Captain America is probably remembered as one of the worst films spun off the Marvel franchise. Whilst the film wrought untold damage to the origins of Steve Roger’s alter ego, it did strike one historical chord. In the comic book, Steve Rogers is a sickly individual, denied the chance to demonstrate his patriotism, until he takes the serum that transforms him into a super soldier. In the film, Steve Rogers is a polio victim, perhaps the only plot device that provides some insight into the historical context of Captain America and the rise of the superhero.
The definition and origins of the superhero are traced back to the nineteen-thirties even though there are a number of forerunners in the pulps. The genre coalesced around costumed heroes with a variety of powers, often enhanced beyond human norms, who had strong moral codes, a secret identity and fought off evil in a variety of guises, usually the enemies of World War 2. The cultures that informed the origins of superheroes came from both contemporary sources and Judaeo-Christian narratives.
Superman’s backstory was Biblical in tone. Richard Donner, director of Superman, recognised the parallels between the Man of Steel and Christ, as referenced by Anton Karl Kozlovic, in his paper, “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah”, published in the Journal of Religion and Film.
However, many years later, Donner gladly admitted to the Christic subtext: “It’s a motif I had done at the beginning when Brando sent Chris [Reeve] to Earth and said, ‘I send them my only son.’ It was God sending Christ to Earth.” It was a dramaturgical decision that made good sense, for just as Superman was literally a super-man, Jesus was “the ultimate Super Jew of his day,” the “Christian super-hero,” the pop culture “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Indeed, many Jesus-Superman parallels exist within S1 and S2 because both films were planned, scripted and partially shot back-to-back.
Whilst Superman bundled biblical myth into a new package, Steve Rogers as Captain America transformed another demographic. We forget the large numbers of the debilitated and disabled who suffered from a young age with consumption or polio during the interwar period. The sickly Steve Rogers is a recognisable figure from the Depression, and his transformation acts as the inclusion of suffering invalids into the superhero myth and the war effort. Superman is an alien but Captain America is drawn as an everyman, and a patriot.
It is possible that superheroes would never have acquired their longlasting popularity without the war. The diverse backdrops that authors used to appeal to as many readers as possible proved an important innovation. Yet, just as the new pulp genre of science fiction showed that the horizons of plausibility were widening, the Macguffins deployed by the creators of superheroes hinted that such transformations were not too far away for humanity itself.