These are the concluding paragraphs of Noah Gittell’s excellent review of Captain America: Winter Soldier:
Turns out that the Nazis Steve Rogers was fighting in the first Captain America are part of a decades-long secret plot to control the world through fear; now they exist as a secret cell within the U.S. government. It’s an impressive narrative feat that folds Rogers’s old world into this new one, but it overly simplifies and ultimately obscures the real problems that the film aims to discuss. Bringing Nazis into the mix makes the film a lot more satisfying – but a lot less honest.
In fact, the forced introduction of an antiquated villain – as opposed to the topical villain of, say, Iron Man – suggests that the superhero may be losing its value as an archetype. An archetype is a way of expressing some set of cultural values, and it was reasonable to assume that the superhero movies of the 21st century were a way to express and ultimately process our post-9/11 anxieties. But the questions raised by these films must be answered in subsequent works of pop culture, otherwise they are only re-stating the problem. Winter Soldier gets us no closer to the truth.
Because it reaches into our past for a simplistic representation of evil, the film suggests that our ongoing journey towards forging a new, post-9/11 identity may be stuck in neutral, or, worse yet, going in reverse. And all of a sudden the idea of a new Marvel movie in 2028 is a frightening proposition. Will we still be figuring out how best to fight terror well into the next decade? Will the true nature of our enemy remain murky? Perhaps we need a new archetype to challenge us, instead of reinforcing the status quo. If nothing else, a $94 million opening weekend is in fact the best evidence that Winter Soldier offers no challenge to our collective values. And given the current dysfunction that is rippling through our culture – including but not limited to the federal government – that’s a serious cause for concern.
What Gittell does that I like so much is both a) to take a different view on the question of whether this new Captain America is speaking truth to power by commenting on our contemporary surveillance state and 2) tackling the question of the superhero archetype.
My own writing on heroism focuses on classical archetypes — the battlefield hero; the suffering hero; the other-regarding hero — and so I’m drawn to this second aspect of Gittell’s review. In particular, I wonder whether the superhero ever worked as an archetype at all.
As I argue in my book, one of the principal reasons the classical heroes are so interesting is that, despite their obvious excellence, they’re human like us. Throughout the Homeric epics, the poet contrasts the lives of men with the immortality of the gods in order to suggest the problem and promise of human mortality. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be for the men who fight at Troy and, because the stakes are so high, each decision they make is incredibly important.
In the Iliad, even the best warrior — one who is so like the gods on the battlefield that he can even fight with them and achieve some measure of success — is a dead man walking. We all know that Achilles is going to die at Troy … and so does he. And so, throughout my book, I argue that recognizing the limits of our existence allows us to open up a space for heroic behavior:
The most striking classical example, of course, is Homer’s Achilles, as his understanding of the limits of his existence leads to the question of the kind of life he will choose to live. In the end, Achilles chooses the fame of heroic deeds despite the recognition that doing so will lead to his untimely death.
And therein lies the problem with the superhero as heroic archetype: We all know that he’s basically indestructable. He might get beaten or smashed into a dozen buildings or launched into outer space or shot or stabbed or poisoned … but he’s going to get back up and he’s going to win. And, most of the time, he seems to know it too. In this way, there aren’t any real stakes or choices for the superhero when it comes to doing or not doing his heroic deeds.
Can Steve Rogers be killed? I don’t know. I’m sure someone will comment and explain that he’s just stronger and faster but not actually invincible. I don’t read the comic books so my only experience with him is in three recent films where, by all accounts, the answer is clearly that he cannot die, at least by any of the means available to his enemies. What’s more, he behaves as though he can’t be killed and, as a result, he never for a moment seems to entertain questions about his life, what all the fighting is about, whether he might be better off if he settled down in some out-of-the-way place and gave up the superhero lifestyle, and the like. He’s a superhero and his job is fighting off one threat after another until the audience stops giving the producers of these films billions of dollars. Like all superheroes, his motivation is justice or doing the right thing … but there’s very depth to it, at least by comparison with the Achilles of Book IX:
Give in to Agamemnon? I think not / neither to him nor to the rest. I had / small thanks for fighting, fighting without truce / against hard enemies here. The portion’s equal / whether a man hangs back or fights his best; / the same respect, or lack of it, is given / brave man and coward. One who’s active dies / like the do-nothing. What least thing have I / to show for it, for harsh days undergone / and my life gambled, all these years of war?
Now I think / no riches can compare with being alive, / not even those they say this well-built Ilion / stored up in peace before the Achaians came. / Neither could all the Archer’s shrine contains / at rocky Pytho, in the crypt of stone. / A man may come by cattle and sheep in raids; / tripods he buys, and tawny-headed horses; / but his life’s breath cannot be hunted back / or be recaptured once it pass his lips (385-498).
That Achilles eventually enters the war again, knowing the full measure of what it will cost him, is heartwrenching. And Homer spares the reader none of it in those scenes that begin with the death of Patroclus and culminate in Achilles’ rearming for war. The depth of emotion that Homer wrings from the character as he sits by the ships can’t be matched by any superhero because, as much as they have in common, the classical battlefield hero and the contemporary superhero diverge in the most decisive respect: their humanity.
With nothing to lose, Captain America and his fellow superheroes are the most hollow sort of heroic archetype, if they can actually be considered an archetype at all.