Captain America is the new Hector: A Homeric Hero for the Twenty First Century

This posting is based on a paper I presented at the Celtic Classics Conference at St Andrews in 2018. In turn, the paper was based on my MA dissertation (Sept 2017).

Please note that this is looking at Cap as the Steve Rogers iteration, in the MCU, through to the end of Captain America: Civil War, and does not explore more recent developments in the subsequent Avengers films, and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

The idea of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a mythology for our time became apparent to me after watching Captain America: Civil War. Witzel asks the question as to why myth persists in modern societies. His answer is that it is because myth and/or religion are inherent, human characteristics, hard-wired into our psyche. Fowler goes even further by proposing that it is not the specific myth that is hard-wired, but the very propensity to make stories that reflect life. The modern reception of the classical Homeric hero is an example of such hard-wiring.

This is Two fold case study.
Firstly – It is a comparative study between the hero Hector in The Iliad and the hero Captain America in the MCU.
And secondly it is also a case study in paradigmatic reception.
I am not trying to establish a direct reception of Homer’s heroes in Captain America. There is no direct evidence of this, although the creators of the comics, Kirby and Simon, were knowledgeable about wide forms of mythology, as seen is some of their other work – Mercury in the 20th Century ,The Mighty Thor.  The original design of Cap’s helmet included wings based on the Roman god Mercury.
But I want to establish this as a reception of the paradigm of a Homeric hero.

In order to do this, I created a framework of the characteristics of Homeric heroes, using scholarship from a variety of sources, as well as works regarding superheroes, and a close reading of The Iliad. Being a finance person by day, I created an Excel spread sheet to see which characteristics came up most often. Then I took the top five characteristics as the key ones on which to concentrate, and analysed both Hector and Cap against these to see if they fit the model.

Homer makes it clear Hector is all human.

“Hector, Zeus’s favourite, wreaks against our troops, and all on his own – no son of god or goddess.” (Iliad 10.56-58).

But has Zeus’s patronage. Zeus Protects him. After Hector kills Patroclus, Zeus compensates him with divine strength and “Ares surged in his heart with awesome force, filling his limbs with power and fighting strength.” (Iliad17.237-247).  This could be read as divine possession.

Stesichorus claims Hector is the son of Apollo, but I have disregarded this, as this is Homeric study.

Like Hector, Cap is not of divine parentage. Both of his parents are dead (mentioned after his mother’s funeral.

His transformation from 95lb 5’4” weakling to 240lb 6’2” super soldier occurs as a result of being subjected to a top secret serum and special rays by Dr Erskine, who sees the essential character inside the weakling: courage, sacrifice, tactical thinking – “The serum amplifies what is inside. Good becomes great. Bad becomes worse.”

Cap becomes a hero in body as well as character.

This is a transformation akin to divine intervention, and places Cap as a demi-god -between men and gods – as is Hector, due to Zeus’s favour, and divine intervention. 

Agamemnon describes Hector as having “a heroic chest” (Iliad 2.494). A man to be feared. A famed enemy. Even in death, Homer describes Hector “ his dark hair swirling round that head so handsome”. (Iliad 22.473-474). Hector shown here in “heroic nudity”, with defined musculature, and the admired long hair. This is a reception from early 5thcentury BCE, but it is faithful to the Homeric description. Later still, Philostratus in 3rd century CE, describes Hector as “high spirited, fierce, radiant, and with the splendour of full health and strength, he is beautiful …”

After his transformation, Cap displays physical beauty and excellence, according to modern standards. He is tall, muscled, strong, and athletic. He jumps several stories out of an elevator, and walks away.  He literally runs through walls while chasing the Winter Soldier. (CA:TWS).

Tony Stark says: “Sometimes I wanna punch you in your perfect teeth” (CA:CW). Colonel Zemo sneers at him: “Now that you’re standing here, I just realised, there’s a bit of green in the blue of your eyes. How nice to find a flaw.” (CA:CW) Both of these men, friend and foe,  acknowledge the reverence with which he is regarded, and the symbol of perfection he seen to be.

His Heroic body also displayed in his costume, reflecting his heroic musculature, which is itself a paradigm of the superhero and part of his mystique.

Both Hector and Cap have this heroic characteristic

Hector is portrayed as hero and potential saviour for the Trojans, and a fearsome enemy for the Greeks.  When Hector challenges the Greeks to single combat, Agamemnon warns Menelaus not to rush in to challenge Hector as he is a better fighter, and others shrink before him – even Achilles. Later Agamemnon tells Menelaus that Hector has wreaked more havoc in one day than anyone he has ever heard of. The goddess Iris describes him as a military mastermind, comparable with Zeus himself.  Hector himself realises that he will achieve virtual immortality through his fame: “’There’s the mound of a man who died in the old days, one of the brave whom glorious Hector killed.’ So they will say, someday, and my fame will never die.”

Cap develops as a military leader throughout the MCU films. He starts out as figure head, but rapidly develops to tactical leader, leading Howling Commandoes, after rescuing them and many other Allied prisoners single handedly from the Nazis. He leads many more successful missions, culminating in defeat of Red Skull, a prominent Nazi and Hydra’s leader.

Subsequently he becomes the tactical leader of the Avengers, although he is never afraid to lead from the front. He is a brave and fearless fighter himself. This scene shows where he wipes out at least ten men in an elevator (that’s as many as I could count).

He is revered by the public, as well as by the other Avengers. Cap’s shield becomes symbol for t shirts and tattoos after the Battle of New York (Avengers: Assemble).

There are striking similarities in imagery in representations shown here. Cap is fighting Iron Man, near end of Civil War. Hector is fighting Ajax over the body of Patroclus. In each case, the hero is fighting a renowned heroic opponent.

The stances of the combatants virtually identical in each case. The representations reflect an almost perfect balance of power, strength and skill on each side. The opponents are separated only by their shields, which could be seen to represent their individual ideologies

Both Hector and Cap are renowned for military leadership as well as being fierce fighters themselves.

When Hector is talking to Andromache, she foretells that his courage will, in the end, be the very thing that kills him. (Iliad 6.483). She tries to persuade him to stay in the ramparts, rather than going down into the fray. His response is that he has to fight alongside his men, no matter what, and bring glory upon his father, and himself. It is his Duty. He ensures that she understands that facing death in this way is his choice, and his alone.

When he finally confronts Achilles “Now my spirit stirs me to meet you face-to-face. Now kill or be killed.” (Iliad 22.299-300) he shows personal courage in face of almost certain death. After all, Achilles is the greatest warrior alive. Earlier Hector had expressed some cowardice in refusing to face Achilles, but when it comes to the crunch, he faces his future, overcomes his demons, redeems his heroic status, and goes forward to meet his death.  

Cap jumps into the fray with little fear of consequence. At the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he jumps off a plane, with no parachute, right into middle of the action. In the opening fight in Lagos, in Captain America: Civil War, he jumps right in and takes out many enemy soldiers. He is courageous in face of death, but not rash. He takes measured decisions, based on experience and the knowledge of own limitations.

At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, he takes the ultimate journey into death itself. He deliberately crashes his plane  to destroy Red Skull and the bomb the plane is carrying, in order to save New York. He believes he is going to his death, but actually gets frozen in ice, from whence he is found and resurrected 70 years later. His descent into virtual death could be read as a katabasis, an epic heroic trope, where the hero descends to underworld on a quest and comes back changed. As does Cap after his descent into virtual death. The patriotic/innocent  hero emerges as a more questioning and cynical one.

The twenty-first century views Hector as an idealised version of a man. But Hera describes him as maniac, savagely slaughtering the Greeks. (Iliad 8.407-8). Homer compares him to a huntsman with his hounds, whipping his men into frenzy against the enemy, as if they were hunting wild animals, and then later as a  whirlwind, fighting unstoppably.  The words “maniac”, “savage”, “frenzy”, “whirlwind” are all used to describe him and indicate manic activity, as if Hector has descended from humanity into animalism. This is a flawed aspect. He loses sight of his humanity in the thick of battle and becomes carried away. Later, Philostratus describes “madly raging Hector”. This characteristic was apparent to Homer, and also later to others, but has not filtered down to current popular receptions.    

But Cap always seems in control right until his fight with Iron Man at end of Captain America: Civil War. This fight a very personal conflict, driven by desire for revenge on Iron Man’s side, and loyalty to Bucky and personal integrity on Cap’s side. Cap gradually loses control, fighting on and on, until Iron Man is on the ground. Cap rips Iron Man’s helmet off and lifts his shield to strike. He seems transformed into out of control berserker, the blood lust finally pushing through, and he is about to smash the shield into Iron man’s face. At the very last minute, he manages to regain control and smashes the power unit of Iron Man’s suit instead. As Black Panther say to Colonol Zemo outside “Vengeance has consumed you, It is consuming them.”  He is aware that Cap has teetered on edge of ultimately losing his control, and killing his other friend.

Both Hector and Cap have surges of barely controllable blood lust /berserker tendencies, under extreme circumstances.

There is one more item not covered in original model that needed to be included:

Hector is driven by duty and loyalty – to his father, his people and Troy. But he has another loyalty – to his brother Paris, which is itself inextricably linked to his other loyalties.

Hector is ambivalent about Paris. After Paris has fled in face of Menelaus, he tells him his beauty is lure to women and he would rather he hadn’t been born. (Iliad 3.45-48). Hector tells his mother that he wishes earth would swallow Paris up and take him to Hades! (Iliad 6.331-336). He blames Paris for the awful war, and the death of his fellow Trojans, and reprimands him for holding back in the fighting (Iliad 6.381-90). But, he continues to fight a war that he knows is based on grave wrongdoing by his brother. He knows that it is wrong, but loyalty makes him continue on a path from which he won’t return. This is perhaps his greatest flaw.    

Like Hector, Cap is driven by loyalty and duty, both to the Avengers and to his country.

But as Hector’s loyalty is compromised by his brother, Cap’s almost blind loyalty to Bucky, his childhood friend, culminates in a rift in the Avengers, and eventually Civil War.

Markus (one of the CA:CW screenwriters) describes Cap’s relationship with Bucky as so important because it is the last thing tethering Cap to his original life as Steve Rogers, without which he would be cut adrift from the world. Cap and Bucky grew up together. At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger it seems as though Bucky had died, but he is saved by Hydra, and transformed by a variant of serum into super soldier for Hydra. As The Winter Soldier, he committed many murders, including those of Tony Stark’s parents, resulting in the fight at the end of Captain America: Civil War, when Stark finds out. Cap’s loyalty to Bucky may be a fatal flaw, but it is also courageous. He has the courage to stand up for what he believes is right, despite immense pressure to conform from own and other governments, and his fellow Avengers. Like Hector, Cap is driven by overwhelming sense of duty, and loyalty, to support a morally dubious situation.

Hector fits the characteristics of a Homeric hero as laid out in this model. Cap also fits the paradigm, arguably even more so since he has a katabasis of sorts.

The reception of a paradigm depends on “re-examining current motifs, sometimes in different contexts” (Hardwick, 2003, p.90). Cap is a contemporary reception of the paradigm of a Homeric hero. He   displays the characteristics of the model established.

Why does this matter?

Homer’s heroes were created in the time of the emergence of city states from smaller agrarian communities, with the attendant  instability and distrust of political elites. 

Cap was created in the comics in 1940, a time of great political flux and threat from the Nazis, who were attempting to create Aryan super-state.

The MCU films hit into current political environment of increasing globalisation, security threats, and a distrust of political elites.

Here we have a hero standing up to these threats, and standing behind what he believes, in at a time where the world could be perceived to have no hero to get behind.

Mythology has long had the purpose of giving exemplars on how to live, as well as being able to view disturbing episodes from a distance. I contend that the MCU provides such a mythology to the twenty first century, and that Cap provides such a hero.

As Joe Russo (one of the directors of WS and CW) said: “It’s amazing to see how much impact this mythology has.”

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