Friday, September 3, 2010

Your Special Island (Captain America and the Avengers, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Captain Sky Hawk)

I am the captain of my soul.

The word captain derives from the Latin for "head." Its most common meaning refers to the chief officer aboard a ship. This is a particular situation that is worth exploring and spelling out explicitly. A ship is by its nature an isolated place, far from the normal structures of power. This is why entire branches of law exist to govern what happens at sea. Because a ship is, by its nature, not naturally a part of the civic order, it has its own structures of authority, chief among which is the captain, the unquestioned and absolute authority on the ship.

It is not merely that the captain is the material embodiment of power, but that his power is essentially divine power. Out to sea, the captain is himself the entirety of power - the whole of authority. The old orders of mysticism are thoroughly upended. Do as I wilt. That is the whole of the law.

I am far too postmodern to fall for that trick, however. The I of that formulation is always externalized. The captain's authority always has a gaping hole in it, the hole inadvertently stated as truth by Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhf, Iraqi Information Minister, when he boldly proclaimed that the Americans were not in control of the airport. "They are not in control of anything! They do not even control themselves!"

If the captain lacks control over himself, what do we make of Marvel Comics' Captain America? Born out of World War II propaganda, he displayed the blithe externality necessary for his rank and role. But those were early days, and his revival in 1964 required a different touch appropriate for the era. 1964 was the zenith of the Stan Lee style of superhero, where vast power and authority was wedded to crippling human weakness, best described by Alan Moore's droll commentary on Thor, "You may be the god of thunder, but you've still got a gammy leg."

Captain America's disconnect elevated this form from high-selling pop formula to a bizarre artform. His disconnect was the fact that he was a featureless World War II propaganda piece reincarnated arbitrarily in the 1960s. On the one hand this featured a "man out of his time" existential drama about the essential nature of America. But the issue is more fundamental. Captain America's disconnect was that we were allowed into his psyche in the first place - that he was no longer treated as a mere absolute external force. The structure of authority was a deeply troubled man characterized primarily by self-doubt.

Despite this, Captain America was used as the leader of The Avengers. Shortly after he took the reigns, the book had a complete cast change, dropping all original members, and putting Captain America in charge of a new team comprised entirely of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch - all former villains. This motley and inappropriate assemblage was the premier superhero team of Marvel Comics.

It's ultimately a quirk of programming that leaves Captain America and the Avengers as a game in which Captain America and Hawkeye are the only playable characters. The game was a NES pseudo-port of an arcade game with the same title. The arcade game featured four playable characters - Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Vision. This being rather too vast for a NES game, the NES game is a completely different game in which Captain America and Hawkeye struggle to rescue Iron Man and Vision.

The problems of video game interpretations of superheroes apply as much as they did with Batman, but here they turn into a perverse satisfaction. Yes, Captain America is incapable of throwing his shield while jumping or crouching, throwing his shield up, or really, much of anything. But what's wrong with that? The character is defined by the gap between the social phenomenon of his authority and his internal subjectivity. So he sucks at his job. That's the point. You may be the embodiment of the American spirit and dream, but you still die in stupid and arbitrary ways.

Where on the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead.

As ever, death's a complicated bugger in video games. No more so, truth be told, than in comic books, where indeed, Captain America is just coming off a several year storyline focusing on him dying. Marvel didn't even pretend that he wasn't coming back over the course of those several years. It wouldn't have worked. Death's as much a revolving door in superhero comics as it is in video games. Even if Stan Lee heroes are neurotic loons, there's a fundamental invincibility to them. They rise to the occasion. The traditional Marvel hero is not a critique of authority. Far from it, it's a defense of authority - the captain may not even control himself, but he's still going to save the world.

Captain Planet and the Planeteers is forced into a different tact. This is for one simple reason - Captain Planet has an agenda. Suddenly we've run straight into something we've never had to deal with before int he Nintendo Project - a game with explicit political content. Well, no. I sell ourselves a little long here. A game based on a crappy cartoon with explicit political content. There we go.

In any case, the contradictions Captain Planet has to navigate are staggering. He exists to motivate people to take better care of the environment. But he himself exists as a sort of intermediate step between the people expected to take care of the environment (the Planeteers, standing in as the audience for the most part) and the environment itself (represented by Gaia, who spends basically the entire series being enormously powerful and terminally ill all at once). His message is ludicrously unsatisfying - I exist to clean up the environment, which is probably a doomed task that I can't carry out without you. Here the impotence of the captain becomes a perverse motivation - we are meant to follow the captain's lead because he is not capable of functioning independently. Thus Captain Planet's repeated "the power is yours" is less catchphrase then confession.

In this case the game does its job a little too well. Beginning as a standard shooter with more misbegotten controls than Burai Fighter, including such perverse gems as limited ammo and the utterly useless ability to turn around and go backwards, i.e. to point your guns away from all the things shooting at you and actually undo your progress through the level. Deeper in the game, past the point any remotely sane or rational player would ever reach, you play as Captain Planet instead of as the ship piloted by the Planeteers.

But again, the oddity of the video game pushes this from the understandable to the downright strange. After all, the mantra "the power is yours" has some genuine resonance in video games - we are responsible for Captain Planet's success or failure, albeit on terms that are clearly not our own. We are not in control of anything, least of all ourselves, and yet we take on a sort of sole proprietorship of a fate we are in no way masters of. With great power comes great responsibility. So Captain Planet's only off by one.

Except the game's bloody impossible. Captain Planet's impotence here spills over maddeningly to us. By enlisting in his cause, we've rendered ourselves as dysfunctional as he is, so that when we die and Gaia passive aggressively asserts that we have made her sad, we're forced to wonder why the dumb bint didn't come up with a system to protect herself that consisted of something a little more sensible than an all-powerful being who requires a bunch of kids to successfully pilot a fighter jet in order to work. And for that matter, why'd she evolve a species that was going to kill her in the first place? Crappy plan like that, it's a wonder she's made it this long.

We just made it out of the Big Muddy with the captain dead and gone.

While elsewhere, Captain Skyhawk takes up the Army of One mantle and flies his fighter pilot to attack the invading aliens. Inside the alien civilization its own structures of authority break down over predictable lines. The ostensible purpose of their invasion of Earth is to set up bases that siphon energy from the planet to power their death laser that will destroy the planet. It is unclear what their captain intends this scheme to produce, but the structures of authority maintain themselves, at least until the bullets start to fly.

Captain Skyhawk, lacking any meaningful social context for his existence, being unfranchised, undeveloped, unstated, is uniquely capable of bearing the weight of this title. Stripped of internality, he is finally captain of his soul, finally complete, phallic authority crystalized in its perfect form, with nobody left to misrecognize it. Will and deed finally united in ultimate magical harmony.

Brimming with power, Captain Skyhawk crashes into a poorly realized isometric hill and dies.


  1. And so, the more there is to the Captain, the less he is able to accomplish?

    I am okay with this. After all, as you said, his power is absolute, and here in America, I'm not sure how well we take to the idea of absolute power, when not being repeated by Tech N9ne.

  2. i wish i could have experienced your life.

  3. Penny Arcade restructured their archives - marvel at stupid and arbitrary death here: