Oh Captain, My Captain America

Even for his fans, he is admittedly kind of dorky looking. The tri-hole ski mask with little wings set just above the exposed ears, the bold-faced “A” on his forehead, the scaly chain-mail shoulder wrap and the bright reds, whites and blues that make stealth operations impossible – and the costume is all finished off with a ostentatious pair of red buccaneer boots.

In short, Captain America is a pretty ridiculous looking character, but even so, the media chatter has been at a fever pitch over who will fill those buccaneer boots on screen in the 2011 movie, The First Avenger: Captain America, in two subsequent sequels and in three-to-six installments of the Avengers multi-character super hero franchise from Marvel Entertainment.

Just as I was wrapping up this column, Chris Evans – the erstwhile Human Torch from The Fantastic Four movies – landed the gig carrying Cap’s shield amongst contenders that included Ryan Phillippe, Mike Vogel (Cloverfield), Channing Tatum (Dear John, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and even John Krasinski from The Office.

It has been a few years since a casting decision gained so much coverage outside industry insider publications. The last big casting news may have been Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight or maybe Chris Pine as Kirk in the new Star Trek.

Those actors were being cast to fill the very big shoes of fellow thesps (Adam West / Michael Keaton, Cesar Romero / Jack Nicholson / Mark Hamill, William Shatner) who delivered indelible performances of the characters they portrayed. So then, why all the buzz for Captain America, a hero who has never successfully made it on screen?

After all, the good Captain isn’t really the hero kids fantasize being as they might with Spider-Man. He’s not a bad boy like Wolverine, his backstory isn’t as familiar in the mainstream as Batman’s, and although he might share top billing alongside Superman in terms of history (and silliest costume), Supes has a slight edge over Cap because he is a man of steel who can fly, has heat vision and is invulnerable — compared to just being an ultimate athlete pumped up with Super Soldier serum and vita-rays who wields a two-and-a-half foot indestructible Vibranium-Adamantium shield.

Still, Captain America is the Sentinel of Liberty and in the top four or five most important comic book super heroes, ever. He is literally the living (OK, fictional) embodiment of the American flag who stands for the ideals of the United States.

Yes, I know we’re talking about comic book characters here, but those figures from the funny pages have replaced religion as our new American myths. For better or worse, religious beliefs are such a personal topic that to even whisper the word “myth” when talking about someone’s religion is a good way to start a fight, it seems. Not to go all Joseph Campbell here (although I wish I had the chops to do so), the result of the untouchable religious myth is a lack of titans and lower-case “g” gods to tell stories of — and to teach lessons about honor, achievement and failure with. Thus, our comic book and pop-culture heroes have become our mythology.

As a result, Superman is the ultimate immigrant allegory, and the first super hero. Batman is both the orphan story and a symbol of philanthropy. Spider-Man is the everyman and the perpetually troubled teen. The X-Men are the civil rights heroes, and the Fantastic Four stands for a family that sticks together against all odds.

Captain America, however, is patriotism personified even if he started as a Hitler-punching figure of propaganda. Marvel technically owns the character (although the estate of Jack Kirby — Cap’s co-creator along with Joe Simon – is rightly fighting for a cut of that ownership), but his myth belongs to the citizenry.

So far, the Captain has been frozen, fired and killed but he keeps returning, and instead of being a stooge for any political power, he operates under the Mark Twain maxim of “Loyalty to the country always; loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” Even his weapon of choice, a shield, is primarily one of defense against threats and is something of a super hero symbol of the Monroe Doctrine. Cap also stands for the reconciliation and unity of all Americans under the flag. If you think that’s not an especially crucial mission right now, take a look at the recent nastiness that’s been spawned from healthcare debates and political posturing.

Cap is a symbol of the best of America, and symbols have to sometimes be giant, colorful or even rock buccaneer boots and a goofball outfit to get our attention. He’s a one-man Fourth of July parade and a personification of apple pie and baseball (pre-high fructose corn syrup and steroids).

That’s why the casting of Captain America has been a hot topic. Even if the character doesn’t have the same sex appeal and box office mojo of other heroes, no one wants to see the pop-culture scion of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam be tainted by a subpar performer. To screw this one up is the cinematic equivalent of letting a flag touch the ground. No pressure there, Chris Evans.