Captain America: Living Symbol, Heroic Symbiosis (Men in Tights, Part 4)

NOTE: This article is the final part of a series.

Captain America is the member of the Avengers who is most obviously wearing a costume. It’s not a battlesuit or a uniform. It’s not the cultural garb of a mystical race. It’s a costume. This is significant, because his costume indicates his deepest identity as a superhero. Quite simply and literally, Captain America is the living symbol of the American Dream. He stands for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Unfortunately, at least in terms of visual appearance, this makes him look like an idiot.

The Captain America film spends a lot of time disguising the costume beneath a leather jacket and army fatigues. Fortunately, the costume looks better on the screen than it did in publicity stills, where it resembled a multi-coloured boiler suit. In much the same way, the more streamlined costume he wore in The Avengers didn’t look quite so much like a piece of confectionery that had sprouted legs and started beating people up. But the problem that neither film really managed to solve is that the mask is highly unflattering. Even after replacing the silly little wings with painted emblems, the mask still looks stupid and ugly, and somehow changes the entire shape of Cap’s head from square-jawed hunk to a lump of plasticine moulded by an epileptic orangutan wearing boxing gloves. Not surprisingly, Cap takes it off as often as possible.

But in the end, does he really need the costume to be a symbol of the American Dream?

In the comics, at the time of the Watergate scandal Cap became disillusioned with America and abandoned his role as the Sentinel of Liberty, but then an encounter with Hawkeye (disguised as the Golden Archer) made him realise he couldn’t just stand idly by when he saw crimes committed. So he became Nomad, the man without a country. Later, when he witnessed the death of a civilian who had attempted to fill the void left by Cap’s resignation by becoming a new Captain America, he was moved once again to don the red, white, and blue.

In the ’80s the Commission on Superhuman Activities attempted to blackmail Cap into becoming a government stooge, claiming that as the Captain America name, costume, and shield were all government property, he would be forced to relinquish them if he didn’t toe the line. Fearing that they would ask him to participate in black ops, assassinations, and various other underhanded activities, Cap told the Commission that his job was to represent not the American government but the American people and the American dream, and that he could do these things without being Captain America. He spent the next year and a half inhabiting an alternative superhero identity, The Captain, while a rival superhero, Super-Patriot (real name: John Walker) was enlisted to take over as Captain America. As Super-Patriot, Walker had displayed all the worst aspects of patriotism — arrogance, selfishness, jingoism — but when he donned the Captain America costume, he realised just how difficult it was to be a living symbol, and he strove to change his ways and live up to his predecessor’s legend. Ultimately, though, the Commission admitted their mistake in trying to replace Steve and gave him back the costume.

In the ’90s Cap was framed for treason, and while the President was skeptical of the incriminating evidence, it was necessary for him to be seen taking punitive action, and so he revoked Cap’s US citizenship. Cap spent the next few issues in a new costume but managed to prove his innocence before he even got around to coming up with a new name. More recently, Cap handed the costume over to one of his friends as a way of helping him to seek redemption and focus various past traumas and tragedies. Meanwhile, Cap took over the running of S.H.I.E.L.D. and became known as Steve Rogers, Super-Soldier.

“There is a symbiotic relationship at work here; as great as Steve Rogers and Captain America are separately, together they are far greater.”

A lot of fanboys make fun of Cap because he isn’t as cool and edgy as, say, Batman. They point to the fact that being injected with the super-soldier serum basically makes him a steroid user. They also sneer at the spectacle of puny Steve Rogers jumping at the chance to become an Adonis. Rogers, these cynics say, was motivated purely by selfishness. But this conveniently overlooks the fact that his attempted to join the army before he even knew about the serum and was willing to fight Nazis using nothing but his own natural, frail physical abilities. Even after he was told about the serum, there was a good chance that the experimental treatment would kill him. The fact that it didn’t might be due to luck, but it could also be ascribed to force of will; in the Lee-Kirby version of the origin story, Steve nearly blacks out during his transformation, and Dr. Erskine yells that it is crucial for him to remain awake and in control.

Detractors also overlook that fact that there are many instances where Cap acts heroically even without the super-soldier serum. In one retelling of his origin, Nazi spies attempt to kill him before he is given the serum, and he is rescued by costumed swashbuckler Dominic Fortune. Then Steve, still sans serum, returns the favour when Fortune is trapped by the Nazis. At one point in Cap’s career, the super-soldier serum is removed from his body, reducing his physical abilities but not his desire to fight for justice. On another occasion Cap becomes weighed down by his responsibilities, and Sersi, a member of the superhuman race the Eternals, grants him a wish to return to his teenaged self, which Steve soon regrets, since despite his scrawny physique he still ends up fighting crime as Teen-Cap. Even when the super-soldier serum starts to degenerate and leaves him paralysed, he uses a powered exoskeleton to continue fighting crime rather than sit around waiting for his inevitable death.

In the films Cap doesn’t have a secret identity, and in the comics he chooses to abandon it. (A pity he didn’t think to do this earlier, when he was so convinced that he needed a secret identity that he faked his own death in order to preserve it, regardless of the pain it would cause his loved ones.) After killing the terrorist al-Tariq, he ditches his secret identity by unmasking on national television and announcing that any reprisals over al-Tariq’s death should be aimed at him, not at American citizens.

Steve Rogers’ presumed death. Art by Steve Epting.

Even after going public, Steve continues to wear the costume, and continues to act as a living symbol. And even though he no longer has a secret identity, he is prepared to defend those who still do. During Civil War he disagrees that superheroes should be forced to make their secret identities public, because he feels it is a matter of personal choice, since not everyone has the same abilities and resources to protect their loved ones if supervillains come gunning for them. And, as this is a superhero comic, the matter can’t be resolved with a well-reasoned debate, and so a massive punch-up is required. In order to create dramatic tension and give equal weight to both sides of the argument of national security versus civil liberties, several previously altruistic superheroes have to act like scheming idiots.  Cap comes out if it better than some, but I can’t help thinking that the Cap I grew up with would probably have surrendered to the authorities before anyone got hurt, and then he would have gone to trial and made an impassioned speech that gets the new legislation overturned, thus avoiding any bloodshed. Still, in Civil War at least he’s generally portrayed as caring about the people involved. When he finally does surrender to the authorities, it is after realising the potential for civilian casualties in all of these super-powered scraps. (God knows why it takes him so long to figure this out, when each fight seems to level half a city. In fact, the deaths caused by super-battles are one of the reasons why the Civil War starts in the first place.) He is arrested for treason, and crowds jeer and throw rubbish at him as he is led from the courthouse. He is shot and fatally wounded by an assassin. but as he lies there dying, his words are not of anger, nor are they a final protestation of innocence. Instead, he orders his S.H.I.E.L.D. escort to protect the same crowd that has just been vilifying him.

Cap continues to be noble and heroic even when he is unsure of himself, even if that uncertainty extends to being unable to trust the contents of his own thoughts. During the ’80s he found himself with two sets of conflicting memories of his life prior to WWII. In one he was the son of a wealthy diplomat living in Maryland. In the other he was a working-class kid from Brooklyn whose father had died and whose mother was working herself into an early grave. Eventually, he discovered that the Maryland memories were lies fabricated by the War Department, and that he had willingly been imprinted with them so that if he were captured by the Nazis and tortured to extract information, anything he gave them would be useless. Probably the weirdest instance of Cap being unsure of his own mind occurred when he was turned into a werewolf and had to fight his feral instincts to remain in control as a morally upright superhero. Unfortunately, Cap-Wolf never got to team up with Thor, Frog of Thunder.

Steve’s role as Cap often helps anchor him when he is confused, even if his confusion relates directly to that very same role. As he comments in Mark Waid’s Man Out of Time while adjusting to the culture shock of Captain America’s new responsibilities in the modern world after decades in suspended animation, “Sometimes all you can do is step into a role and be patient while it molds itself around you.” There is a symbiotic relationship at work here; as great as Steve Rogers and Captain America are separately, together they are far greater.

One of the things that makes Cap great is his speeches. Generally these tend to revolve around ethics and patriotism and living up to your full potential, but occasionally he ponders theology. In the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, Cap finds himself in a pensive mood as he contemplates the imminent invasion of Earth by the cosmic entity Gah Lak Tus. Ultimate Cap had been brought up to believe that evil could always be defeated because there were enough good people in the world to prove humanity worthy of God’s love. “But,” he observes, “there aren’t enough of us, are there?” Gah Lak Tus proves too big to deal with using the tactics Cap has employed to thwart supervillains in the past, and too overwhelming to face without even the strongest and purest of hearts plunging into despair. In fact, he proves to be a threat of such magnitude that he eclipses both Cap’s strategies as a soldier and his spiritual faith. “Yesterday,” Cap says, “I was a ‘super-soldier.’ Today I don’t even know if I still believe in God.”

In Avengers #113, written by Steve Englehart, Cap is sorting through the Avengers’ fan mail when he opens a letter decrying the relationship between his comrades the Scarlet Witch and her android beau the Vision. The writer of the letter uses badly spelled religious rhetoric to attack the Vision, claiming that as only God can create life, androids have no souls and are agents of the devil. This seems a bit harsh, since the Vision’s mind was based on the brain patterns of the deceased Wonder Man — regarding whom, no, of course he doesn’t stay dead, because he’s a superhero, or well, technically, he was a supervillain at the time, but a repentant one. Anyway, the Vision managed to shrug off any of the villainous aspects of Wonder Man’s personality and work purely with the nobler, more heroic aspects of his mind.

This is particularly impressive when you consider that the Vision was created by Ultron to be used as a weapon against the Avengers. Ultron, in turn, is a synthetic being of sorts, a robot that gained sentience after being imprinted with the brain patterns of Hank Pym, who at the time was serving with the Avengers as Goliath, which goes to show that just because an artificial being starts off with a heroic mind, that doesn’t mean it can’t turn evil. And when you take into account what happened when Iron Man’s armour became sentient, it seems the Vision deserves credit for, at the very least, not being a complete dick, let alone refusing to kill the Avengers. Admittedly, it could be argued that the Vision had a head start in the morality stakes, because his body was made from the remains of the WWII android — and old pal of Cap’s — the Human Torch. (No, I don’t know why he was called the Human Torch when he was an android.) It’s possible that some of the Torch’s programming was still present in his systems, especially as we’re talking comic-book science here, which contains the kinds of flights of fancy that would give Richard Dawkins an aneurysm.

So the Vision would have had two personality templates containing noble thoughts instead of just one. Even so, whatever minor advantages he may have had personality-wise, his primary programming was to be evil, and he fought against that programming. He may have been so creepy and emotionless that he made Mr Spock look like a fun-loving party animal, but he sure as hell wasn’t evil. Over time he battled to get a better handle on these crazy things called emotions and fell in love with the Scarlet Witch, so although not human in a physical sense, he could easily pass not only the Turing test, in which machines have to prove they can think, but also the Young test — a highly rigorous scientific test that I’ve just made up —  in which machines prove they can feel emotions. Basically, you get the machine to watch Bambi and see if it cries when Bambi’s mum dies. Add to that the small matter of the Vision helping to save the entire world on a regular basis, and it’s no surprise that a letter accusing him of being a soulless agent of the devil doesn’t go down well with Cap. Enraged, Cap screws the letter up and hurled it into the fireplace exclaiming, “I don’t know about your God, but a God of Love is mine!”

“Cap was worshipped as a god by an Inuit tribe that found him trapped in suspended animation inside an iceberg after WWII. One of them later observed, ‘He made me a better man. That is all the god I need.’ “

But it’s not all metaphysical angst and righteous anger when Cap gets involved in theology. In the Avengers movie, Black Widow warns him not to intervene in a punch-up between Thor and Loki, for the obvious reason that, you know, they’re gods. Cap pauses just long enough to reply “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that,” before hurling himself into the fray.

Of course Cap himself was worshipped as a god by an Inuit tribe that found him trapped in suspended animation inside an iceberg after WWII. The local shaman, Aningan (who shares his name with an Inuit moon-god), found Cap while out fishing and, cut off from the news and the media, failed to recognise him and instead proclaimed him a god. But when the Sub-Mariner had a temper tantrum while passing by the tribe, he hurled their god into the sea in a fit of pique. The tribe couldn’t understand why their god didn’t strike the Sub-Mariner down with lightning rather than suffer this indignity, and so they lost their faith. A dispirited Aningan mumbled broken prayers to his god, which were heard by the supervillain Kang, who just happened to be passing by (these Alaskan tundras certainly get a lot of visitors), and who decided to disguise himself as the Blue Totem in order to get Aningan to act as a pawn in Kang’s plan to kill the Avengers. Once all the business with Kang was sorted out, Cap visited Aningan to try and ease his distress over losing one “god'” and being fooled by another.

In “Man of God,” writer Elliott Kalan showed how Cap’s stint as the “God in the Ice” continued to impact the Inuit tribe.  The elderly Auckaneck is at odds with his grandson, Cikuq, over whether to raise the latter’s granddaughter in a mainstream religion (presumably Christianity) or in the Inuits’ Cap-based faith. After the argument, Auckaneck tells his great-granddaughter about his own dealings with the God in the Ice: how he had prayed for the death of his rival in love, and how he had sensed the disappointment emanating from his god as he made his plea. Later, when he faced a chance to let said rival drown, that same sense of divine disappointment led him instead to try and save him. Upon returning home, Auckenack ended up getting the girl of his dreams after all. So when Cikuq yet again pours scorn upon the idea of the God in Ice, Auckenack replies, “He gave me my Sura. He made me a better man. That is all the god I need.” Cap doesn’t even need to do anything to help save the day; all he has to do is stand there looking cool in his costume.

* * *

So now that we’ve taken a closer look at superhero costumes — in “Batman: Daemon with a Cape,” “Spider-Man: Totem and Tragedy,” and “The Avengers: Clothes Make the Iron Man,” and this last installment of the “Men in Tights” series — what exactly have we learned?

Have we learned, perhaps, that superhero costumes are functional battlesuits? That they are powerful totems for psychological and spiritual forces? That they serve as a focus for providing moral inspiration?

Have we learned that maybe they serve as all of these things and much more?

Or have we merely learned that I really need to stop taking this stuff so seriously? That’s a judgment I leave up to you, dear reader.


Images: Capwolf via Comic Vine; Captain America #1, Cap’s death, Avengers #57 via Wikipedia; frames from Captain America, Man of God, via Scans Daily

About Stuart Young

Stuart Young is the British Fantasy Award-winning author of SPARE PARTS, SHARDS OF DREAMS, and THE MASK BEHIND THE FACE. In addition to writing Sparking Neurones for The Teeming Brain, he blogs at

Posted on November 1, 2012, in Sparking Neurones and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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