How Captain America changed our cultural views

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From Captain America to Call of Duty Black Ops’ Alex Mason, America’s fictional military heroes have evolved, and become more nuanced.

Memorial Day serves as a reminder that there are real-life heroes out there, and it also reminds us that everyone’s definition of a hero is different. That word has remarkably different meaning than it did in the 1940s, when Captain America first came to be.

In his study “Written in Red, White, and Blue: A Comparison of Comic Book Propaganda from World War II and September 11,” Cord Scott of the University of Loyola-Chicago explains how geek culture translates into public perception. To a man, characters such as Shield, Blackhawk, Superman and Captain America changed tactics just as the U.S. changed conflicts. They were strongly patriotic and active on war fronts during World War II. They became more subversive and went after secret villains during the Cold War. And post-9/11, superheroes at home tried to work toward quelling hatred domestically while fighting enemies abroad.

“The comic book has served as a way to introduce the young reader to adult topics, and yet allow them to retain some sort of separation from reality,” Scott writes. “The comics have never been as direct, or effective, as advertising propaganda, but the ideology is still there.”

Whether we notice it or not, these chinks in our heroes’ armor have an effect on our perception of the real-life heroes.”

Heroes nowadays are flawed. Even superheroes aren’t superhuman. They have problems, weaknesses and faults. As The Amazing Spider Man #121 in 1973 showed us, heroes can’t save everyone.

That issue was a watershed moment for the industry, despite Gwen Stacy becoming yet another woman in a long list of “women in refrigerators” in comic book series. Depictions of heroes became more relatable. Captain America could die (and did, for awhile). Mason, who manages to kill about 567,000 enemy soldiers by his damn self during his romp through CoD Black Ops, has a personality disorder, is brainwashed and might have assassinated someone. This derangement despite (apparent) invincibility becomes a theme of later story modes in Call of Duty as well.

Heroes nowadays are flawed. Even superheroes aren’t superhuman. They have problems, weaknesses, faults … heroes can’t save everyone.”

Whether we notice it or not, these chinks in our heroes’ armor have an effect on our perception of the real-life heroes. Soldiers are the closest we get to Superman. And if you think characters such as Captain America, with their military underpinnings, don’t affect our view of the military, you’re mistaken. Image study experts have long drawn connections between war-style films as communication vehicles pre- and post-9/11. There are considerable differences, especially in hero series.

Video games, comics, fan fiction, TV shows, you name it, all have an effect on how we perceive reality. They are even more a part of our perception when we can’t really see what’s going on, as in during military operations or within the government. The more unknown something is, the more likely an abstract depiction is to form our views of that subject.

So, as heroes are humanized, we’re made better for it. They become more approachable, and our image of the soldier, the police officer, whoever, becomes more realistic. We understand these people can screw up. They can make mistakes — bad ones. But they can also do good, and for the most part, they succeed.

This is what we mean when we talk about games and other fandoms as cultural artifacts. They matter, not just to hardcore fans, but to the public, especially in an era where every electronic item is available in the mainstream.

Portrayals of heroes will continue to shape our views of them, and as cynicism about conflict abroad and social awareness of corruption increase, it will be interesting to see how nerd culture approaches its protagonists. Will they be in the wrong more often? Will their mistakes greatly harm the greater good? Five years from now, when we think of the word hero, what will we see?

Hell, what do we see now? I doubt there’s a majority opinion, let alone an answer. Compare that to six decades ago, and you can see just how much we, and our forms of entertainment, have changed.


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