Captain America and Corniness

Last month, I went to Europe.  Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar.  More specifically, a Corny bar.

Never have I seen such an apt description.  The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way.  The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate.  Corny?  Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.

Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny.  The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to.  This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.

This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality.  With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original?  My goal as a young writer was to find that thing.  But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself.  It’s difficult to be completely original.  In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness.

Allow me to present Exhibit A: Captain America.  He is one of the corniest superheroes imaginable.  Look at his name: it’s not the highest rank he could be (what about General America, or Commander America?), and bearing the name of the country he fights for?  It’s almost as if to say he embodies the country.  Hey, wait…  That he does, in an idealized sense.  Patriotism, justice, the American dream, all wrapped up in one muscled guy wearing Spandex.  Thank you, Marvel— everyone should know how much we value ourselves.  Undeniably, Captain America is corny.

However, he’s definitely high on my list of favorite Marvel superheroes.  Why is this, when corny things are so odious to me?  Since I was specifically introduced to the character through the recent movies about him, what did those writers do correctly?  They began at a disadvantage, trying to make Captain America seem engaging and original when he had a clinging aura of corniness.  How did they do it?

Most importantly, they acknowledged it.  Ignoring corniness is possibly the worst thing you can do.  Some people think cliches will disappear if they ignore them long enough, but that won’t happen.  Because corniness is so apparent to the audience, for you to ignore it makes you seem ignorant of what you’re actually writing.  That is not the position you want.  You are in control, or the reader won’t trust you with their attention.  So, first step of solving corniness: acknowledge it.

How?  In Captain America: The First Avenger, they made it part of the plot.  Steve Rodgers was a  scrawny kid who wanted nothing more than to join the army.  When he finally gets the chance to become a real soldier, muscles and all, he’s stuck in advertising.  What do they name him?  Captain America— an experiment that probably will never be field-tested.  Why does that work?  Because advertising is one of the only things on earth cornier than Captain America himself.  Advertising is the perfect example of someone trying to ignore their corniness and still make it work, in fact.  They’re the only people who would ever think Captain America is a good idea.

Thus, when Steve Rodgers begins to step into the superhero role of Captain America, he suddenly takes the idea and makes it awesome.  We didn’t fall in love with Captain America in this movie— we fell in love with the guy behind it, who was stuffed into the corniest name available.  When he comes out on top, holding up the silly name like a rallying standard, it works.  For this movie, at least, the corniness is conquered, and he can get back to being awesome.

But the example doesn’t stop there.  (I didn’t realize beginning the post how perfect an example this would be.  Cap is a wealth of corniness.)  In every movie that features Captain America as a character, this problem must be conquered anew.  Again and again, it’s handled perfectly.  Take the Avengers, for instance.  With hugely non-corny heroes like the Hulk or Iron Man or Thor (although Thor is on the corny side), why is Cap even present?  He can’t fly, he can’t punch flying whales out of the sky, he can’t even lift Thor’s hammer.  Like a good writer, Joss Whedon acknowledges this almost instantly.  The other characters ask exactly this question.  Steve Rodgers himself never feels like he fits in with the group, especially since this isn’t his time period.  Instead of using the plot to acknowledge corniness, The Avengers uses the characters.

How do they fix it eventually?  Even after acknowledging it, they can’t just ignore it to save the day.  No, instead we have this resolution, offered in convenient dialogue form by extreme fan Phil Coulson:

With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.

Indeed, Coulson is the one person in the entire movie who sees past Cap’s corniness, and he’s the one to resolve that exact question.  Let’s take a moment to admire the amazing power of Coulson’s character in this single movie.

Okay, that done, let’s get back to Captain America.  I won’t go too much into the mechanics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (since it’s still pretty new), but they combine the ideas of both movies, pulling the solution to corniness from both the plot and the character.  As in The First Avenger, people are using Captain America for his name, but this time they’re using him as a weapon, not just as an advertising gimmick.  Once again, Steve Rodgers has to pull away from his persona and get back to doing what he feels is right.  It’s a more difficult fix to get right than the first two, but the payoff is much, much greater.

Every so often, you’ll be confronted with something inexplicably corny, whether in your own writing or in someone else’s.  How to fix it?  Acknowledge it within the story and fix it there first.  Use plot, use character, use whatever tools you have to make sure it’s fixed.  Corniness is not an acceptable solution to lack of originality— but fixing corniness through good writing definitely works.  Don’t be a Corny bar.

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49 Comments

  1. “Don’t be a Corny bar”…

    Good post. I wish I had seen the Captain America movies before I had read it (but I haven’t and one day, I will watch them and then come back to this post). I have seen The Avengers, though, and I see what you mean.

    Are you saying that each hotel room was supplied with ONE granola bar total for as many teenagers as were in each room?

    Reply
    • I second Robyn’s question. How on earth can that be “correctly guessing the metabolism of a group of teenagers”? You’d need at LEAST two corny-bars per teenager per hour spent in the room, surely?

      Reply
      • So maybe it wasn’t quite correct guessing, but it was insightful, to a point.

      • Ah, see, I just assumed sarcasm there. My bad.

      • Right. 😛 Do other teenagers even like granola bars? Sorry, I think I’m replying to everyone else on this post because I’m bored but more comments are always good, right? 😛

      • More comments are always good. Unless you’re just being pugnacious for some reason.

        I like granola bars.

      • I try not to be pugnacious. Commenting is more fun. Especially when snowball fights start. *snowballs Loki, who really shouldn’t mind it because he’s Jotun*
        So do I. I just didn’t think other people did… :-S

    • I don’t think I spoiled anything big, but yeah, it would have been nice to have seen them first. Nevertheless, I think it’s applicable.

      One granola bar for each room, in which there were two teenagers.

      Reply
  2. Oh, wow, this is amazing! After seeing the title, I came into this post with something of a scowl on my face, since Cap is my favorite Avenger and I thought you were going to make fun of him. Combine that with the fact that you write as Cap on YAvengers, and I was a bit confused.

    But as I read, I realized what you meant. And, honestly, I’ve never thought about using corniness correctly. As new writers, we hear all the time about turning cliches on their heads and being original, but this really got me thinking. Not that those things aren’t important, but ignoring corniness isn’t good, either. I liked what you said about that topic, by the way. “Because corniness is so apparent to the audience, for you to ignore it makes you seem ignorant of what you’re actually writing.”

    And I agree that Marvel’s writers have done a fabulous job with Captain America in the movies; he’s a real person behind the corniness he gets stuck in. Great post, Liam!

    Reply
  3. At first I thought you were going to diss Captain America, and I was all ready to yell at you if need be. But then I read the post, and I agree with everything you said. The way the movies handled Captain America’s character was perfect. He’s probably my favorite superhero of all time, tied with Spider-man.

    Reply
    • Indeed. Spider-Man is cool because of his powers and his humor, but Cap is cool because he could be corny but manages not to be.

      I’m glad you read the post instead of auto-ranting at me. That wouldn’t have been fun.

      Reply
  4. Cait

     /  September 14, 2014

    I’m definitely liking the “don’t be a corny bar”. Well said. 😉 Although about now is when I hide and admit I don’t like Captain America…although I think I don’t like the THOUGHT of him. Because: corny! And cliche and a little lame…but I kind of never thought about that being the point of him, and moving past it but still using it to make the movies better. But I haven’t watched The Winter Soldier and everyone assures me I’ll enjoy it, so who knows.

    I find myself writing cliches sometimes too, and I honestly try to rework them to be either fresh or just something completely different. I’m not opposed to a little bit of cliche when I’m reading a book though. As long as it’s done awesomely, I’m not arguing!

    Reply
    • The Winter Soldier is a really good superhero movie— that’s pretty much all that can be said. I think you’d enjoy it.

      Indeed, but when it’s glossed over as if the author doesn’t see it there… That just doesn’t work.

      Reply
  5. Wow, this was great. Even though Captain America wasn’t my all-time favourite movie or anything, this really explains why it was still enjoyable despite the hero’s corniness (I haven’t seen The Avengers or The Winter Soldier). There’s something in a writer’s ability to satirise himself that can be funny and really quite attractive at the same time.

    Reply
  6. Good post. I guess that explains part of the reason why Captain America was one of my favorite Avengers… (Him and Iron Man are my favorites, though I know exactly why I like the latter.)

    Now I just need to get my hands on the Winter Soldier and watch that…

    Reply
  7. What, you too? (Germany. A week. Horrid experience, just got back)

    Reply
    • That’s too bad— I loved Europe. What happened?

      Reply
      • Um… it rained… and rained… and we stayed in a place called Base Camp in Bonn (Google it and then never go near it)… and I bought buttermilk by mistake for real milk because I couldn’t read the packet… and my kid brother is studying Nazi Germany so we had to go to all these real depressing places…
        Switzerland was nice.

      • That’s too bad. I’d like to visit Switzerland.

  8. I honestly never really think in terms of corniness. More of cliches. But I acknowledge and receive your point. I probably need to work on this, seeing my tendency to think in cliches (or at least the similar-to-what-I-just-read thing).

    Also, since I managed to get the point quite well without knowing a thing, really, about Captain America, you did an excellent job.

    Reply
    • Everyone has the Talking Worm (similar-to-what-I-just-read syndrome). I wouldn’t say corniness is copying someone, just falling into tropes. But perhaps it’s the same thing in many cases.

      Thank you. I’m glad it worked.

      Reply
  9. *cries buckets* COULSON… Great job, Marvel. Making me cry.
    I love the way they focused on Steve Rogers more than Captain America in “The First Avenger”. They did an awesome job making him a person with conflicts and problems. Doctor Erskine says it all: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” Too many superhero movies focus on the superhero, not the man or woman behind the superhero.

    Reply
    • Indeed. I enjoyed his character.

      Reply
      • Yes. (Did you notice–Coulson’s non-offensive “I’m-not-a-threat” half-smile is eerily similar to Steve’s shy half-smile and awkward stage smile? *bursts into tears all over again* That was probably sheer coincidence when it came to the actors and screenwriters, since Coulson started off in “Iron Man” before they even planned to make a “Captain America” movie, but in the MCU itself, it’s probably actually a correlation. Though, I think that there was one scene in “Iron Man 2” which linked directly to “The First Avenger”…)

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