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Captain America? &%#$ No! Thoughts on the Naming Controversy…

Last year, I remarked that – although it was perhaps the least likely of Marvel’s movies to be awesome – Captain America: The First Avenger was going to be the most interesting movie on their slate to follow, at least when it comes to international markets. Predictably enough, Marvel have decided that not everyone on the planet is going to be cool with a movie about a literal American super-patriot. They will be dropping the title “Captain America” completely, simply selling it as “The First Avenger” in Russia, the Ukraine and South Korea. I, for one, am quite disappointed.

Walk tall... and carry a star-spangled shield...

I know it’s pragmatic and inevitable, but it just strikes me as fundamentally wrong. The principle of renaming a movie because of some particular stereotype or perception just upsets me. Can you imagine, for example, if the studios decided that (based on Supergirl, Catwoman and Elektra) female superheroes didn’t have mass market appeal and so dropped the “Woman” from the title of an upcoming “Wonder Woman” movie? Any number of commentators would be up in arms over it – rightly decrying it as pandering to a sexist base. So how come it’s okay when it’s a country rather than a gender?

After all, isn’t anyone who opts not to see a film based on the nationality of the lead character engaging in some form of racism? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to dread the release of Captain America – it’s the one millionth superhero film released this year, for example; or the character doesn’t appeal to you (in the same way that Superman doesn’t appeal to everyone); Joe Johnston doesn’t have the most consistent track record; or perhaps it’s just not your type of film. However, surely a foreign audience opting not to see a movie simply because it contains the word “America” in the title is just as prejudiced as American audiences staying away from foreign films simply because they’re foreign?

Yep, they'll never figure out his nationality...

In fairness, I suppose, marketing panders to those prejudices as well. It’s common to see a trailer for a foreign language film which explicitly won’t contain any dialogue – so as to avoid clueing the audience into the fact it’s foreign. Perhaps this is the inverse. However, I had a problem with that approach, and I very much have a problem with this. Maybe I’m just not pragmatic enough to be a big shot Hollywood producer, but pandering just gets my goat.

However, it’s more than that. Not only is it lying to the audience, it’s next exactly an efficient or effective lie. The guy’s shield (modelled on the US flag) is visible in all the promotional art. His uniform is red, white and blue. It isn’t as if you are going to be able to conceal his nationality. He’s America. He’s a superhero. He’s a superhero American. Get used to it – there’s no way to play that down. Anyone possibly interested in the film will recognise the iconography before they even set foot inside the cinema.

By "the US", I mean "us"... as in "everybody"... definitely not a particular nation state...

Captain America is a political superhero – it’s as simple as that, and he can’t be divorced from it. If Marvel didn’t want to get themselves involved in a vaguely political debate – which, despite how they are trying to phrase it, this is – then they shouldn’t have made the movie. In fairness, fighting in the Second World War and punching Hitler in the jaw is perhaps the most inoffensively political you can get – in that it’s the one thing most of the world can agree on. While Captain America is (by his very name) a hyper-patriotic character, it isn’t as if the studio is going to have him running around in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In short, he’s as patriotic to Americans as James Bond is to the British. The films wouldn’t dare show him doing anything controversial, but his very existence is hyper-charged with nationalist themes and undertones. Bond gets away with that sort of flag-waving British behaviour because Britain isn’t a world power to the same degree as America. So having Bond diffuse World War III in Tomorrow Never Dies appears like a the quaint death throes of British nationalism rather than some subtle geo-political agenda.

Nix on cleaning that up...

Nor should it mean that Captain America is considered synonymous with the American government. “I’m loyal to nothing, general–except the Dream,” he would tell a military officer in Frank Miller’s superb Born Again. During Jack Kirby’s run in the seventies, Steve was so disgusted by Watergate (or “the Secret Empire” – a stand-in for Watergate) that he gave up his title and lost his faith in the system. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates has a disillusioned Steve Rogers leave the US-run superteam when he grows tired of enforcing politicised foreign policy abroad. These are bold moral statements about the character. Indeed, they illustrate that he isn’t a patsy or metaphor for American colonialism – instead that he represents the resilience of the American people themselves.

Ironically, the fact that the studio will stay away anything as gutsy as those examples will only underline the problems. By failing to distinguish Captain America from the political landmines that they fear he will be associated with (most notably foreign policy concerns), the producers are implicitly equating them. Saying nothing about whether Steve Rogers represents the nation or its government allows the audience to read into it – there’s no way to render a film like this apolitical. Indeed, I imagine a great many people (possibly myself included) will read political subtext into the film which doesn’t exist. If I was truly concerned about it, I would handle it head-on, rather than ignoring it.

Either way, the studio have acknowledged, despite how the director may protest, that this is an inherently political film – while only making the most cosmetic of changes. The game is about to get interesting.

8 Responses

  1. As a non-American, I have no problem with changing the title of the movie. They’re not renaming him “Captain Awesome” or anything. He IS the first avenger, after all. Maybe I just don’t think movie titles are more important than people actually seeing the movie.

    • I can see where you’re coming from, but I just buy the logic of “tricking” people into seeing a movie they don’t want to see. Is anyone who wouldn’t go see “Captain America” going to see “The First Avenger” and be impressed with it?

  2. Captain Awesome… maybe id be interested in going to see that. or Captain Chaos. i think whatever this is called its gonna be bad. hope to be proved wrong. will it have adverts for Iron Man 3 in it?

    • I reckon it’s more likely to BE an advert for Iron Man 3.

      I’m not too excited about it, if only because it’s from the guy who brought us Jurassic Park 3, whose crowning accomplishment is making The Lost World look like a good film.

  3. Well, to fair, the sentiment towards nationalism of any sort wouldn’t be terribly well-recieved elsewhere–would we all clamor to see Captain Russia?

    Then again, it’s not like it’s very easy to hide.

    • I don’t know. Looking back over my blog posts, I tend to be a bit more cynical when it comes to name changes, so maybe this is just a hot button topic for me (I say, as if I’m perfectly restrained and considered on everything else). A lot of it is the fact that you’re trying to conceal something fundamental about the film – I think viewers respond to that sort of tactic, and they’ll be antagonistic towards a film they think is trying to get something over on them.

      I know Captain America’s a damn tough sell to international audiences (which is one of the many reasons I think he’s the one too many superheroes this summer), but you can’t hide it simply by changing the name. It just seems a pointless exercise, as it makes the name even more of an issue if they feel they have to change it.

      I accept that James Bond (who might as well have a Union flag tattooed across his face) isn’t an apt comparison (as they aren’t calling him “Johnny English”), but I do wonder if they’d make a movie called “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” these days, for fear of alluding to the British monarch in a jingoist fashion.

      I wouldn’t mind seeing Captain Russia (or, slightly more likely, Captain Britain) – if it was the kinda film I’d be into anyway. Maybe I’m the minority.

      I think we can consider this my “crazy, ranty” post of the month (though I’m fairly sure I’ve already published one of those). 🙂

      • I’m located in Ukraine, however, I’m not your typical Ukrainian lol I’ve been fascinated with Captain America character from the early childhood. Somehow it stood out and spoke to me more than any other superhero character. I share your sentiments regarding the renaming tactics, it’s just silly. And yes, I’m really curious to hear feedback from local people after they see the film, because it’s purely American hyper-patriotic fictional character, and America isn’t favored by great deal of people here.

      • Yep, but changing the name won’t fool anybody who sees the poster or a trailer. I just can’t understand it.

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