What Captain America (2011 film) got wrong

Captain America has been my favorite superhero for a long time. I had a brief dalliance with The Flash, and every kid likes Batman. But I always kept coming back to Cap. I still remember re-reading Captain America #370 over and over again as a kid sitting in the chair at the local barber shop. The Mark Waid issues (v.1 #444-454, v.3 #1-23) are likely the best ever written. Marvel has made some serious missteps in the past 10 years, imho, but at least we finally got a great Captain America movie. And leave it to Joe Johnson, director of the also fantastic Rocketeer, to get it right! But there was one niggling problem. Here’s the email I sent my Dad.

I’m guessing part of what you didn’t like (that you mentioned toward the end, direction it went, etc.) was that Bucky died, falling off the train. I just wanted to let you know I agree with you, and here’s why.

In the original comics (WWII era), Captain America had a kid sidekick, as so many superheros did. Robin, Superboy, etc. The Green Arrow had a kid sidekick called Speedy. Kids running around in costume and violent encounters were all over the place! Bucky was a pre-teen kid that hung out around the Army post and kind of their “mascot”, that discovered Steve Rogers changing uniforms one day, so they did the whole “Well now that you know my secret, the only option is to drag you with me into harm’s way, young fellow!” Kind of ridiculous when you look back on it, and I imagine it was kind of silly when they decided to “thaw out” Captain America again in 1964.

In the WWII era, Cap never had a resolution story. It was just kind of cancelled after languishing sales (and even became a suspense/horror comic with I believe some cowboy stories that didn’t feature Cap at all). So when they brought Cap back, they had to “retcon” his story to explain what happened. Retcon is “retroactive continuity”, where they go back and say “what REALLY happened was THIS”. So the story was that Cap and Bucky were trying to stop a super missile or nuke from launching from Germany to New York, they actually hop onto the rocket, and detonate it in the air over the polar ice caps. Cap gets cryogenically fozen, and Bucky is apparently killed. This way there is no silly teen sidekick, and Cap has his critical flaw (grief) that made Marvel characters so much more human and real than DC/Superman who were perfect in every way.

The writing and art was simpler then, and not as nuanced as today. To make a character identifiable and human, the flaw/weakness was often overstated.

The downside of this, was that for 40 years Cap was occasionally written as a moody, self-pitying character by writers that were a little ham-fisted. “Woe is me, I got the young lad killed. It’s been forever ago now and I still haven’t learned to move on and instead will torture the reading audience with my diatribe.”

What should have been a poignant human touch became farcical.

About 2001, Marvel starts re-booting all their comics without 40 (or in Cap’s case, 60) years of backstory. It’s a fresh start, and good way to get new readers. They call it Ultimate Marvel, and it’s way better than it should be. In the Ultimate Marvel universe, they simply focus on Cap being the “man out of time”, write him smarter… And Bucky lived. Best thing they ever did! Cap meets Bucky who’s now an old man, married, and had a good life, kids etc. Now the writers can focus on Steve Rogers’ character, rather than him being all depressed.

The problem is the movie didn’t do either of these. It kind of came off as them just killing Bucky for no good reason. You have one scene of Steve all depressed and trying to get drunk, and then he’s all honky-dorey afterward. There’s no “and this is for Bucky!” big dramatic scene. There’s no catharsis or grand gesture to show how Bucky’s sacrifice was ultimately worth it. Cap downs the plane to save a city (or more), but Bucky just dies for no reason- and you can’t do that in a mythic tale because it cheapens the heroism. He becomes just a cast-off character, when he was clearly built up to be more than that. That’s the critical flaw in the movie.

I just thought of something, and I’m going to take this one step further although this may be a leap (I hope this whole email hasn’t bored you to tears already so I’ll try to be brief). Right now we’re coming up on 10 years since the 9/11 attacks. We’ve been involved in military engagements for a looooong time as a nation, and I fear with political correctness cutting our own throats and constant media coverage we’re not going to be finished any time soon. Our family has been blessed to be have been relatively unaffected by this, but there are lots of families who’ve lost loved ones, or had them come back mangled, disabled, etc. While Captain America may have been a fantasy product, it was also an escape from those who use words like “jingoists” to describe patriots. It was a great two hours of clearly defined good vs. evil, and it was perfectly ok to cheer for America without some liberal griping about “equality”. I can’t help but feel somehow that having Bucky die like he did, somehow a great opportunity was missed to thank all the “regular” troops who have given so much to protect our nation and all those in it. They’re not super soldiers, or a product of some great experiment. They’re regular guys who are truly heroic because of the danger they expose themselves to for the sake of others. They’re Bucky.

I don’t think anyone involved in the movie really considered that, intended to dismiss the contributions or the regular troop, etc. I think they just killed Bucky because he died in the comic. I get that, and I can forgive/overlook it. But the fact remains that it was a misstep in the storytelling, and possibly the only thing that prevents me giving Captain America an A+ as a film. I’ll still buy it when it comes out on DVD. I love Cap, and this was the best he’s ever been on film. I’ll just always wish they’d remembered the heroism of the “average” American serviceman as well.

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