I originally started writing this blog post about two days before the now infamous press release by Marvel Comics that Captain America, the Steve Rogers one, was an agent of H.Y.D.R.A. all along. Now, never mind that this is just another example of a desperate comic industry ratings stunt to sell more than 25.000 copies of any given book not headlined by Spider-Man, Batman, or Star Wars, what really surprised me was the public outcry over this fictional character. I’ve had my issues with Captain America in the past and talked about it here or there with people, but many people are heavily attached to the character. What makes Captain America who is is, is really the embodiment of the American Spirit. Cap is, in the words of Brows Held High, not the man who fought in World War 2. He is the man who fought in the World War that Americans wanted to fight. One in which the good guys always won, in which the Americans didn’t arrest hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American citizens, in which we don’t have to talk about the suffering and dying on the front lines. Where the bad guys weren’t also mostly people fighting to survive and for their comrades to survive. And I think it took me a while to come to terms with Captain America.
Whenever someone asked me if I read Captain America comics, I always used to joke that I would like to but didn’t appreciate always seeing my great-grandfather killed on page 3. That was meant in jest, of course, a bit tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but it also explains the problems of the character. Captain America is a character that was created for reasons of propaganda, he was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, months before the US entered the war, precisely to be a symbol and a political statement. In many ways he is the only one of his kind that has survived. Superheroes like Superman and Batman were created before the war, in the last years of the depression, as escapism and eventually took up the fight as well. Not so Cap. Cap is synonymous with World War 2 in a way little else really is. His closest approximation as a character is arguably Wonder Woman, another character created as a symbol and a political statement. And just like Wonder Woman there have been growing periods over the decades. It’s what happens when you have an icon that was created in time for WW2 and made it through the conservative 50s, the revolutionary 60s, the grimy 70s, the greedy 80s, and the happy-go-lucky 90s to finally arrive in the ominous 2000s. Culture all around the world, and especially the US, has changed, and different generations of people have grown up, lived, and died with new beliefs in how the world actually works. And all of that cultural change is embedded in the character by a writing team and a comics industry. A lot of what we consider essential to Steve Rogers as a character wasn’t originally there in the 40s. He wasn’t a struggling liberal artist, sensitive painter, a man of integrity and a force for good. He is no longer a grunt fighting at the front punching out Hitler, a mindless drone of American propaganda. He has, in many ways, changed with the country. Matured, and it can be seen in newer adaptations, like in Chris Evans’ wonderful performance. The Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Captain America really is where you can point and say that this is a man that stands for the good parts of the American experience.
And yet Captain America is also still a problematic character. While he as a character has matured, his audience and his writing often has not. In many ways it has regressed as an easy way to make the character more palatable to an international audience. In recent retellings, and also the comics, Cap no longer fights the Nazis in WW2, but they have been replaced by H.Y.D.R.A., sometimes just an evil organization bent on world domination, sometimes affiliated with the Nazi regime but made up of colorful assholes like Zemo and Strucker, cartoons, symbolizing simpler times and simpler morality. Black-and-white morality. In the Winder Soldier all the bad in the world, all the suffering and death, the wars, the struggles, have not been the outcome of short-sighted international politics as an outcome of the Cold War and the idea of Armageddon as the only possible outcome, but having been planed out in detail by the not-Nazis. Captain America as a character has been allowed to grow up, to become a complex human being with reasons to fight, not to fight, when to take a moral stance. Yet the writing still treats the audience like children. Good and bad. “If they’re shooting at you they’re bad”, Steve says to the Falcon in the Winter Soldier while taking on H.Y.D.R.A. Motivations? Who needs that. Let’s just look at the movies, since that’s the thing that people actually know. The First Avenger gave us a somber reconstruction of the character, a character piece of how one man become part of something greater but despite all of that stayed true to himself. And then a second and third act happened where he and his drinking buddies fought H.Y.D.R.A. and the Red Skull, a “man so evil that he was kicked out of the Nazis” to quote Bob Chipman without the drooling over so-called clever writing or something. Same with Winter Soldier, which was a complex military/espionage thriller perfect for our merky 21st century, that gave up on moral grayness halfway through to battle H.Y.D.R.A. again. And once again in Captain America: Civil War, where the debate between Iron Man and Captain America gets drowned out by punching and manipulation by comic-H.Y.D.R.A. agent and movie version-spymaster Zemo.
I love the character of Steve Rogers, I think he is a great example of what you can do with a problematic nationalistic piece of propaganda to turn him into a force for good. He is what America should stand for, not what it currently stands for, yet because of his status as a symbol pop culture osmosis has him remain as a one-dimensional symbol of blind American patriotism. Steve Rogers loved his country and therefor knows when to stand up to the evil done in the name of a great ideal. Captain America, more often than not and especially recently, loves his country and is always on the right side of history. Steve Rogers: human being. Captain America: perfect human being. Steve Rogers: character. Captain America: caricature.