The Herald Bulletin

July 21, 2011

Heather Bremer: Captain America the hero to unite a nation

By Heather Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

— While the definition of a hero hasn’t changed in the dictionary in the past 70 years, the meaning of the word has certainly evolved in our hearts and minds.

In this day and age, we expect our heroes, even the super variety, to have fears, doubts or a crisis of conscience. Despite the pedestals we put them on, we demand heroes be more like us — with a convenient cache of snappy one-liners and cool, techy toys.

Thus the success of “Iron Man” and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. These are heroes that we understand and relate to — because of their myriad flaws.

Things were a bit different during the World War II era.

People weren’t looking for a hero with weaknesses. With turmoil erupting around them, they needed an unwavering symbol of truth, justice and the American way.

Comic-book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby gave it to them.

Horrified by the actions of Nazi Germany even before the United States’ entry into World War II, Simon and Kirby created Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, a consciously patriotic hero whose red-white-and-blue embodiment of American ideals never faltered.

“Captain America Comics No. 1” went on sale in December 1940, a full year before the bombing at Pearl Harbor drew the U.S. into WWII. The flag-wearing, shield-bearing hero’s debut, which pictured Cap punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw, sold a million copies.

Even then, some readers took offense to the character’s overtly jingoistic bent. But most of America embraced Cap as the ultimate symbol of the American way and a reminder of the real-life heroes fighting and dying to defend American ideals. Circulation for the comic stayed close to a million copies during the war era, reportedly surpassing figures for news magazines like Time.

After the war, Captain America fell out of favor with the public, like most other superheroes of the era. He had disappeared altogether by the mid-1950s.

The captain was revived by Stan Lee and Kirby in “The Avengers No. 4” in March 1964 and remains a cornerstone of today’s Marvel universe. Though rebirth hasn’t been easy for the patriot.

Rogers had to learn to live with a very different world when he woke up in the 1960s. New technology, new styles and a new attitude toward patriotism.

But the times haven’t changed him. He’s still the stalwart soldier defending the core values he fought for during World War II.

Even through Marvel’s 2006 hit “Civil War,” which found Rogers standing up against the government for superheroes’ freedoms, and his apparent death in March 2007.

Maybe it’s his clarity of purpose that makes today’s debut of “Captain America: The First Avenger” so refreshing.

Set in the 1940s, the film depicts Rogers as an unabashedly American super soldier who will stop at nothing to defend his homeland. Because he’s an American through and through, and destroying evil  — without the pretense of religious or political views — is what patriots do.

While some are sure to balk at its unapologetic American zeal, let’s hope most who see the film embrace the unity depicted during the days when we faced a shared common enemy as a united front instead of fighting among ourselves.

Contact Heather Bremer: 640-4867 or heather.bremer@heraldbulletin.com.