Captain America And The Real Myths Told By Superheroes (A Discussion)

A few years ago, when the first Captain America film came out, I was visiting my friend Phil Rockstroh. Phil is “a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City,” so leftist he makes me look like Ronald Reagan, and he watched the film with me. To him, of course, Steve Rogers was the very major model of a modern jingoistic character designed to arouse fascistic and nationalistic feelings in the weak-minded.

I tried pointing out that Cap had been created by a couple of Jewish kids trying to encourage Americans to stand against the Nazi threat in Europe before America was even in the war. I tried to delineate the progressive values Captain America has shown over the decades, and how at every point in the film, the creators subverted the potential jingoism that can, indeed, be a part of such a character. I predicted that in future films we would see a very strong anti-authoritarian theme at work in not just the Captain America films but in Marvel films in general. And I’m happy to say I was right.

Recently, while discussing the Joss Whedon/Black Widow foofaraw, we revisited the topic and the discussion got interesting, so I’m sharing it here. Making an occasional contribution is my friend Ed Hall,  a writer and the co-editor of Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond.

TIM: Phil, I’ve had an article bookmarked to share with you for a while and this seems to be the perfect time to pull it out. It makes a few of the points I had made to no avail back when we first discussed this, and adds a few more based on the second Captain America film (which, more than anything, calls explicitly back to the lefty paranoia spy thrillers of the 70s a la Three Days of the Condor). It’s a good read.

Steven Attewell: Why Abraham Riesman Doesn’t Know Jack About Captain America

Since we’re continuing from a separate thread, I’ll quote your earlier comments for the benefit of anyone coming in late. You said:

Joss Whedon’s task was impossible from the get-go. The women characters, as are the men, in these comic book-spawned movies are hyper-masculine monstrosities from the get-go. These are fictive characters possessed of “super powers” — i.e, a desperate fantasy borne of an adolescent (masculine) cosmology that arrives when childish Id meets the complexity and barriers of adult life. Is it any wonder that a middle school-level episode of hurled, puerile invective came to pass? We are dealing with a comic book cosmology that is reflective of US patriarchal culture — not James Joyce’s priest-ridden Dublin here. How is it possible for a boilerplate character named The Black Widow to ever achieve a scintilla of the nuance and grandeur attendant to the messy, human revelries and quotidian epiphanies that Joyce channeled for Molly Bloom?…I find the genre itself restricted by a hyper-masculine, patriarchal toxicity reflective of life in the US. As I said, I think Whedon’s task was impossible from the get-go. But the creator of Buffy should have realized that emotional life in the US never rises passed the level of high school.

PHIL: If I remember correctly, you went to the studio with me when I did this short segment regarding the movie for Russia Today. You were less than pleased with what you saw as my lack of nuance.

TIM: Yes, I was. In our discussions beforehand, you actually acknowledged my points had some validity, such as the fact that the character was created by two Jewish kids prior to the war as an anti-fascist symbol. Then you got on the air and made the claim, again, that the character was created during the war to encourage enlistment. [Note: Only a portion of Phil’s comments made that video segment.]

Your earlier point that “the conception of superheroes finds its origins in the US hyper-authoritarian police state,” aside from neglecting to acknowledge that superhero myths predate writing, is interesting when you consider that the very first actual superhero in the modern sense, Superman, in his earliest adventures, was a champion of the working man, going after strike busters and greedy bankers and the like.

Also, Phil, if you’ll indulge me, please read this too. Devin Faraci makes some points about the current film and the general themes at work in the Marvel series that are pertinent to this discussion.

AGE OF ULTRON: Consequences, Legacies, Killer Robots

ED: It troubles me to see Joyce’s work used to club someone else’s art. James Joyce reportedly never met a person he thought even an iota less than fascinating. That fact alone speaks to a certain breadth of interests and generosity of spirit that’s depressingly absent in the remarks quoted above. Note also that some scholars point to Joyce’s love of the George Herriman comic strip Krazy Kat as an enormous influence on Ulysses. And don’t get me started on what a sly, heartbreaking work of transmutative American genius Krazy Kat was. To use Joyce’s work to demean ‘mere comic book movies’ (emphasizing, not quoting) is wayward at best and woeful at heart. Comparisons are ever invidious, quality restricts itself to no single medium, and the wellsprings of art come in all shapes. If you don’t like one, you can choose not to drink from it; pissing in one is an ill-advised way to register displeasure about the taste of its waters. And the Faraci piece is simply brilliant in its analysis. Thank you for sharing it, Tim.

PHIL: RE: “When Steve Rogers wakes up in post “New York” America and sees SHIELD preparing a giant fleet of sniper drones that’s going to be used to cull the human race based on meta-data that supposedly predicts the bad things people might do.” Then the super villain in that case would have to be Barack Obama who has drone murdered men, women, and children on three continents.

Regardless, the author makes a good point regarding Captain America being conceived as an urban denizen in the leftist saturated social and cultural milieu of the late 1930s early 1940s. But I was venturing assertion more along the lines of Carl Jung then Leon Trotsky, more Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious than Das Kapital. Although, the two schools dovetail in regard to US comic book cosmology wherein ancient gods meet capitalist state modernity, and, accordingly, because we are discussing the criteria of the unconscious we are confronted by symbolic expression and the manner it reflects the universal and cultural pathologies of its era. Apropos, the manner in which in contemporary comic book cosmology, both male and female characters evince hyper-masculine value systems.

Accordingly, Captain American is more closely drawn from the code of Hemingway (an ardent anti-fascist lefty) than from James Joyce — who immersed himself within and limned feminine characters with a depth, intensity, and nuance that was beyond Hemingway. In short, the genre reflects contemporary, hyper-capitalism — that is hyper-masculine — in nature. Apropos, the feminist types who are mindlessly attacking Joss Whedon’s because they have internalized the patriarchal pathologies of this dismal and deranged era.

ED: >>”Then the super villain in that case would have to be Barack Obama.”

Well, yes. That’d be one of the bones I have to pick with our president. The whole SHIELD-as-cocoon-for-Hydra business is congruent with my own feelings about how 20th century American choices ramify for us in the 21st century. I refer to the observation that the United States defeated Germany, but the Nazis won—because we became them. You and I differ on matters of art, Phil. On politics and in our view of recent history, we’re not so far apart.

PHIL:  Ed, due to the fact that you averred that the fascist mindset of the Nazis has been internalized in the collective psyches of the neoliberal/neocon state then what are your thoughts regarding my assertion the hyper-masculine value systems that are inherent to fascist psychology are reflected in the mode of mind of the characters, both masculine and feminine — within comic book cosmology (as well as being internalized within the feminist factions that have heaped abuse on Joss Whedon)?

TIM: Well, this progressed about as I’d have predicted. Rather than honestly engaging with the arguments presented, you instantly went to OBAMA BAD. It’s like talking to a Tea bagger, that’s their answer for everything too, even “What would you like for breakfast?” In the process, you blithely ignore that yeah, the SHIELD police state and its super-drone helicarriers and philosophy of destroying human targets they deem to be possible future threats, is indeed a fictive representation of the corruption and overreach of our government by leaders on both sides — but Captain America is the man who shuts them down.

In your mind, you see far enough that you get the explicit metaphor that SHIELD BAD, but then your mind balks at going any further into imaginal territory not already calcified by your worldview. The only point you can reflexively bring yourself to acknowledge in all that I said, or all that I showed you others saying, is the point that resonates directly with the message you repeat every day of your life.

The fact that SHIELD is corrupt and a danger to those they allegedly serve isn’t an accident, it’s the point. SHIELD has been infiltrated over the decades by those with fascistic intent, and Marvel wants us to know that’s not a good thing. The super-drone metaphor is specific and deliberate. If Obama is SHIELD, this comic book movie about a “hyper-masculine” guy in a flag suit projected that message to millions of people. And they saw an idealistic hero, guided by his own conscience rather than any external authority or jingoism, stand up to that corrupt system and make a change.

And not only do they destroy the drones and SHIELD itself, but they pull a Wikileaks and release all of the agency’s files to the internet for all to see. The ” boilerplate character named The Black Widow” makes this choice even though it will reveal the violent darkness of her own previous acts in service to the government.

You began this by deriding the latest Avengers movie because it doesn’t do precisely what Ulysses does, which is so absurdly reductive it kind of boggles me. Not all stories have the same aims, and what a barren fucking literary landscape we would have if they did.

I’m amazed that someone as enamored of Jung and Campbell and poesy and metaphor and myth as you is still so blinkered that you can’t see that not just this particular genre of stories but ANY genre of stories can present an infinity of possibilities and meanings. You recognize the power and import of symbols, but then decide that any particular symbol means THIS-AND-NOTHING-MORE.

I come to you saying, “Look at all these wonderful variables, these Xs and Ys that can be used in so many wonderful ways and reveal so many truths,” and you say “Nope, X equals 1 and Y equals 1. And thus it shall always be.”

It’s the sort of thinking a lot of “literary” folks embrace, of course. They think their tropes trump everybody else’s, and they elevate stories that do what they want stories to do, with the sort of content they like, over all other stories. But it’s still usually not as bald or simple as “Superhero stories aren’t the same as Ulysses, so FAIL.”

Me, I embrace all of it. It contains multitudes. Story and myth and metaphor. Any and every genre and medium. I dance to all musics, so long as they sing to me. And, crucially, I listen and let them try. I can have both James Joyce and Captain America. And my life is the richer for that.

PHIL: It seems you are missing the crux of my assertion regarding the hyper-yang archetypal content of the genre — which is reflective of the present era — and that is the problem. The character arcs of all the characters, both masculine and feminine, are locked into a patriarchal cosmology. To wit, Whedon had no where to go…he was placed into a double bind i.e., instill Black Widow with yet more hyper-masculine traits and tropes in order to, paradoxically, please his feminist critics or bring in a bit of yang to the situation that have would be incongruous to forms of the genre.

TIM: Your assertion — carried over from the topic of the other thread, rather than engaging with any of the specific arguments of this one — seems predicated on genre being static rather than fluid. If it was one thing when it started, thus it shall always be. Thus your inaccurate representation of what these heroes represented when created 70+ years ago is, to you, exactly what they represent now. In some ways, of course, that will be true; superhero stories, by definition, require superheroes. And a superhero is a power fantasy. But a power fantasy can be a fantasy of power over others, or it can be a fantasy of power against those who oppress. To use the pat rhetoric of some contemporary philosophies, it can punch up or it can punch down. Or it can just punch in all directions because action and conflict are fun to observe safely in fiction.

As a writer, I’m convinced that a good writer can operate in any genre and do an almost infinite number of things within that genre.

There’s a big kerfuffle in science fiction right now because the “Sad Puppies,” a contingent of conservative white guys, got annoyed that they (and their old-fashioned, guns-and-glory, military space opera stories — you know, “real science fiction”) aren’t winning awards these days (they’re being given to lesbians and colored people with stories exploring social issues and emotions and other icky stuff), and they gamed the Hugo Awards by stuffing the ballots. These guys fail to recognize not only the evolution of the genre over the years, they fail to recognize that the genre was innately more sophisticated and full of diverse viewpoints all along, it’s just that the diversity has grown more prominent as the culture in general has grown. But they argue that y is 1, and x is bad, and the genre needs to settle down and limit itself.

Your arguments about superhero stories — arguments that come from someone who has very little actual knowledge of such — are like the Sad Puppies’ arguments about science fiction. You mistake tropes for limitations rather than colors and brushes that can be used in an infinitude of ways. Right now, while you dismiss superhero stories as hyper-masculine, and scoff at the very possibility of a more feminine side being integrated into the genre, the current iteration of Thor in the comics is a woman who picked up the hammer when the blonde guy became unworthy of its power, and this comic is selling like crazy. Another of Marvel’s most popular series right now is Ms. Marvel, whose hero is a superpowered Muslim teenaged girl.

You don’t want to actually engage with the arguments and themes shared earlier in the thread, and that’s fine. But ignoring what the other guy says isn’t itself a convincing argument.

PHIL: Would you aver, Tim, that a hammer, in a metaphoric sense, is more yang than yin? I’ll go so far as to aver that it is an hyper-yang image (and has been since the time of its antecedent in Nordic mythos). Withal, my assertion i.e., that patriarchal values (sad puppy psychosis) is deeply internalized in the form. And has been since that long gone era when two teenage, Jewish boys the limned an Übermensch from outer space in blue tights and a red cape.

TIM: Sure, in a metaphoric sense. It’s also, in a real sense, a weapon and a tool that can be utilized by either gender.

In the instance of Thor, it’s very clearly a traditional sign of patriarchal power…now utilised by a woman. The power itself is being explicitly shown to be genderless.

ED: Have to go with Tim here, Phil. Genre these days is as broad as its practitioners can imagine it to be, rather than as narrow as its detractors accuse it of being.

TIM: Heh. I read that at first as “Gender these days is as broad as…” Of course, it works both ways.

PHIL: I disagree that the hammer metaphor is gender neutral…Is that even possible? In fact, I think it is emblematic of the internalization of patriarchy, and to such an extent that it is difficult, within the context of popular culture, to even find a common lexicon to express the situation.

TIM: Didn’t say that it was gender neutral. It is a symbol of traditional masculine power, wielded by a woman. It hasn’t been superficially feminized, or altered to fit her lady hand. It is the same power, seized and used by a woman. It is explicitly progress.

ED: >>”I disagree that the hammer metaphor is gender neutral…Is that even possible? In fact, I think it is emblematic of the internalization of patriarchy, and to such an extent that it is difficult, within the context of popular culture, to even find a common lexicon to express the situation.”

Hmm. Are you saying, by extension, that, when Buffy (for example) uses a hammer (and sickle) to free enslaved teens she’s acting patriarchally and not freeing the workers?

As Tim points out, symbols arrive at the station bearing lots of freight. So, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar–and a phallus.

‘Cuz symbols are promiscuous and polyvalent.

PHIL: I was discussing a situation that might be termed the Whedon Paradox. To wit, that he (self) trapped himself in a double bind i.e., bestow his women characters with hyper-masculine attributes or evoke the animus of the (apparently confused) enemies of the patriarchy.

The hammer and sickle are hyper-masculine symbols i.e., to appropriate Jungian terms…just try to find the mediating anima in the debate that raged between Lenin and Trotsky.

RE: ” It is explicitly progress.” I, respectfully, disagree, Tim. I think it reenforces the one-sided patriarchal values that have wrought perpetual war, as perpetrated by the soulless operatives of US empire, and the planet to ecocide. What difference does it make to the innocent dead whether the predator drone attack on a wedding party in the Pashtun was piloted by a woman or the CEO of a greenhouse-gas polluting, Big Energy firm is a woman?

TIM: Which bring us, obliquely, back to the actual discussion. What if the hero takes down the predator drones because he sees that they are wrong and that the alleged forces of freedom are corrupt? The superhero can serve the powers that be, or he can serve principle. My point has always been that Captain America is a symbol of what an American is supposed to be, and he is depicted as an idealistic individual not an agent of state. He is aspirational, not institutional. And certainly not a jingoistic icon used to quell dissent and inspire enlistment as you would define him.



>>” I think it reenforces the one-sided patriarchal values that have wrought perpetual war, as perpetrated by the soulless operatives of US empire, and the planet to ecocide….”

Interestingly, the Marvel films in question explicitly explore these themes and the repercussions of the abuse of such power, as the material at the beginning of this thread explored. It is possible to use power fantasy as a direct commentary on the uses of power rather than as just a simpleminded celebration of power.

PHIL: In my opinion, the cognitive dissonance between us in this discussion stems from a (missed) distinction between ideals as expressed by a symbol (in particular, the ideals of Captain America) and the impersonal nature of archetypal metaphors i.e., the hyper-yang aspects of the comic form e.g., the exaggerated masculine as represented by the limning of Captain America’s physique. Withal, whether it comes to a woman welding Thor’s hammer or Captain America waging war, we are dealing with the values of an ossified patriarchal order. You are retailing in cultural symbols while I am retailing in impersonal metaphors, thus we talking passed one another.

TIM: Maybe. Maybe you’re talking about A and I’m talking about B (though I sort of feel I’m talking about A+B)…but I was asking you to engage on B. Maybe, if you’re unwilling to engage on B, that’s my mistake.

PHIL: I don’t see why we cannot do both, Tim. Can you humor me regarding my assertion that comic book heroes are more likely to come from the patriarchal tradition e.g., Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Thor than to evokes the mythic resonances of Isis, Demeter, and Persephone?

TIM: More likely, sure. That doesn’t mean that comic book heroes can’t be drawn from the feminine traditions. Indeed, Thor is a comic book hero, but so is Isis. Alan Moore’s Promethea explores some very interesting feminine mythic terrain, and while it is naturally a unique (and esoteric) work in the medium, it does show that such terrain can be explored using these tropes. Any limitations belong not to the genre, but to the skill and ambitions of the creators. And as I keep intimating, I’m more inclined to embrace creative possibilities than I am to restrict them.

There are elements of your arguments that make sense, superficially at least, or from an academic remove that doesn’t actually engage with the works themselves, preferring rather to summarize them within neat preconceptions. So you can look at Captain America and state, as you did that day being interviewed, that he is a symbol of jingoism and imperialism and American hegemony. From a superficial viewpoint, that can seem a reasonable point. And I can argue that he is, demonstrably in the actual stories told of him since before WWII, very much not that. And you can nod and acknowledge that, in the particulars, maybe that’s true…then you brush the particulars away and point out that Steve Rogers has big muscles, therefore he is a symbol of patriarchy and warfare and cannot be otherwise.

Can you see how that’s frustrating? It’s exactly what happened that day. You actually acknowledged I had a point, then went in and stated the opposite opinion as fact when I’d shown you otherwise. And that wasn’t even a subjective matter, that was about the very well-documented origins of the hero and intentions of his creators.

As for the masculine nature of a hammer…I think Ed was right in citing Freud. Sometimes a hammer is just a hammer. A heavy object you hit stuff with. A tool, or a weapon. In symbolic terms, most weapons are usually considered phallic, but would a matriarchy create a sword differently? And don’t tell me they wouldn’t create swords, humans are humans whatever their gender, and there are many instances of female warriors in history just as vicious and prone to use thrusty and bashy weapons as the menfolk. Warfare is mostly a tool of the patriarchy historically because power was in the hands of the patriarchy.

Or do you posit that women would use more feminine weapons of some sort? Nets maybe? Golden lassoes? Even Wonder Woman, with the latter, is very prone to wielding a sword…and interestingly, that makes her very different from her counterparts Batman and Superman in DC’s big trinity. She is the only one who acts as a true warrior in the traditional sense, and who will kill with little hesitation, while her two “hyper-masculine” compatriots go to enormous effort to avoid taking lives. Of course, Batman and Superman are muscled males, so the fact that they don’t kill is immaterial and they represent patriarchy and warfare. Right?

I’m not blind to the hammer-as-penis metaphor, and neither are writers like Joss Whedon. Not only does he explicitly call upon the metaphor in the hammer scene at the party, he has the Black Widow demur from the contest the guys are having to see who can “get it up.” And in the Dr. Horrible musical, Captain Hammer (who is very much a well-muscled agent of patriarchy and misogyny and idiocy) expressly states “The hammer is my penis.” But as Ed says, symbols are “promiscuous and polyvalent.” The hammer is not only a penis, nor is it literally a penis, and trying to force a simplistic meaning on all possible uses of hammers in reality and in metaphor is reductive in a way that frankly does not embrace the possibilities of art, reality, or even of metaphor.

PHIL: The feminine element would include spells e.g., Circe. (Woman murderers are more inclined to poison and kill those close to them.) Men are more inclined to kill due to abstract principles, but there are exception e.g., Hillary Clinton — who seems to suffer from a a terrible father complex. Regardless, pre-sexual Artemis had a bow and arrow. And androgynous Athena had her shield and sword. And, yes, there were Amazon warriors. And brave and fierce women who fought the Nazis in the ranks of the Red Army in WW2, but they are firmly in the patriarchal mode. Also, you make an excellent pointe regarding Alan Moore who is a gifted outlier in human form in the genre — and I believe he would tell you so himself. The situation we are talking about is paradigmatic. In my opinion, we’re in the midst of an eon shift. The patriarchal gods have grown grotesque, and the comic book genre, for better and worse, is limning its gotterdammerung.

TIM: Spells? Perhaps wielded by a witch of scarlet hue? Spells which act not just offensively via force blast-type effects, but defensively as a shield or a psychic brake for a runaway train? Spells which attack the minds of her enemies and make them face the potential consequences of their acts in nightmarish visions? Funny you should mention that because we saw it in Age of Ultron, and we’ve seen precisely that in Avengers comics since the sixties.

And the Black Widow, while a world class martial artist, also distinguishes herself by being a master of subterfuge and manipulation. In the first Avengers, we’re introduced to her tied to a chair being interrogated by Russian spies, but it turns out that she’s completely in control and interrogating them without them realizing. She’s so clever she later tricks Loki himself.

And those are just two examples, in the latest Marvel blockbuster. Such archetypes are very much active in these genres, and have been for decades.

PHIL: Good point regarding spells…


And then, as internet discussions do, the debate suddenly ended. But it can continue. Feel free to add any thoughts of your own in the comments.

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