The Superheroes

Inside the mind of Batman and other larger-than-life heroes.

Captain America: A Psychologist's Review

Why does Steve Rogers want to become a supersoldier?

Captain America
Captain America
Perhaps you, like me, enjoyed the two Christopher Nolan Batman films out thus far. One of the reasons that I liked the films was for their sense of psychological realism: I got a vivid sense of what it might be like to live in Batman's world (or have him live in mine). Moreover, Batman Begins provided a very psychologically rich and compelling version of Batman's origin story. It got to the heart of the question of why Bruce Wayne would become the Batman. The portrayal felt psychologically accurate. (As I psychologist, I feel that I can say that authoritatively.)

Although it took me a few weeks to get around to seeing Captain America (something I did this weekend), I was looking forward to seeing it. The movie addresses a part of Cap's history that-to my knowledge-hasn't been explored in comic books. Specifically, it addressed the details of his life from before he takes the serum to when he becomes the Captain America with which-or should I say "with whom"--we are familiar.

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As an origin story, then, it must make a compelling case for why the physically slight and asthmatic Steve Rogers volunteers for a radical experimental procedure (and the risk of death) in the hope of becoming a super soldier. In my opinion, the film fails in this regard. Let me explain why.

In the beginning of the film, we learn several things about Steve Rogers:

  • He's short and slight
  • He's been rejected by the U.S. Military five times on medical grounds (he was 4F)
  • He's doesn't like bullies and he believes in standing up to them
  • He wants to help the war effort

With these tidbits, the film allows us to connect the dots: Rogers is so desperate to join the military because he wants to stand up to the bullies of the Axis forces.

But here's the thing. During World War II, those who wanted to support the war effort could do so in ways other than being in the front lines. Take the father of a friend of mine as an example: He had polio at a very young age, and one of his legs never grew right, so as an adult that leg was a good six inches shorter than the other one. (Although doctors told him he'd never be able to walk, they underestimated him and he walked throughout his life.) He was rejected by the military when he tried to enlist to fight in WW II (he too, was 4F). But he signed up with the Merchant Marines, an auxiliary of the Navy in which civilians serve to help supply navy ships. This was only one possible way to serve the larger military effort. The film doesn't make clear why Rogers didn't join the Merchant Marines or help the war effort in some other way.

And there would have been other ways. The film also tells us that Rogers was a clever guy: When he's in basic training that he's the only one in years who's figured out how to get a stuck flag down from the flagpole without climbing up to it (solution: take out the pin holding the flagpole to the ground. The pole and flag then come fully down to ground level). But if Rogers is so clever, couldn't he figure out a different way to help the war effort than risk his life on a super soldier serum?

For me, then, the film didn't provide a compelling reason for Rogers to serve in this particular way. To be fair, the film tries to get away from the easy brawn > brains play. Rogers (and we the audience) are told that Rogers-rather than a more fit cadet--was picked to be a guinea pig for the serum because "weak men know the value of strength and also compassion." (This may not be the exact quote; I was scribbling my notes in a dark theatre, after all. But the quote captures the gist of the line.) Thus, we are informed, Rogers is the perfect candidate to be a super soldier because his ability to be compassionate is a function of his having been a weakling. Wow-what would Superman (or Ma and Pa Kent) say to that? Or Wonder Woman? (Perhaps the fact that she's female means she's got a leg up on compassion?)

I was also disappointment by the two-dimensionality of other aspects of the film. The bad guys wear black. (And their faces they sport some weird leather pre-cursor to a Darth Vader mask-why are all the evil minions faces hidden behind a what-must-be uncomfortable and vision-obscuring mask?) The evil overlord is a power-hungry megalomaniac whose origin story I'd love to learn about; his dialogue feels like it could date from a World War II-era film. No depth there.

Once I was over my disappointment about the lack of psychologically rich material, I tried to have fun with the film. Yet I kept having moments of déjà-vu-that I'd seen something like this before. There were bits that reminded me of Star Wars (especially the evil minions marching in formation) and of Raiders of the Lost Ark (another film in which Nazi megalomaniacs mess with occult powers they don't fully understand in an effort to be boss of the world). There didn't seem to be a lot that felt unique to the film.

On a positive note, there was one bit that I thought was great: before Cap becomes the soldier he longs to be, there is a montage that showed the commodification of Captain America. He and two dozen dancers in patriotic short dresses do a tour of the US in order to sell war bonds. The montage includes Captain America comic books (yes, they worked in that there were Captain America comic books during the war-brilliant!), which are shown being read by children as well as some soldiers. A cool interweaving of fiction and fact.

We'll see what next summer's crop of superhero films brings.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com

 

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., has taught psychology at Lesley University and Harvard University. She is the editor of the anthology The Psychology of Superheroes. more...

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