Well, it’s been a heck of a summer to be a comic book fan. Sure, Green Lantern disappointed, but Marvel certainly cleaned up. Their collaboration with Fox, X-Men: First Class, was easily one of the better comic book adaptations ever produced, I personally loved Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger appears to be going down a treat all over the world. However, I actually think that Captain America and Thor get somewhat stronger when viewed in unisons as some sort of yin/yang of comic book superhero movies. It has very little to do with the continuity overlap, and more to do with the contrasting – yet complementary – portrayals of superheroes as a modern American mythology.
Part of what I always admired about Stan Lee’s Thor was the attempt to like the American superhero, who emerged in the form of Superman and Batman and Captain America, to their mythological predecessors. Superheroes are the spiritual descendents of the gods, at least in Greco-Roman terms, a pantheon of powerful individuals with unique skills and dominions and gifts, that they lord over the mere mortal beneath them. They are archetypes that represent various ideas and functions, with Superman as the best mankind could ever be, while Batman is the very embodiment of vengeance. Hell, Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, even wears the cap of Hermes, while Captain Marvel’s “SHAZAM!” uses the initials of key mythological figures…
Stan Lee gave us The Mighty Thor, a super-powered being who was literally a god, rather than merely serving as a modern-day counterpart. In one fell swoop, Lee linked the character to the Norse pantheon, and demonstrated how smoothly ancient gods could be reconciled with modern superheroes. I honestly think that Branagh managed somethng similar, with his movie containing all the trappings of a big sweeping superhero epic (the brawls, the wit, the bravedo, the love interest), but all the timeless themes of an ancient epic (the story is, after all, about two sons vying for their fathers love, and hero who learns his place through humility and empathy).
However, if Thor was about reconciling the superhero with his European predecessors, Captain America: The First Avenger favours conflict over peaceful coexistence. Here, the American superhero stands directly opposed to the power of the Norse pantheon, as held by the Red Skull, wearing a Nazi uniform. The Second World War represented the moment at which America pretty much seized control of world affairs, and the moment that it emerged as the guiding light to the world – politically, militarily, politically, and even culturally. So it’s fitting that the movie was about an American superhero essentially destroying a collection of European myths.
The Red Skull is more than just a Nazi (in fact, the film goes out of its way to repeatedly clarify that he isn’t really a Nazi), he’s an embodiment of the old ways. Like the Nazi Party, who converted a Buddhist symbol for good luck into an icon feared around the world, the Red Skull attempts to collect various mythological tokens to grant him strength. He listens to Wagner, the racist composer whose work was inspired by the gods of legend, and he’s immortalised on canvas, like generation after generation of European-bred royalty. Even his laboratory, with its gigantic cannons and television screens, recalls the mad scientists in stories by Jules Verne or other European authors.
In contrast, Captain America is something new. He’s American. He doesn’t listen to Wagner, he watches movies. He isn’t captured for the ages in oil paintings, but is sold to the public through vaudeville and film. The movie even features propaganda distributed to kids in the form of comic books, featuring a very familiar cover. If the Red Skull is the embodiment of the idea of birthright, being born to noble standing, Steve Rogers is the personification of the American dream – a poor orphan who can be pumped full of supersoldier serum and save the world. The Red Skull is derided as a freak because his scarred face has somehow diluted the pure blood running through his veins, a somebody who ends up as a nobody. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is a nobody who ends up as a somebody.
It’s telling that one of the key distinctions between modern superheroes and the gods of old was the addition of a secret identity. It implied a form of class mobility. Whereas the ancient gods were always gods (unless they were trying to trick mortals or being punished), these new superheroes walked around the street alongside us. You were as likely to pass unassuming Peter Parker in the street as see Spider-Man swing by. You wouldn’t look twice at Clark Kent, but Superman would hold your gaze. The key idea and distinction being that anybody could be super, anybody could be spectacular, anybody could be amazing. Whereas, in European myth, you were either born to power or you lived in poverty.
I think the two movies complement each other quite nicely, to be honest, and I like that they were released close together, so that it might be easier to note the contrasts in content and tone. I honestly think that both movies make a sincere appeal for the return of the sort of lighter superhero fare that Richard Donner brought to the screen in Superman, rejecting the idea that a film needs to be as solemn as The Dark Knight in order to be intelligent or well-thought-out. Both movies are undoubtedly cheesy, but I think they’re well made, and I think they’re a lot smarter than most might give them credit for.
Being entirely frank, I can’t wait to see what Joss Whedon does with The Avengers.
“Gentlemen… You’re up…”