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Captain America, The All-American Drughead

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So, how do we know that Captain America is a true, blue American? Well, for starters, Cap is wrapped in the flag from head to toe. There could hardly be a clearer message: this guy represents the USA. He's strong, he's fast, he's fearless, and he is all of these things because he is...( drum roll, please )...a drughead!

Now, hold on a second. That's not the answer we were looking for. Captain America is supposed to be strong, fast, and fearless because he represents all that is virtuous about America, right?

Wrong.

According to the storyline for Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers starts off being a skinny little dweeb who can't get a break. Steve's fortunes finally take a turn for the better when he catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine. The good doctor is impressed by Steve's stick-tuitiveness as well as an indefinable quality of "goodness" that is integral to Steve's character--and that also makes Steve a perfect guinea pig for Dr. Erskine's medical experiments. Dr. Erskine has developed a potion that can transform people into super-beings. However, that's just a theory because the first person to undergo the treatment (aka, the Red Skull) transforms into a monster so vile that he makes Hitler appear tame by comparison. Nevertheless, Erskine is convinced that just as his elixir amplified the Red Skull's evil qualities, it will also exaggerate Roger's admirable traits.

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In a scene straight out of the Son of Frankenstein, Erskine escorts Rogers into an art deco iron maiden, shoots him up with dozens of over-sized vials of fluorescent super-soldier elixir and then zaps him with a zillion volts of electricity. In the midst of this sequence, when Erskine is momentarily seized with anxiety that he may have charred his poor patient to cinders, we suddenly hear Rodgers' voice rise above the electrical firestorm to demand that the treatment be carried through to completion. At that point, I half expected Erskine to burst out exultantly, "It's alive, it's alive!!"

In spite of all the fun, this is the juncture where the film's moral narrative gets seriously derailed. In 1942, when Hitler remained a clear and present threat to global security, and before we knew anything about the evils of performance enhancing drugs, it would have been easier to view Steve Rogers' transformation as a triumph of virtue. That is, with the help of Erskein, a refugee driven from Europe by Hitler's malice, the American military had cooked-up a potion designed to transform men into the kind of super-soldiers that were required to defeat the Axis of Evil. However, from a 21st century perspective, it's a bit tougher to cheer lustily for Captain America when we simultaneously cry foul at the likes of Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alex Rodriguez, Marion Jones, and others. Although the producers of Captain America seem to have lost touch with such Kindergarten morality, thanks to Nancy Reagan, every kid in America has been conditioned to say no to drugs.

Certainly, the most poignant moral message that Captain America endeavors to impart is, "Nice guys can and should finish first." A praiseworthy narrative, indeed. However, an equally resounding and vastly more troubling message that Captain America forcefully delivers is, "What you lack in natural ability, you can compensate for with performance enhancing drugs." Further, if your opponents have taken drugs to enhance their performance, then it is your responsibility to consume even more efficacious drugs in order to outcompete your foes. Precisely what it means to be human--not to mention the moral laudability associated with aspiring toward unsynthesized excellence--get dumped by the wayside. In Captain America, the virtues of drug-free humanity get flushed unceremoniously into the gutter of history. Alas.

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Americans love moral merit and Americans also love winners. In fact, Americans love each so much that they often fail to see the essential contradictions that make it impossible to achieve both simultaneously. In Captain America, we try to have our cake and eat it too. In the end, Captain America is an entertaining but exceedingly superficial film. Nor, if the moral roadmap in Captain America is any indication, is it any wonder that America tends to get bogged down in endless wars. How can Americans ever expect to win the wars if, like their hero Steve Rogers, every time they strike a blow for their principles they also strike an equally forceful blow against them?

 

 

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Prof Tim teaches sociology at CSU-Pueblo and he writes books about social change, such as... A Formula for Eradicating Racism, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/113759974X

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