroes, yet make them appear to have a depth of character. While Cap’s writers have, over the years, attempted to remedy this with a number of story twists and shocking revelations, the character remains largely untarnished in the public mind.
Captain America’s morals and honor comprise a large part of his character. In this regard, Cap shares many qualities with Superman, in that they are both referred to as “boy scouts” when it comes to their forthright and honorable conduct. In a world and genre when heroes can break the rules and get away with it, Captain America always acts with integrity and an eye towards “truth, justice, and the American way”, though the last value remains ambiguous and up to the reader. This attitude and self enforced moral code earns him the idolization of Americans and provides a model for other heroes to follow. In both physical prowess and character, Captain America frequently ranks as a baseline for others to judge themselves again.
This reflected, idealized American man has an effect on real world boys and men as well. By emphasizing the physical over the mental or emotional aspects of a character, Captain America defines masculinity as something you do, rather than something you feel. Given the patriotic background and motivations of the character, this masculinity can be further defined in terms of country. The best kind of man is one who enables self-sacrifice on behalf of his country; the stronger you are, the more you can do. With Captain America’s perfect strength, you can do anything your country needs in order to affirm your masculinity to the nation and to the world.
With all that in mind, can Captain America be considered a good role model for boys and men? While the character may seem bland compared to other superheroes, his commitment to his own personal moral code remains a vital part of what makes Captain America who he is in the eyes of the public. Though he may not be truly believable, the ideal of Captain America as a man who believes in himself enough to follow an immutable set of ideals rather than society’s whims offers a compelling character to follow – even if there is only one aspect of the character worthy of such notice.