At the risk of starting an infinite inspiration loop, I was reading Bill Mesce’s amazing list Ten Terrific War Movies You Probably Never Heard Of (itself inspired by Edgar‘s review of The Front Line and our twitter debate about that film) when I was reminded how much I loved Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and how I walked out of the theatre after seeing it, convinced that no one could do a better job of directing a comic-book film (or rather one very particular comic-book film) than her.
What especially impressed me about The Hurt Locker was the way that it distilled the second Iraq War down to the universe of four men, two bomb disposal experts and the two soldiers/snipers who protect their specialists, hampered by the fact that the most dangerous weapon that a bomb maker can use is a simple cell phone to trigger their bomb. The stakes are established immediately when we see one of the experts wearing a suit that looks like a primitive plush version of the Iron Man armor and a little bit later, after an explosion, we see a little squirt of blood inside the suit. It doesn’t matter how technologically advanced your armor is, if you are inside the kill zone, all the armor is good for is a body-shaped bag for your blood.
Many war movies give us clichéd characters and find novel situations to put them into, The Hurt Locker gives us clichéd outcomes and finds interesting characters for them to happen to. In fact, the film gives us the four possible outcomes for a soldier in war: the soldier who dies; the soldier who comes back healthy and whole; the soldier who comes back crippled – who leaves a physical piece of himself behind permanently, lost in the war; and the soldier who comes back physically healthy, but mentally damaged – who returns with a piece of the war forever inside him.
Late in the film, one of the soldiers returned from the war is shopping in a supermarket and his haunted eyes tell us all that we need to know – his body may be back in the States, but his mind is still on the battlefield in Iraq. It is no surprise at all when his body returns to Iraq so that mind and body can be reunited in the only place that feels like home.
It is this keen understanding of a soldier lost in war that would help Kathryn Bigelow really understand Captain America – at least the modern day Captain America, the Cap of the sequel.
The 1940s’ Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby was a much less complicated guy. He rather famously punched Hitler in the face on the cover of his first issue, published December 1940, a full year before Pearl Harbor. (And his teen sidekick Bucky did him one better in his Young Allies comic book, punching Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, the only comic book hero to pull off the Axis Triple Crown of slugging.)
The 1940s’ Captain America needed a director who could film a period piece action film, who could mine nostalgia and patriotism without descending into schmaltz. For that job, Joe Johnston, director of the comic book adaptation/period piece The Rocketeer, was the perfect choice.
Cap was not the first patriotic super-hero – in fact Simon and Kirby had to change Cap’s original shield design to a round shield after complaints from (what is now Archie Comics) the publisher of patriotic super-hero The Shield that the design was ripped off from their book – but Captain America was by far the most popular of the super-heroes who draped themselves in the U.S. flag, selling over a million comic books a month. Like many great popular superheroes, there was a sense of wish-fulfillment in Cap’s origin, the original picked-on wimp Steve Rogers transformed into a hero through the application of advanced technology, in this case by an immigrant (and presumably Jewish) scientist who fled to America one step ahead of the Nazis.
Cap fell on hard times after the war. Sales declined sharply, as they did for all super-heroes. Only DC’s Trinity: Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman survived the implosion. Captain America’s title was even hijacked to tell horror stories that didn’t even include him! (Captain America’s Weird Tales) There was a brief attempt in the 1950s to revive Cap as Captain America, Commie Smasher!, but the revival flopped, perhaps because Captain America was always built around an anti-bullying message and equating Cap with professional bully Senator Joseph McCarthy didn’t work.
When DC editor Julius Schwartz revived super-heroes with Flash and Justice League of America, Marvel successfully followed suit, first with Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man and eventually with their version of the JLA, The Avengers. After testing in Fall 1963 to see if there would be interest in the character returning by having C-level super-villain The Acrobat trick Johnny Storm, the Human Torch by impersonating Captain America, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Cap back for good in Avengers#4 (March 1964).
The comic book explained that in the dying days of WWII, Cap and Bucky had sacrificed themselves to stop a German super-missile headed for the Eastern seaboard. Bucky blew up with the missile while Captain America fell into the ocean, eventually ending up in the Arctic frozen into a block of ice.
(Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart would eventually explain the 1950s Captain America, Commie Smasher! using retroactive continuity or retcon to explain that an historian – a fan of the original Captain America – had found the formula for the original Super Soldier serum, used plastic surgery to make himself look like Steve Rogers and injected himself with the formula. Englehart wrote that an incomplete version of the Super Soldier Formula had unhinged the 1950s’ Captain America in an early version of roid rage, although the radical plastic surgery and decision to inject an untested formula suggested that his grip on sanity grasp on reality was weak to begin with. )
The key to the success of the return of Captain America in 1964 was Jack Kirby. Drawing his most famous creation for the first time since 1941, Kirby seems to have been inspired by his experiences fighting in World War II which left him with nightmares for the rest of his life. Where the 1940s’ Cap was brash to point of overconfidence, this post-war Cap was plagued by guilt over the death of Bucky and doubtful of his place in 1960s’ America. The only place where this Captain America feels comfortable is fighting and leading the super-soldiers of The Avengers.
When Stan Lee tried to revive Captain America in the Fifties without Jack Kirby, it failed. Captain America just didn’t fit in post-WWII America. The genius of the 1960s return is that Lee and Kirby made the reason of that failure, Cap’s inability to fit, into the subtext of his return. By hanging a lampshade on the problem, by making Cap’s 1940s roots into both his greatest strength and greatest weakness, they made Captain America compelling.
The 1960s’ Captain America was a time traveller, in the same sense that any soldier who spends time fighting a war far from home is a time traveller returning to find that all have forgotten him, like Odysseus who is only recognized by his loyal dog Argos who, “passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after twenty years.” Cap’s block of ice and Odysseus’ 20 year odyssey is just a metaphor for the experience of war veterans confused by how dramatically their home changed while they were off defending a home that seems to no longer exist.
Jack Kirby certainly recognized the importance of the time travelling metaphor to the Captain America narrative. When he returned for his third run on the character in time for the U.S. Bicentennial, this time as writer, artist and editor, Kirby sent Cap on a time travelling odyssey called Captain America: Bicentennial Battles during which Cap bounced from one era to another in the history of the United States, literally unstuck in time.
Captain America’s current writer Ed Brubaker also seems to understand this metaphor of Captain America as a time traveller. When he famously “killed” Captain America, causing headlines and spawning a legion of political flacks using Cap’s death to advance their own political narrative, Brubaker was really telling a story where Captain America becomes unstuck in time after being shot with a time bullet. Block of ice or time bullet, the method doesn’t matter as much as the idea that Captain America is a war veteran unstuck in time, a part of him still trapped in a war that he never left.
Bringing Bucky back from the dead as the Soviet assassin The Winter Soldier, Brubaker gave us a character who represented all four soldier states from The Hurt Locker: alive but presumed dead for decades; physically crippled, having lost an arm in the original explosion, but whole thanks to a cybernetic arm; mentally crippled as a result of Soviet brainwashing, only to be returned to sanity thanks to the intercession of Captain America and, even then, sane, but grappling with guilt and alienation similar to what Cap dealt with when he returned.
You can also see all four of Kathryn Bigelow’s soldier scenarios in 1960s Marvel. Cap is the soldier who came back physically healthy but mentally troubled. Nick Fury is the soldier who came back physically crippled, losing an eye to the war. Bucky was the soldier who died. And Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic from The Fantastic Four, was the soldier who made it back healthy and sane. While Richards’ status as a WWII veteran has been erased from continuity by Marvel’s need to keep its characters constantly in the now, in the original 1960s’ books, it was explained that Reed Richards served heroically behind enemy lines in Occupied France. One of the ironies of this constant juggling of timelines is that the amount of time that Captain America spends frozen keeps expanding. Originally, like Odysseus, he was separated from his home for 20 years. In the movie continuity, he was on ice for nearly 70 years, deepening both the metaphor and Cap’s alienation from the present.
It is that alienation, born in the nightmares of Jack Kirby, that the Captain America sequel will need to address. The woman who gave us the Iraq War reflected in the eyes of a veteran pushing a shopping cart through a grocery store is my pick for the one to do it.