Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Captain America" plays on the moral demands on young men in past generations

I related, in the second chapter of my 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book, how I took the draft physical three times in the 1960s, going from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A, to redeem myself after my William and Mary fiasco. I thought I might be the only person in American history who had done that.

Well, apparently it had happened in Marvel Comics, too. In the opening scenes of “Captain America: The First Avenger”, by Joe Johnston (Paramount),  A scrawny Steve Rogers trolls the US Army recruitment centers around New York City in the early 1940s, trying to find one that will pass him, despite his asthma and weak frame.  One Army doctor says “I am saving your life.”  The opening clips depict the moral obligation on every able bodied man to serve, and the backup plans for serving the country like collecting scrap metal. Not being able to serve is a source of personal shame. Rogers has been a target of bullies, and the film hints that bullies behave the way they do because they perceive “the weak” as a drag on the group and possibly something that could bring the country down. There is definitely some right-wing thinking here on this side of the Atlantic.

Rogers finally hits pay-dirt at the World’s Fair (which I thought happened in 1939; I visited the 1964 fair myself at the same spot).  He meets a scientist who seems to look at him as “special”.  He is told he should always remain a good man, no matter what he becomes as a soldier.

Now I saw this film last night in a sparse auditorium, in 3-D, in a Regal auditorium where the air conditioning had failed. I felt that was in Basic Training again myself, watching the early sequences (there was even a night infiltration – I don’t quite remember going under the barbed wire myself at Ft. Jackson in 1968 from bivouac, but I guess we did.)

In my day, there was a sequences of MOS’s for “special people” – “college grads” (those with advanced degrees in sciences). I wound up as a sheltered "01E20, Mathematician."  I would spend my last 21 months at the Pentagon and then Fort Eustis, where buddies called me “Chicken Man”.   Any of my “buddies” from the days of my own service will remember me when they see this film and the issues it raises. My service occurred during the years of controversial student deferments from the draft. 

Now Steve wonders what’s up when the MP’s escort the scientist in. Pretty soon, he learns that after Basic he will undergo “The Procedure”.

Now, we get into the effect on star Chris Evans (“Fantastic Four”).  The actor says his head was appended to a smaller actor’s body with CGI for these opening scenes. That’s innocent enough. But that gets to what “The Procedure” is all about.  For one thing, your chest has to be available. Steve is told to take off his shirt (a drag queen from the Town DC might have done made him do that.)  Two enormous plates with electrocardiographic leads are pasted to his minimally haired chest. Then, mass hypodermic injectors are applied to his upper arms.   His body is encased in an armor coffin.  He is injected with various “vitamins” and secret potions.  He emerges big and buff, Chris Evans as we usually see him, but relieved of his chest hair, every last follicle removed. Yup, he joined the club Aston Kutcher talked about for “Killers”.  The Procedure exacts its price.

Now, when I was young, I was very sensitive and modest about my body, and I saw any insult such as this a potential future source of shame. That  persistent threat of abasement would become eroticized. In the movie, however, Steve Rogers is nominally heterosexual, but maybe only enough to be rubber stamped by the norms of the day.

All of this has transpired in the first 35 minutes or so. The rest of the film (as did the very opening) deals the Nazi plot to use a secret weapon, the “Cosmic Cube” tesseract.   This roughly corresponds to real-history about how close the Nazi’s may have come to having nuclear weapons (as in the film “Copenhagen” , Michael Frayn’s play -- drama blog, Nov. 12, 2006). 

The Army decides that its universal soldier is “too valuable” to risk in combat, so it sends Steve around the world on USO tours to raise support for war bonds. But soon Steve becomes the darling of military intelligence, and winds up piloting a flying wing (that was a real plane in the 40s), to stop a catastrophic attack on the East Coast – which could have happened.  In typical comic book style, he winds up frozen in a “fortress of solitude”, to be awakened to a recorded baseball game, to step out in to the post 9//1 NYC escorted by Samuel L. Jackson.

Hugo Weaving plays the arch villain, the Red Skull, whom, I guess, is essentially an E.T.  

The official site for the film is here

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