Op-Ed: Captain America

August 3, 2011

Dan O’Connor discusses the bioethics implications of the recent comic book film Captain America: The First Avenger


Much ado, then, in the bioethics community, over the superhero blockbuster movie, Captain America. With an academic enthusiasm previously only matched by the semioticists who had to be sedated at the premiere of Inception, academics have been queuing up to analyze the bioethical implications of this latest silver screen iteration of the successful Marvel comics franchise.


Let’s be clear from the start, though, Captain America is a pretty bad movie. It is, charitably, a fairly enjoyable summer blockbuster. There’s some fun bits, and the retro WWII feel is well done, but let’s just say it’s not going be troubling anyone’s end-of-year best film lists. That said, it’s a pretty good bad movie for bioethicists.


Over at AJOB, Summer Johnson went so far as to describe Captain America as ‘the next great research ethics movie.’ Until Hollywood relents and options my script for Arthur Caplan and the Vulnerable Populations of Doom, Johnson’s descriptor seems pretty apt. After all, if you were trying to create a movie which ticked pretty much every box in the bioethics book, Cap would just about do it. The plot reads like a hastily assembled syllabus for Bioethics 101: Nazi science, human subjects research, informed consent, military research on soldiers, and – of course – enhancement. Short of tossing in a scene wherein Captain America debates stem cell research with the villanous Red Skull, there’s not much missing when it comes to bioethics.

For those amongst you as yet unfamiliar with the plot – do let’s call it that – of Captain America, the story unfolds thusly: Steve Rogers is aclassic 90lb weakling apparently taking a break from his day job as the ‘before’ model in a Charles Atlas commercial. It’s the 1940s and America has joined the war against the Nazis (and about time too, the Englishman in me wanted to shout at the screen). The cream of American manhood are lining up to volunteer to stick it to Hitler and his joyless band of fascist ne’er-do-wells. Steve, a noble soul trapped in a scrawny body, is repeatedly and humiliatingly turned down by the Army on the grounds that he seems to have the body of a 12 year old boy. Steve, his honor and his manhood repeatedly impugned by both the US Army and the sort flat-top sporting bullies one might clone from Biff in Back to the Future, is in despair.



But wait! What Jewish-German émigré through yonder window breaks? Why it’s Stanley Tucci, giving good Mittel European as the scientist on the lam from the Nazis and in possession of a secret formula (naturally) which will, when injected into regular soldiers, turn them into SUPER SOLDIERS (the capitalization is implied). It will make them bigger, stronger, faster. And so Steve finally gets his chance to smack his Bosch up. Here, then, is where the bioethics party starts in earnest.


The obvious take – the screen anxiety, if you like – is experimentation by the state upon its soldiers. Classical bioethics discussions of military experimentation have been colored by the exotic history of the CIA’s secret MKULTRA mind control program. Bring on the Manchurian Candidate and all that. However, although the experiments in Cap are secret from the rest of the world, they’re not secret from the soldiers who undergo them. The consent issues which have dominated most debates about experiments on soldiers have no apparent place in Cap: everyone has freely volunteered to be there. Indeed, Steve desperately wants to be there: his presence goes beyond mere consent and is in fact something stronger – need or perhaps even desire. There’s an argument to be made, in fact, that so desperate is Steve to serve his country that his participation in the super soldier experiments amounts, in fact, to therapeutic misconception – the mistaken belief that medical research is in fact medical treatment.


The bioethics shout-outs continue apace, including a splendid scene in which the Professor is arguing for the inclusion of weak and feeble Steve in the experiment to a skeptical army General (Tommy Lee Jones, very much playing ‘Tommy Lee Jones’) in which the General basically plays the IRB to the Professor’s Principal Investigator, demanding that he justify his subject selection. Between this and a scene in which the Professor takes the time to sit down with Steve and, in plain language, explains the benefits and risks of the experimental procedure, we are presented with a movie upon which OHRP could base their new human subjects protections guidelines.

However, human experimentation is merely the screen anxiety for bioethicists and Captain America. The underlying issue is, of course, human enhancement. Indeed, ‘enhancement’ doesn’t quite do justice to the transformation of weakling Steve into Captain America. ‘Embuffening’ might be better. Or ‘Pin-up-ifying’. Either way, if Chris Evans’s pecs don’t get a best supporting actor nod at the Oscars, I’m handing back my Academy membership.


So, Cap becomes incredibly muscular, strong and fast – far more so than any normal human, which is convenient for, lo, he is to be a superhero. The ethics of physical enhancement tend to revolve around issues of fairness and justice, issues which tend in turn to be resolved by context and social constructions of what’s fair and what’s not. Thus had Captain American rather been created to be ‘Johnny America, the Olympic sprinter’, we would likely think the enhancements unethical, due to the context of athletic competition in which we tend to operate within a social construction of fairness which views such enhancements as cheating. However, all is fair in love and war, and – faced with implacable and unambiguously evil foes (the secret science cult HYDRA is the main villain in the movie, working against everyone, including the Nazis), this kind of physical enhancement seems justified. In fact – considering how bloody dangerous it is to drop soldiers into battle, there’s an argument to be made for making the physical enhancement of military personnel a duty of the state. Consider: if we expect these young men and women to put themselves in extreme physical hardship at the behest of our political system, don’t we owe them the best possible physical advantages we can provide? Captain America neatly skirts these issues by having the secret formula destroyed right after the one experimental success – Steve qua Cap – happens, making the argument moot. However, other ethical issues around physical enhancement are played up: other soldiers are jealous of Cap; he is mocked as different and as a vain, shallow person. Seriously, one could write an entire thesis on the unintended social ostracism caused by bioengineered physical superiority on the strength of one USO scene alone.


Physical enhancement on its own, though, is easy. Weak man takes formula, becomes huge and strong. The end. But this is Captain America, and the physical body must be made to signify. Certainly, Chris Evans, whether casually flexing his biceps in a t-shirt three sizes too small or in curiously well-fitted leather military gear (US Army supplies having apparently commandeered the services of Calvin Klein for this part of WWII), symbolizes the sort of virile manhood thought lost to a generation of epidemically obese, sedentary, desk-bound Americans bound for the next season of The Biggest Loser.



But that strength and virility is itself significant of something else, for where Captain America becomes perhapsmost interesting to bioethicists is in the Professor’s claim that he choses Steve because he is a ‘good man, and my formula will make a good man great.’ The premise, apparently based upon the late night rantings of one of the more delusional proponents of neuroenhancement, is that morality, goodness, is something that is within us, rather like physical strength, and which can thus be built upon and enhanced. Steve is a good and kind man before he becomes Cap, and it is this innate goodness and kindness which the movie asks us to believe is what enables Steve’s transformation into Cap. His new, super-strong body is merely the sign of his enhanced inner goodness and virtue. Once brave and kind, he is now a leader of men whose compassion inspires all around him. Just to hammer home this delightfully recherche point, the movie’s villain – a VERY BAD MAN – also takes the formula and, although he becomes super strong, is also transformed into a hideous creature known, appositely, as the Red Skull. His inner evil is reflected in his outer appearance (which, as a look, is essentially Voldemort’s face dipped in tomato soup), confronting us with the sort of physio-moral determinism last seen in works of nineteenth century physiognomists who posited a link between sloping eyebrows and venal criminality.


So, Captain America, then. Even a summer in which every second blockbuster movie seems to have a bioethics angle (­X-Men First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Contagion), it’s a movie which stands apart for the sheer amount of bioethical box ticking it does. Of course, this is not the result of anything conscious on the part of the filmmakers, rather it is a reflection of the origins of bioethics as a discipline in the reactions to unethical human experimentation, first by Nazis and then at home. The historical settings of Captain America are also the origins of bioethics. The best parts of the movie are the retro, 1940s history stylings, and that’s how exactly bioethicists should view Captain America – as a period piece about the heritage of their discipline.





Dan O’Connor – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases

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2 Responses to “Op-Ed: Captain America”

  1. Excellent and very engaging piece. I think your point concerning how context plays a major role in determining whether or not we consider enhancement to be just is an important one. This cuts to the underlying principles that we seem to hold dear with certain types of activities or processes (i.e. fairness in sports and winning in war).

    On another note, this type of discussion could probably apply to a whole series of super-hero or sci-fi films, though many superheroes don’t undergo enhancement per se, but suffer some accident that gives them their newfound superpowers. Nonetheless, a lot of films do raise these types of questions without actually thoughtfully exploring them.

    I took a bioethics course recently and joked to the Professor that for every seminar, there was probably a relevant Arnold Schwarzenegger film that he could show. In this sense, there really hasn’t been a solid bioethics film, at least not that I know of. Most raise the questions, but it’s up to the viewer to do something thoughtful with it. Either way, I think this piece does just that with this film.

  2. jerry says:

    This article exemplifies
    (This is all speculation on my part)

    IMO, performance enhancement drugs are epidemic in Hollywood.
    It’s the whole sub-theme of Iron Man 1 & II hidden behind
    sci-fi hardware surgically embedded in the hero’s chest.
    This mechanical enhancement imparts great benefits but also
    threatens the life of Tony Stark etc. That is also the reality of
    using performance enhancement drugs as far as the actor
    who plays Stark who (IMO) has got to be using them in his
    personal life.

    Anyone with eyes can see it. It is the metaphor of our times.
    Performance enhancement drugs are not confined to sports and entertainment. They are used for therapeutic purposes as well as performance enhancement on all levels and professions.

    IMO, used in prescriptive cocktails of varying dosage
    and ingredients they are used on Wall St, insales (R/E),
    HIV survivors (have you see Magic Johnson lately?)
    for bipolar treatments (Madonna), talk radio hosts,
    in entertainment, in drug treatment as a kind of maintenance
    (Robert Downey Jr, Mickey Rourke and the whole A-list).

    The movie “Limitless” could be seen as a metaphor for
    coke addiction and the latest enhancements.

    Then there’s this from Wiki: In the late 2000s the worldwide
    trade in illicit AAS increased significantly, and authorities
    announced record captures on three continents. In 2006
    Finnish authorities announced a record seizure of 11.8
    million AAS tablets. A year later the DEA seized 11.4 million
    units of AAS in the largest U.S seizure ever. In the first
    three months of 2008, Australian customs reported a
    record 300 seizures of AAS shipments.[127]

    Tiger Blood as recently spoken of by Charley Sheen
    is said to allow some ppl to take large amounts of
    street drugs without getting addicted. Fake AAS
    is also rapent. The above Wiki entry probably
    needs updating and is only the tip of the iceberg.

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