This weekend, I went to the theater and saw my all-time favorite comic book hero, Captain America, take to the silver screen in all his patriotic, uniformed glory. I remember poring over Captain America when I was around eight, and though I don’t recall how much of the saga I actually read, it was extremely enthralling and he became a longstanding favorite. Later I became enamored with Superman, and for years my bookshelf was graced by a rather hefty hardcover chronicle of the Man of Steel, flanked by a red rose. That ended when one day, during a moment of sober introspection, it dawned on me that he was not, in fact, my favorite superhero. This epiphany combined with the fact that Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship in April necessitated a swift return to my first love, Captain America. (Besides, journalistic though I may be, I’d rather be Peggy Carter than Lois Lane.)
That being said, my attention is rarely captured by action films or comic strips anymore. The only reason I ever read a Marvel comic book in the first place was because my older brother did. These days, I don’t really like corrupt heroes or ghastly villains that bring to mind terrifying childhood experiences involving clowns. But “Captain America: The First Avenger” caught my eye because its patriotic, all-American, throwback charm appealed to my avid love of World War II-era culture. So there I was in the movie theater, not sure exactly what to expect, but hopeful that I might be about to witness the elusive phenomenon of the thought-provoking action film.
I daresay I did.
Part I: Weakness
I loved Stephen Rogers from the first moment not only because he strongly evoked people I know or have met, but because he had many of the characteristics that appeal to me in real life: sincerity, expressiveness, determination, intentionality, and (for whatever reason) slightly-below-average height.
Unfortunately, Steve has one great flaw. He’s weak. He’s so diminutive that he can’t even enlist.
As it happens, though, his weakness has a purpose. He’s the perfect candidate to become a prototype of “a new breed of super-soldiers” because, as Abraham Erskine tells him, “a weak man knows the value of strength.” Because he’s weak, he doesn’t take strength for granted. Because he’s weak, he’s the only man who isn’t overrun with pride. Because he’s weak, he isn’t consumed with asserting his machismo. Because he’s weak, he’s got no vanity. Because he’s weak, he’s the only one who can be made strong.
In that light, his weakness is a strength beyond what any of the other enlisted men possess. I love the picture of the underling transformed into a massive force to be reckoned with because he bears an unseen quality that transcends muscle and brawn. A mere mortal infused with supernatural strength because he has none of the pride that thwarts radical change.
It reminds me of 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh …. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
What if weakness really could be such a portal? Our God knows something about working through imperfect people. The journey of spiritual maturity isn’t a road reserved for those who have beefed themselves up to impenetrable magnitude. Rather, as Jesus preached, the kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. God proves Himself great in our shortcomings. He proves Himself faithful in our failures. His power is made perfect in our weaknesses.
Even if you’re a ninety-pound asthmatic.
Part II: A New Breed
C.S. Lewis once wrote the following in defense of fairy tales.
Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. As obligation to feel can freeze feelings…. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?
This is why we need superheroes, fantasy, allegory, and symbolism in art and literature.
One of the things I admired about Captain America was how ridiculously out-of-touch his character is. He’s a mere mortal (albeit injected with … a lot) and the truth is, he doesn’t really have a superpower. But at the same time, he’s the (intended) first of a new breed of super-soldiers. He runs barefoot through Brooklyn in pursuit of a henchman, takes a ridiculous leap across a flaming warehouse, and confronts an entire nation’s greatest fear.
I’ve met a lot of people who would criticize a narrative for being too far-fetched or unrealistic. While this is a flaw in some contexts, fantasy is a powerful device if used with skillful artistry. It would not behoove us to give up our vibranium shields and musclebound heroes. While I dislike the practice of superimposing Jesus Christ on everyone from Gandalf to Batman, qualities like justice, wisdom, and strength manifested in physical characters can and do illuminate the nature of God as a defender and warrior.
But the other reason we need fantastical heroes is to remind us of what we can be. Most of us will never have the opportunity to accomplish feats of greatness recognized by the world, and our victories will take place in relatively unseen, yet sanctified arenas of service. They can and should be performed with heroic grace and nobility. But at the same time, some of us will have those opportunities to physically intercede, rescue, and wage war. (See stories of Michael Murphy and Dipprasad Pun. One gave his life, while the other survived against unimaginable odds. Both acted valiantly.) Too often, we dismiss “heroes” because we’ve been told they don’t exist. The truth is, they do. We can be those heroes, no matter how epic or everyday your arena of service might be. (Sometimes everyday is epic. “Greatest” and “most visible” are not always the same thing.)
Couldn’t we be the “new breed?” Couldn’t we be a generation marked by courage, integrity, and colossal strength of heart? “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory,” said General Patton. As Christians, we are all aware of the war being waged beyond what eyes can see. We are all called to fight battles. And we are all privileged to claim victory in a musclebound Hero.
As I already mentioned, I’m a big fan of the film version of Peggy Carter, Captain America’s beautiful, pistol-packing love interest who somehow remains elegant and collected even when circumstances require a little gunslinging. Even if she’s something of a stock character, I see Peggy as a great representation of a graceful warrior who doesn’t rely on bulk or intimidation but excels in appreciation of people, tactical knowledge, and tough love. We don’t have to look like fighters to fight well.
This likely isn’t an angle you’ll read anywhere else, and perhaps I’ve attempted to derive more spiritual truth from a Marvel film adaptation than actually exists. But the questions here aren’t really about Captain America; rather, they’re about strength, weakness, and warfare. How we, as ordinary people, can be dynamically transformed in Christ and used to further the kingdom of Heaven.
Moviegoer or otherwise, each of us can use a reminder of the heroes among us and the Hero we all need.