Comic-book hero Captain America makes his film debut this July. His big-screen appearance—and that of other superheroes—reveals the US’s new uneaseby Nick Harkaway / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
The best defence: Captain America—played by Chris Evans in the new film—has been an icon for US soldiers since he first appeared in 1941
This year will be a festival of hero movies, and I’ll be watching every single one. And so should you, even if they’re not usually your kind of thing. Why? Because they’re more than primary-coloured stories for kids (though no doubt that is what the studio bosses are hoping to turn out). These movies are a struggle to understand what it means to be a hero—or just a good guy.
July will see the release of Captain America: The First Avenger, featuring the comic-book hero created 70 years ago. Marvel’s literal standard-bearer will join a slew of superhero characters who have made the journey to the cinema in recent years: Tony Stark, the unruly bad-boy millionaire played by Robert Downey Jnr with a truckload of quirk in Iron Man; Bruce Banner, whose rage turns him into the musclebound, indestructible Hulk; and the awkward, geeky Peter Parker, transformed by the bite of a radioactive spider into—of course—Spiderman. Also out in 2011 is the latest film featuring the X-Men, whose mutant powers arrive at puberty (X- Men: First Class, June), and the big-screen debut of Marvel’s character Thor in May.
We don’t have superheroes in Britain the way they do in the US. John Constantine, the brutal magus anti-hero of DC Comics’ Hellblazer, once observed that Britain is a country where no one would have the nerve to wear a cape in public, even if they did have powers far beyond those of mortal men. We love US imports, but they don’t have the same resonance here as they do in their home country.
That is because America is a narrative nation. Spoken into existence by the founders and sustained by an act of continuous creation ever since, the US represents a collective decision which must be re-envisioned and reinterpreted by each successive generation, and for each part of its extraordinary pat…