MCU Monday: Captain America - The Gospel According to Joel Osteen
I love CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. Say what you want about Joe Johnston as a director (the man has some lackluster title attached to his name, such as Jumanji, Hidalgo, and The Wolfman) but the man knows how to go retro. I also love the character of Captain America. He’s an unashamedly good guy in a world where being chivalrous is about as much of an asset as two broken-thumbs in a texting contest. There are obvious parallels between Steve Rogers’ transformation from shrimp to superman and a Christian’s transformation from sinner to saint. Unfortunately (from a theological perspective), CAPTAIN AMERICA’S first and greatest lesson bears more in common with the gospel of Joel Osteen than it does the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We’re introduced to lollipop Chris Evans, AKA Steve Rogers, as he makes the latest of several unsuccessful attempts at enlisting during WWII. Worried that sending a human lollipop into combat will just result in him getting licked (pun intended), the Army once again stamps him “4F,” Army code for “thanks, but no thanks.” In the compilation of scenes and situation that follow we watch Steve stand-up for patriotism, get beat-up, demonstrate his social awkwardness, demonstrate his indefatigable desire to be a soldier, and finally be recognized for his efforts and enlisted in the super-secret Super Soldier program where he proves to be smarter, more selfless, and an overall better human being than the soldier-types competing against him. The night before he undergoes his transformation from wimp to wonder-boy, he has a short, but profound conversation with Dr. Abraham Erskine, the creator of the serum soon to be coursing through his body.
While Christians can and should identify with Steve’s feeling of helplessness pre-transformation, the idea that he is chosen because he is good and worthy is one that runs counter to biblical salvation rather than parallel with it. Erskine believes Steve is the ideal candidate because Steve is by nature good (unlike Schmidt/Red Skull who was Erskine’s first subject). The serum amplifies what’s in you, Erskine explains, so good becomes great, bad becomes monstrous.
If we’re comparing this to the Gospel, it sounds more like what Joel Osteen peddles than what Jesus purchased. Erskine is offering Steve his “best life now!” as it were, the power to overcome the obstacles and difficulties in his life, whereas Jesus offers us His best life in place of ours, which is frankly the worst. In Romans 3 Paul quotes from the Psalms to emphasize how utterly corrupt mankind is before God. None are good, all are corrupt. None seek truth, all speak lies. Either Paul is wrong, or Steve is the messiah no one knew was coming.
In this way, the Red Skull is the most philosophically and theologically honest character in the film. He is given great power and it reveals him to be what he always was, an evil man. Erskine calls Schmidt/Skull a brilliant scientist, but that’s never demonstrated in the movie, possibly because whatever good he might have been has been swallowed up by the evil now running unhindered through his soul.
Also interesting is that Steve is compared to pre-WWII Germany. Weak, small, and helpless. Hitler, Erskine reminisces, comes and offers us strength through his fascism and it turns us evil. But did Hitler really corrupt them, or did he merely rely on and feed off of the corruption that exists in all men? CAPTAIN AMERICA shows us absolute evil in the person of the Red Skull, corrupted good in the people of Germany, and then absolute good in the titular captain. The problem is that we’re given no basis for Steve’s goodness, no explanation of what makes him so incorruptible. A weak attempt is made to connect it to his inherent weakness, but seeing as they’re about to turn him into the perfect human specimen, that seems like an unlikely source of virtue on which to rely. We’re finally left to conclude that he’s good because he just is, ok! Get on board with it.
We’re left then with Captain America as the super-powered child of humanist philosophy and Joel Osteen’s gospel.