2011’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER must have been a tough sell for the good people at Marvel Studios. A wartime hero literally draped in the flag of a country that had lost much of its popularity abroad in the past decade… tough cookie for the marketing guys, especially in these days where the foreign markets are as important as the domestic takes. See for instance the option for certain countries to either promote it with its full title or merely its subtitle THE FIRST AVENGER (guess which three TRAITOR countries went with it?).
Political stuff in movies is sensitive, especially in big mainstream blockbuster movies that need to sell their 100+ million dollar product to those very countries we may have been in conflict with at the time of the story. No, it’s best to tell a story in the general setting of WWII, but with all the principal players far enough removed from real combat to tell our superhero fantasy. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it ends up being executed (pardon mein Deutsch) in a rather muddled fashion when villain Red Skull shows the most cruelty to some nazi stooges sent to check up on him. Otherwise, he pretty much gets his ass handed to him throughout the movie. Now, this is hardly a dealbreaker, as the film has plenty of other good things to recommend it (Can you believe this is an Actor’s Movie? It totally is!).
Now here comes the tricky part. Should we have shown Red Skull and his HYDRA-forces (who have a double-armed salute, hence the titular DOUBLE NAZIS) wreaking havoc upon our boys in uniform, simply to have the need for someone like Cap established? No, not necessarily. There would be other ways to achieve a villain’s credible threat level (here are some SPOILERS): having the Skull directly kill Cap’s pal Bucky, have Zola escape and kill General Tommy Lee in the process (end SPOILERS).
In a world where Battlefield and Call of Duty are using a still ongoing (and much less clear-cut than WWII) conflict for fucking MULTIPLAYER DEATHMATCHES, I think films should be able to get away with using wartime casualties for drama. Is it a bit facile? Yes, absolutely, but films like CAPTAIN AMERICA are big, broad films.
The WWII comic book movies used to be pretty big: Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed… shit, we had one two years ago in Inglourious Basterds. WWII was such a game-changer in our very lexicon that “nazi” is basically synonymous with “evil guy” nowadays. What’s wrong with having “allied soldier” basically mean “good guy”?
Look, 2000’s X-Men opens with a scene in a concentration camp. It was, in retrospect, a rather on-the-nose mission statement that THAT JOEL SCHUMACHER BATMAN AND ROBIN DAY GLO BULLSHIT WAS OVER MAN SUPERHEROES ARE SARYOS BUSINESS NAO
Flashforward to 2011, and we’re doing an X-Men prequel that – zomg – also opens in a concentration camp. And the movie even stays there longer than the original! And the swastika (imprinted upon a coin) is a recurring motif throughout! First Class is, however, a fun and breezy and not-at-all grim movie. In fact, the most highly praised bits of it were basically the “Fassbender: Nazi Hunter” ones. The nazi stuff just creates a context to show you where Magneto is coming from.
In the UK, “hiding behind the couch when the Daleks show up” is a thing any Doctor Who loving kid empathizes with. Do you remember how freaked out by Judge Doom’s real face you were at the end of Roger Rabbit? Or maybe when the Ark opened in Indiana Jones? Kids movies need that whiff of transgression about them to feel more dangerous, more relevant. They’re really not as soft as you think.