Captain America is battling Harry Potter at the box office this weekend, and (surprisingly, to my mind) is holding his own. It is surprising because the Cap is a morally certain fellow in a morally uncertain time. After all, Superman has abandoned his US citizenship and, presumably, the American way; Batman’s obsessive behavior qualifies as a mental illness; last year’s most notable new screen hero was eleven-year-old Hit-Girl, who, if you noticed, remorselessly killed not just outright thugs but also people (like the trampy chick at Rasul’s apartment) who merely hung out with them; and both Supergirl and Spiderman are set to be rebooted as much darker characters than on their last screen outings.
If there is a film “hero” with super abilities who seems most suited to 2011, it is Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) in the movie Limitless. Morra, suffering from writer’s block, swallows a new street drug that vastly enhances mental functioning, so that he not only completes his book in four days, but dominates Wall Street, kicks down muggers with moves simply remembered from kung-fu movies, and snappily wins back the girl who previously had dumped him. There are side-effects to the drug, however, including blackouts. During one blackout, he might have murdered a young woman in her hotel room – he can’t quite remember. Morra’s only real concern over this is whether or not he gets caught (he doesn’t). On the surface, Morra shows all the modern moral niceties. He never once says anything racist, sexist, or homophobic, and there is every reason to believe he files his taxes (whether or not he not reports the cash he stole from his dealer’s apartment). Yet, there is no reason to trust this man. His only discernible fundamental personal objectives are of the most shallow and self-serving kind, even though he can quote to you the works of every moral philosopher he ever has read.
How different from the 1940s when ugly social attitudes were rampant in the US, and were on display in the movies, such as the unthinking casual racism in The Palm Beach Story, just as one example. Yet, whenever 1940s scriptwriters slowed down to think about something and then actually tried to make a moral point, the point almost always remains unexceptionable today. Their moral compasses were functioning and they didn’t second-guess them. Captain America certainly doesn’t. He knows what is right and what is wrong and what to do about it. There is every reason to trust this man. Apparently, this moral clarity has an appeal to modern audiences even if the setting has to be 70 years old for the story to work. To be sure there are conflicted characters in 40s film, such as Rick in Casablanca, but Rick does the right thing in the end, doesn’t he? As for the real-life ugly side of the 1940s, it’s hard not to conclude from film and literature of the era (and, of course, from those who experienced it) that most folks really knew better, but found it hard to break acquired habits.
We know better today, too. Whenever we slow down and think about it, we know that old-fashioned personal honor is a more important matter than it is our current habit of mind to acknowledge. We know that surface niceties are not enough. The Cap reminds us of this. Nonetheless, I fear Eddie still reminds us more of us.