‘Captain America,’ Faith In American Institutions, and ‘The Avengers’ v. ‘The X-Men’

Captain America: The First Avenger is a totally delightful facsimile of a ’40s movie, the kind of thing where canvas truck coverings are thumped vigorously and bad guys are chucked out the back; where plucky kids tossed in the river urge the hero to focus on the villain rather than on fishing them out because they can swim just fine; where wartime romances are no less tragic just because one lover’s frozen in the Antarctic while the other succumbs to the ravages of time, rather than someone dying on Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima. The most important thing about it, though, is that it demonstrates that there’s an actual narrative plan behind what A.O. Scott memorably described as Marvel’s Ponzi scheme with the multiple movies leading up to The Avengers. Whether it’s Tony Stark’s father hanging around with Captain America’s crew, womanizing (a running joke about fondue is one of the funniest recreations of forties humor) and tinkering; the appearance of the Cosmic Cube in Norway, and then in the Red Skull’s arsenal; or continuing to see Nick Fury wrangling a set of very talented men in very idiosyncratic circumstances, I can finally see how the personality clashes and the larger narrative are going to be fun (worth it remains to be seen) when they come together in a single movie.

But what really interests me most about Captain America: The First Avenger, and Marvel’s project in The Avengers more generally is how sharp the contrast between that franchise’s faith in the annealing power of America to bind together different people and to make them individually and collectively better, and the X-Men movies’ increasing skepticism about how far America’s stated commitment to diversity actually accommodates difference. It’s not as if these divergent storylines are a shock, or anything — Captain America is a concentrated expression of American patriotism (one that’s been usefully complicated by writers like Robert Morales) where the X-Men are the Swiss Army Knife of oppression metaphors. But it’s still striking to see these stories unfold next to each other, as they are this summer.

One of the things that struck me most about Captain America: The First Avenger was the movie’s insistence on the military as a meritocracy that transforms the people who join it for the better. When Bucky and Cap reunite after the former 90-pound weakling rescues his friend from a Hydra base, Bucky, reckoning with Cap’s transformation asks, “What happened to you?” “I joined the army,” Cap tells him. In the middle of that same rescue, when a white POW comes face-to-face with an Asian-American one and asks “What, we taking everyone?” the guy gives him a spectacular side-eye, thumbs his dog tags out from under his shirt, and tells his fellow prisoner, “I’m from Fresno, ace,” after which he’s fully accepted as a member of the team, and nobody thinks to voice any anti-Japanese sentiments. The movie even portrays Captain America’s division, the 107th, as an integrated one (Derek Luke, once again underused: can we please find something wonderful for him to do? Please?), even though General Eisenhower didn’t voluntarily let black troops serve alongside white ones until the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and the military wasn’t formally desegregated until President Truman’s executive order in 1948. What really drives the Red Skull nuts is the idea that it’s not that Captain America is great, but the institutions that made him and the things he stands for. “Arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say, you do it better than anyone,” he says, demanding, “What makes you so special?” expecting an answer he can laugh at or bat away. “Nothing, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn,” Rogers tells him, provoking an attack. And when Steve Rogers wakes up in an altered America 70 years later, a governmental institution’s there for him again, Nick Fury showing some mercy and sensitivity as he tries to acclimate the latest member of his team to a drastically changed world.

The transformation isn’t necessarily as deep for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. At the World’s Fair, where he’s showing off a flying car prototype, Howard Stark may be a bit of a huckster. But when the military needs him, he’s willing to fly behind enemy lines to help rescue captured American troops. And because his father was able to do more noble things, we get the sense that his son is going to be OK. Tony Stark will maybe even surpass his old man, at least in figuring out how to deal with with the Cosmic Cube, precisely because when duty called, Howard answered: dissolution may be genetic, but so can greatness be.

When X-Men: First Class came out, I wrote that the movie is substantially about institutional failures. But it’s about more than the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency isn’t flexible enough to accommodate mutants into its ranks, or that we don’t get to see mutants get a validation of their inclusion in the American experience by serving their country. The movie is instead about how quick Americanizing institutions are to sell out people who are different. No one’s pulling out their dog tags and quieting their critics in this movie. Instead, CIA agents eagerly tell Sebastian Shaw’s allies that they can take the mutants under CIA custody if only they’ll refrain from harming humans. Preserving human purity becomes more important than protecting Americans, or victimized people from other countries who could potentially become productive citizens, when the U.S. Navy teams up with Russian ships to fire on mutants beached on Cuba’s shores.

Instead, the mutants have to withdraw, to build their own institutions, to stand up the Xavier Institute because there’s no home for them within established organizations. This is something minority groups have always had to do, and that speak to the short-term and long-term failures of our big, public organizations. Gay people didn’t found Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, or Fenway Health in Boston because they didn’t want to go to established hospitals, or receive medical or psychological treatment from established practitioners, but because of the failure of established organization to provide enough care, and enough respectful treatment for them. Turning away a patient with HIV, as hospitals sometimes did in the early days of the epidemic, doesn’t just mean that said patient doesn’t get medical treatment, it means that said patient is in a special category of the ill, and needs to be isolated. Now, both GMHC and Fenway Health serve much broader populations, and treat a broader spectrum of medical conditions, and the organizations that once behaved in a way that created the need for alternative institutions have changed the way they behave. Similarly, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program wasn’t a success because folks would rather feed their kids food cooked by black nationalists, but because if your needs go beyond the National School Lunch Act, or there aren’t food drives that reach into your neighborhood, alternative programs that will help you feed your children are a godsend. The fact that people build their own institutions is an inspiring testament to their ingenuity, the internal strength that failure and rejection can’t kill, be you Black Panther, or gay rights activist, or mutant, but it’s also a reminder that institutions are selective about who they care for, who they transform.

I understand why Marvel would want to tell a more optimistic story for its big arc. And I’d be even more excited if the lineup of heroes included a black man who was something other than an administrator, and women who were something other than said administrator’s backup. But whatever the lineup, I understand why a story about how bringing together an overconfident god, a dissolute industrialist, a disconcerted World War II veteran, an unbalanced scientist, and an expert marksman in an institution that will turn them into something greater than themselves as a winner. We love the military and intelligence agencies in our popular culture, and we love the idea that they can work not just social change, but miracles. But I’m glad we have an emotionally powerful, beautifully-wrought cautionary tale to stand alongside The Avengers stories. Not everyone gets to be considered for transformation into Captain America. And there are prejudices that run deeper than those against skinny kids from Brooklyn.