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Journal de Etica y Cine
Captain America: First Avenger or First Posthuman?
Captain America: The First Avenger | Joe Johnston | 2011
Mirko Daniel Garasic

When, twenty years ago, John Harris opted for the title “Wonderwoman and Superman” [1] for his very successful and influential book on the ethics of human enhancement, he could have hardly chosen a more visionary way of describing the current wave of adaptations of comic book superheroes’ stories to cinema -especially in regards to the resulting [mis]use of their tales as examples and reference for the sustainers of human enhancement.

With different levels of intensity, all media have a political stand. In particular, since its inception, cinema has been moulded in accordance to a political agenda with the propagandist use of films exercised in Nazi Germany representing with no doubts one of its peaks. The focus of this work will be to analyse a contemporary film set in that historical context, namely Captain America: the First Avenger [2]. In so doing, I will underline the last trend in Hollywood: supporting in a more or less evident manner radical human enhancement.

Certainly the theme of human enhancement is not new to Hollywood, with Gattaca [3] as its main successful portray (used in fact even by prominent experts in the field of human enhancement such as Julian Savulescu [4]), nor is the theme of the creation of super soldiers [5].

However, what is peculiar about the plot of Captain America, is that the functionality of the enhancement is very neatly related to its military implementation and the resulting [supposed] moral and practical benefits for humanity. This aspect, does not only make the moral evaluation of the enhancement more intrinsically utilitarian (a surely strong ideology in the Anglo-American context), but it also drastically reduces the gap between reality and fiction. Plenty has been written over the drastic changes that warfare has had in recent years [6]. Indeed, in the “real world” [7]] US Army -as well as other armies that do not share their programs so openly- is undergoing experiments and research focused on diminishing the need for sleep for soldiers, reducing fatigue and bleeding very much in line with the creation of a super soldier comparable to the protagonist of the film. For reason of space, the moral status of such technological improvements and the problems related to their practical implementation will not be discussed here, but the debate around this very interesting topic is indeed very fervent [8].

The plot of the film follows quite accurately the original story developed by the comic book that first came out in the middle of World War II with the admitted intention to function as a neat stand against Nazism inside and outside the US.

In fact, Joe Simon -the writer who gave birth to the first version of the comic hero- said that Captain America was a consciously political creation; he and his artistic partner Jack Kirby were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in WWII and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” [9]

Steve Rogers, a “less-than-ordinary” guy from New York, is turned into a super soldier by Doctor Erskine (who was called Josef Reinstein before the war and that, of course, represents the good German side within the over simplistic analysis of the war sketched in the film) with the specific intention to fight against the evil Red Skull (aka Johann Schmidt); a Nazi obsessed with esoteric relics and -mind you- power. After an initial use a propagandistic tool, Rogers gradually becomes a truly accepted -and thus followed- Captain America by taking action on the field, gaining respect among his compatriots and putting fear in his enemies. Finally, after the last epic battle with Red Skull -and fully In line with his noble character- Captain America heroically disappears somewhere in the North Pole with a plane full of bombs that would have otherwise destroyed US’ main cities.

Many are the messages brought forward by Captain America. First of all, it is important to note the technical escamotage used in the film to legitimise the character of Captain America and its moral stand, despite its often ridiculous -and so approximately military- approach to war combat. The first rescue mission for example, in which his stars and stripes shield sticks out of the screen like a light bulb would not exactly represent a chapter of a “stealth mode” guidebook. To overcome this structural limit of such a propagandistic superhero, the film adopts a pre-emptive strike on the issue by laughing at the very same Captain America within the movie itself; Rogers is portrayed (and labelled by his fellow troops) as a clown and thrown tomatoes at. However, it is precisely because of the implementation of this “public mocking” that (once Captain America becomes truly engaged in the fighting proving his extraordinary skills) the viewer can next move to perceive the main character as reliable and -most importantly- immune to all those critiques willing to question his excessive patriotism. Hence, we feel entitled to say to ourselves: “I’d be so cool if I could do that...” without sounding too silly in our head.

However, my main concern with the film is its support implicit support of posthumanism, and I shall now move to analyse how this message is strongly present even outside the film itself. More specifically, it is worth considering that in one of the trailers promoting the film, the graphic puts forward the line “heroes are made in America” (my emphasis added).

A substantial and peculiar twist in the very concept of what constitutes a hero. The usual way of intending an act to be heroic, refers specifically on the inner qualities of the individual to overcome her or his fears, physical limits, congenital egoism, etc.

This aspect of course is considered in the film and at the very core of the “selection process” undergone by Steve Rogers –who is in fact chosen precisely for its moral qualities by Doctor Erskine.

Yet, the sentence quote above seems to suggest something different even to the American Dream itself: America is not a land that will allow you to flourish and -as a result- become a hero, but rather it will make you one. Whether you like it or not seems to be not particularly relevant. A much more gloomy and imposing way of portraying the role of the State in the shaping of a “moral élite” the humanity will have to rely on.

Another quote, this time directly from the movie goes:

“General Patton has said: ‘wars are fought with weapons, but they are won by men’. We are going to win this war because we have the best men...and because they’re gonna get better, much better!”

Combining this statement with the disgusted look of the Colonel at the yet-to-be-enhanced Rogers, it seems clear that by better he was referring to physically fitter. His assessment of what are the requirements to become a “better human being” is counterbalanced by that of Doctor Erskine as he explains to Rogers why he opted for him -by far the physically weaker soldier- to inaugurate the program of super soldiers:

“This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power...but a weak man, knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.”

Thus, the message seems to promote human qualities such as empathy and wisdom as groundwork for a better human being. However, two aspects must be considered in relation to this scenario.

First, the use of “normality” as a virtue in itself in the dialectic of the film seems to suffer from some of the same weaknesses of some arguments in favour of human enhancement [10]. Second -and most important- in real warfare scenarios, the qualities mentioned above are not even considered. All technologies aim to do is increasing the physical strength of the soldier, not his or her moral stature.

Ultimately, it is for this reason that Captain America is the epitome of the perfect soldier: chosen for his moral capabilities, he is able to use his empowerment for the good of others without being tempted to exploit his supernatural (or we might say posthuman) body structure to his personal advantage.

As mentioned above, the first part of the story -the technical enhancement of a soldier- is quite realistic as drastic improvements in this direction have been made by US Army. The real superheroic dimension of the character derives from his capability to resist the all-too-human weakness to exploit an advantage. The result is obviously a tale very much in support of the human enhancement ideology. Yet, the problem stays there unquestioned: what would happen if Captain America would suddenly change his attitude towards his unenhanced fellow human beings and begin to discriminate against the unenhanced?

The voluntary omission of a convincing answer to this question would lead us to conclude that the propagandistic scope of the film industry has drastically changed: rather than demonizing to the extreme a given enemy, films are now used to facilitate the swallowing of that pill that is already a reality behind the cameras.

References

Harris, J, Wonderwoman and Superman: Ethics of Human Biotechnology (Studies in bioethics), 1992, OUP

Captain America, 2011, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

Gattaca, 1998, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/

Savulescu, J and Foddy, B., To Gattaca and beyond, The Age, April 29 2007, available at: http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/to-gattaca-and-beyond/2007/04/28/1177460039850.html%20

Universal Soldiers, 1992, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105698/

Mehlman, Lin, Abney, http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/petrie-flom/workshop/pdf/mehlman.pdf

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/super-soldiers-the-quest-for-the-ultimate-human-killing-machine-6263279.html

Wolfendale, J and Steve Clarke, ‘Paternalism, Consent, and the Use of Experimental Drugs in the Military’, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 33 (4): 337-355 (2008).

Wright, Bradford W. (2001). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Johns Hopkins.

Robert Sparrow, "A Not-So-New Eugenics: Harris and Savulescu on Human Enhancement," Hastings Center Report 41, no. 1 (2011): 32-42.



NOTAS

[1Harris, J, Wonderwoman and Superman: Ethics of Human Biotechnology (Studies in bioethics), 1992, OUP

[2Captain America, 2011, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

[4Savulescu, J and Foddy, B., To Gattaca and beyond, The Age, April 29 2007, Available at: http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/to-gattaca-and-beyond/2007/04/28/1177460039850.html%20

[5For example, Universal Soldiers, 1992, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105698/

[8See for example: Wolfendale, J and Steve Clarke, ‘Paternalism, Consent, and the Use of Experimental Drugs in the Military’, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 33 (4): 337-355 (2008).

[9Wright, Bradford W. (2001). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Johns Hopkins. p. 36.

[10Robert Sparrow, "A Not-So-New Eugenics: Harris and Savulescu on Human Enhancement," Hastings Center Report 41, no. 1 (2011): 32-42.