So being a geek, I've enjoyed the embarrassment of riches in superhero movies this summer. Thor was good fun and Asgard looked great. Green Lantern was kind of hokey and soulless, but impressed the heck out of my nephew. X-Men: First Class was, despite a few false notes, terrific.
But the one I was excited about opens tomorrow.
A few years back, in the pages of Marvel comics, Captain America took an assassin's bullet and died. (Don't fret; being a comic book superhero, he eventually got better.) A friend who isn't geeky—but knows that I am—asked if I could shed a little light on what it signified, but I couldn't think of anything to say. Cap has never been a character I've cared much about. Save for his memorable guest appearance in Daredevil's “Born Again” storyline, as written by the unstoppable Frank Miller, I've not felt much interest in him.
The one idea I do have about Captain America didn't do me much good in that situation, but the nifty trailer for the movie sold me completely, because it demonstrated that the filmmakers obviously have been thinking the same thing.
Captain America has a terrific arch-nemesis. Possibly the best.
Those are strong words, because the quality of your opposite number is a big deal in the superhero business. Many comics fans would say that I'm wrong about Captain America having the best foe, since the Joker obviously takes the prize. Surely Joker is an all-time great: he's the common sentiment Clowns Are Scary, made into supervillain form. Plus he plays well opposite Batman, which is important. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight film, you don't have to be a comics geek to know about this symbiotic relationship between superhero and archnemesis; when Joker says to Batman “you complete me” it's scary and funny, but most of all it's uncannily true, and you can see how it cuts both ways. Batman ain't Batman without the Joker to fight, and vice versa.
While we're on the subject, Batman also benefits from a deep bench of second string enemies, including supervillainous versions of a Sexy Catburglar, Earth First!, not just one but two Insane Psychologists, and many more, all contributing to Batman's general superheroic coolness. Similarly, Superman has a big rogues gallery helping to make him super, and his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, is great fun because he's basically Supervillain Thomas Edison.
A good enough villain can elevate a mediocre superhero into the big leagues. Nobody cared about Daredevil until Frank Miller gave him Kingpin, The Capo of All The Mafia In The World, as his nemesis, then topped that with Elektra: Your Psycho Ex Girlfriend Has Become The Deadliest Ninja In The World. (Miller is both a terrific writer and a sexist creep; Elektra remains an excellent character, nonetheless.) Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four is made much more interesting by having as his nemesis Victor von Doom, whose story is “I have lived out every damned trope in the entire Gothic literary tradition, we were best friends in college, and I have conquered an entire Eastern European country as the first step in my plan to kill you.” Superhero fans reading this may want to argue that Galactus, who is sort of Supervillain Jehovah, is Reed's greatest foe, but I think we have to reserve him as nemesis for the Silver Surfer ....
Point being, to be a superhero, you should have a cool supervillain to foil.
So who is this arch-nemesis for Captain America, who beats out the Joker, Lex Luthor, Galactus, Doctor Doom, and all the rest?
Comics fans are probably rolling their eyes reading this, because Captain America's nemesis is generally accepted to be a guy called the Red Skull, who is your basic evil megalomanic with endless cannon fodder minions and one plan after another to conquer the world. You can see him in the trailer, if you know to look. The Skull is pretty cool, but he's not in the very top tier. But I submit that Red Skull is just a stand-in for Captain America's real nemesis: Adolf Hitler.
And I don't know about you, but Lex Luthor, Darth Vader, and the kid who took my lunch money in 5th Grade can all get in line; in my fantasy life, there's nobody I'd rather punch in the face.
The people who made this film obviously know that. So count me in.
Update: The Secret Origin of Captain America, with links to reflections on his politics and the films.