Captain America: The Winter Soldier: grimdark is lazy, good is hard work and Jewish American superheroes
First I know nothing about Marvel comics: all my context I got from the films Thor (delightful) and Avengers Assemble (remember very little except it had good jokes and the final action scene was too long), and reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier last night because of this which I saw a few people reblog:
(okay and also all the gifsets of Sebastian Stan crying. I WAS MIS-SOLD ON THIS FOR THE RECORD, THERE IS LITTLE TO NO CRYING AND ALSO HIS HAIR IS AWFUL.)
If Kavalier and Clay taught me anything it’s
threesomes are the best solutions to love trianglesJewish-American cartoonists in the 1930s and early ’40s were all over inventing subversively American heroes to fight Hitler, and I was very unsurprised when I got home and looked it up to learn that Captain America was created by two Jewish guys too. (I know this is really basic comics history stuff and I’m sure fifty people have written dissertations on “He’s A Mensch: The Jewish Identities of Captain America and Superman” or whatever.) What really slotted everything into place was realising that Captain America was created and entered on a cover punching Hitler in the face before America had entered the war.
Basically (right?) Captain America was created by two Jewish-Americans to shame the US into properly fighting Hitler.
Like, I am Captain America, the America you say you want to be, and I challenge you to put your money where your mouth is and actually do something about it. And yes he’s over-the-top and tacky but that’s where the challenge is, right? The chest-thumping American patriotism says “We are good and spread liberty! And also freedom!” and Captain America is like “great! I am that, and I have to point out you are not actually doing that”.
AND I think this is Jewishly on purpose, and here’s why:
Judaism has this important phrase/concept/slogan/life motto from the third-century-ish text Pirkei Avot, which goes: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor (it’s not to you to complete the work of repairing the world) v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena (but neither may you desist from it). You won’t be able to fix the world by yourself, or in your lifetime, but that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility to work towards it.
I feel like grimdark/anti-heroes are a response to the fact that the world is neither good nor moral, like “well if the world isn’t like that, I won’t be either”. But they’re also excuses for not working towards fixing the world: I won’t bother because it’s all fucked anyway. Lo alecha and Captain America say, yes, it is fucked, but you still have to work towards fixing it. And yes, it’s hard, that’s why it’s called work.
Which is why I think saying “Oh, if Captain America represents the US he should be a dick, because the US is a dick” or “Captain America is an imperialist symbol of US superiority and is therefore bad” are both off base and a dodge of having to do that hard work.
"If Cap = America then Cap = dick because America = dick" is basically just throwing hands up and going "right but guys have you noticed that actually America is imperialist and horrible? DO YOU SEE?!” and implying “so what can you do about that, right?”. Captain America says, “Try to make it better! is what you can do!”
And about saying he’s a symbol of US imperial superiority, I mean, he is a symbol of America but aimed as a criticism at real America. He’s the American ideal cranked up to five million - for the purpose of shaming America for not living up to what it says it wants to be. And he is aimed at Americans, so I can see a criticism for him being US-centric in that metanarrative sense, but he’s yelling at America to sort their shit out and I think him yelling at non-USAmericans to sort their shit out would be much worse? But I definitely don’t think Cap is supposed to be about how great America is, he’s about pointing out exactly in what ways and how much America is failing to be great. And then saying “but, that doesn’t mean you get out of trying harder!”
Also, how great is it that his ‘weapon’ is a shield.
so um that’s what I thought about when I saw The Winter Solder last night. that and biceps.
This is amazing on so many levels and also makes me want to have a special fandom-centric Shvi’i shel Pesach/seventh night of Passover virtual seder table on Tumblr to talk about the intersections of Judaism and popular culture with food and media crit and discussions of the diaspora. ALSO everyone should read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS
The idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world, feeds directly into this idea. There’s the kabbalistic interpretation that “in order to make room for the world to be created, God needed to contract. That contraction is called tzimtzum. Kabbalists consider tzimtzum to be a great act of love. Think about the times in your life you’ve “held back” to make room for someone else to grow. God then created special vessels to contain the Divine light God would use to create the world. But God’s light was so vast, many of the vessels shattered, scattering shards all over creation. Our purpose, therefore, is to help gather the lost light. That is the entire purpose of the mitzvot, commandments. Whenever we perform a mitzvah, we separate what is holy from what is profane and release the light within. Every day we have an opportunity to collect shards and release their light.”x
Now, this whole business got me thinking more about Pirkei Avot, and there are a few other lines that jumped out at me in specific context of CAtWS:
Chapter 2, verse 4: "Do not separate yourself from the community."
So this one is an obvious parallel to Steve Rogers and his story - Captain America does not fly solo. He has his team, his Howling Commandos - and only when he is separated from his community, when he emerges alone, does he lose his place. In Avengers and CAtWS we see him slowly building a new community. A new team. Natasha. Nick. Sam. (Agent 13 and Maria Hill too, but they’re still more peripheral at this point). Its only with these people surrounding him that he can walk evenly on shaky ground.
Steve doesn’t work by himself. He certainly doesn’t do well alone, mentally. His life is empty without people. He cannot see his purpose. ‘Do not distance yourself from the community’ because the further you move away from people, the further you move away from yourself. This is the point with most superheroes - even Batman, who perpetuates this solo dark brooding persona has a Batfamily. No one works alone. Superheroes need people - to ground them, to give them purpose, faith, hope - to remind them how to be a person. And what kind of person they should be.
Chapter 3, verse 1: "Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting."
The idea here being quite obviously that Steve is the literal extension of this - “know from where you came, where you are going.” Steve is lost. Everything he knew is gone and different, but, where does he go next? He stays with SHIELD because of Peggy and Howard, and he believed in them - but where does that leave him? As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw discusses in her brilliant essay series on CAtWS, “Cap’s overall mood throughout the film is that of a lonely, unhappy person who doesn’t really have any reason to carry on living.” So, where should he go? What should he do?
Steve doesn’t know before whom he’s supposed to give the judgement and accounting. Between the secrets within SHIELD, the questions that plague Steve himself, and relinquishing his fate to Bucky - all of this allows him to find his next step. Sometimes it is only though burning everything down that you can see things clearly and the path is visible.
It is not our job to repair the world, and in fact one person can’t. But we are not allowed to give up on it, not allowed to give up. There is light all around us, we just have to work to bring it forth. We do so through our communities, which allows us to find our paths. These are the lessons we learn from our heroes, from their stories.
There’s a reason there are a lot of similarities between Captain America and Superman. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that Joe Simon/Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created them.