Up jump hope and inspiration, fortified by daring fictional heroes on the page and on the screen.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" charged into theaters last week, saving the world and stirring up echoes of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that covers some of the same ground with some of the same ferocity and fun.
And featuring the same deeply satisfying sock to Adolph Hitler's jaw.
"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (2000) by Michael Chabon is set in the same era as "Captain America": World War II. But this isn't the World War II of serene retrospect, of history books and Wikipedia entries, when the Allies have already won and Hitler long ago had his ticket punched for a one-way trip to hell. This is the World War II when the outcome is still very much in doubt, when the world can go either way: Ground down beneath the iron bootheel of the Nazi war machine or elevated into the clear blue light of freedom's dawn.
"Captain America" comes amid a super-heated, superhero summer. "Green Lantern," "Thor" and "X-Men: First Class" have already punished the wicked, joined by quasi-superhero fare such as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" and "Cowboys & Aliens." More extraordinary crusaders await their turns: Showings of "Captain America" are preceded by trailers for yet another Spider-Man and another Batman movie. Also in the works are iterations of the Superman and Wolverine franchise.
"Captain America," then, is no surprise.
The surprise comes from the film's ability to tap into the same towering emotions and vivid visual metaphors as does Chabon's brilliant novel — a novel which, for its part, taps into feelings and images from the history of the creation of the original Captain America and Superman comics. Book and film share a deep understanding of the powerful allure of the superhero, as well as a cheerfulness and optimism even in the wake of a rapacious real-life evil — and the sorrows and misunderstandings that can plague all human relationships.
In "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," two young men, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, create a series of comic book superheroes, including the Escapist. The cover of the first issue features the Escapist giving the Fuhrer a poke in his pie hole.
In the current "Captain America" film, the title character initially is the star of a patriotic skit, the climax of which is the moment when he takes out a Hitler figure with a swing of his cement-block of a fist — while itching to trade fiction for the real thing.
Here is Joe Kavalier in Chabon's novel, working on the cover even as he worries about his family back in Prague, which shivers in the shadow of a swastika:
"There were just the two principals, the Escapist and Hitler, on a neoclassical platform draped with Nazi flags against a blue sky. It had taken Joe only a few minutes to get the Escapist's pose right — legs spread, big right fist arching across the page to deliver an immortal haymaker — and hours to paint in the highlights and shadows that made the image seem so real. The dark blue fabric of the Escapist's costume was creased with palpable pleats and wrinkles … As for Hitler, he came flying at you backward, right-crossed clean out of the painting, head thrown back, forelock a-splash, arms flailing … The violence of the image was startling, beautiful, strange. It stirred mysterious feelings in the viewer, of hatred gratified, of cringing fear transmuted into smashing retribution …"
The cover of the first Captain America comic, published in March 1941, showed the title character — created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby — cleaning Hitler's clock.
One of the niftiest moments in the 2011 film version of the Captain America saga occurs when Steve Rogers — not yet anointed with the hero's moniker, still feeling his newly minted muscles with wonder — chases a bad guy through the crowded city streets. The bad guy grabs a kid, then tosses him into the river, hoping the rescue effort will divert Rogers from the hunt.
Rogers, peering into the drink, clearly is torn: Save the lad or nab the fleeing villain?
And then the kid, treading water like mad, hollers, "I can swim! Go get him!"
In other words: I can take care of myself. Do your duty. That's the American spirit, crammed into a few words of dialogue.
Both novel and film brim with that spirit. Both deal with some of the world's grimmest realities: Hitler, the Holocaust, death and loss. Both turn World War II into a personal struggle: Not nation against nation, but a good guy against a very, very bad one. Both put real-life characters into fictional universes — or vice versa.
And both make the point that there is nothing simplistic about a black-and-white universe, about a good-versus-evil dichotomy. Whether the story is dramatized in a movie or in a novel, whether it's created with a billion-dollar budget or with raggedy old socks turned into hand puppets, what matters are the ideas, the ones that pop up again and again, through the years and across the generations, as reliable as tomorrow's sunrise.
Ideas about truth, justice, fair play — and the exhilaration of imagining Hitler knocked flat on his keister.