Subversive Superhero: The American Dream of Captain America
Posted by Stuart Young
Last year when I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the first time, I found it to be really good fun. The first half is probably better, where it’s like a superhero version of Bourne/Craig-era Bond/Mission Impossible/’70s paranoid conspiracy thriller. It even has a decent stab at social commentary-lite with its discussion of post 9/11 America. It also features some excellent fight sequences, probably the best I’ve seen in a superhero film. Unfortunately, the second half of the film sacrifices much of the moral complexity, turning it into a fairly straightforward good-vs.-evil scenario. The ending in particular seemed very much Hollywood wish-fulfilment (although the ramifications are explored a little more thoroughly in the Agents of SHIELD TV series).
Still, on an entertainment level the film works and does a good job of finding spotlight moments for a crowded cast. Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill is the only one who really comes away short-changed. Admittedly, a couple of plot points don’t really make sense, but I enjoyed the film so much that I didn’t really care. And certain stuff I expected it to do is being left until the sequel, which is probably just as well, as now the filmmakers can (hopefully) give those developments some dramatic heft instead of just crowbarring them into the last five minutes of The Winter Soldier. The film also gets bonus points for including Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” on the soundtrack.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard some people make of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that it’s filled with jingoistic flagwaving. Which only seems to prove these people weren’t paying attention. The film isn’t a live-action version of Team America: World Police. Granted, it ultimately comes down in favor of the good ol’ US of A, but along the way it’s actually pretty critical of modern America, and this is quite in keeping with aspects of Cap’s ongoing life in the comics that have developed over the past half century.
In point of fact, Captain America is a far more subversive character than people tend to realize. Yes, he was originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a gung-ho hero to help inspire America to get behind the idea of fighting the Nazis (his first comics appearance was before the US entered the war), but since his revival by Stan Lee in the ’60s he has often been used as a vehicle for critiquing American society.
“Captain America is a far more subversive character than people tend to realize. Since his revival by Stan Lee in the ’60s he has often been used as a vehicle for critiquing American society.”
His was the first Marvel comic to feature an African-American superhero in The Falcon. And The Falcon then went on to show Cap the racism in American society. During the ’70s run written by Steve Englehart one of the big villains Cap faced turned out to be Richard Nixon, who was never actually revealed on-page, but it was pretty obvious who it was supposed to be. This led to Cap’s becoming disillusioned with America and changing his superhero identity to Nomad, the man without a country. Englehart also retconned the Cap stories from the ’50s, explaining that they didn’t feature the original Cap but a replacement superhero after the original was thought dead at the end of WWII. This was done to iron out continuity issues, but Englehart also used it to comment on the Red Scare attitude of the ’50s and the McCarthy Witch hunts, saying that ’50s Cap was only so onboard with the Better Dead Than Red mentality as the super-soldier serum drove him insane.
In the ’80s writer J.M. DeMatteis had Cap end a fight by surrendering to a Native American “supervillain” named Black Crow to acknowledge the injustice done to the indigenous people by white settlers. Rumour has it that DeMatteis actually planned to kill Cap off later in the series and have Black Crow take on his mantle in Captain America #300, but this story never came to pass.
Captain America, Vol. 1, No. 292
Also during DeMatteis’ run, Cap was reunited with Arnie Roth, his childhood friend who used to save the pre-super-soldier serum Cap from the local bullies. Arnie was revealed to be not only gay but also involved in a long-term relationship. (The relationship ended — that’s the most non-spoilery way I can think of saying it — almost as soon as Arnie appeared in the comic, which I know annoyed some people, but you can’t have everything.) I’m not sure if this was the first appearance of an openly gay character in a superhero comic, but even if it wasn’t, it still has to be one of the earliest. DeMatteis also wrote an issue dealing with the complexities and responsibilities of free speech in which Cap argues that a bunch of neo-Nazis have as much right to free speech as anyone else; the argument is lent weight by the fact that it’s Captain America saying this, and he was created to stop Nazis. Of course Cap and a bunch of his friends join a Jewish counter-rally, but he realizes this causes problems of its own. The media only cover the event because of the friction between the two groups; by themselves the neo-Nazis wouldn’t have been big enough news to warrant a news spot. So Cap and his friends have just handed them free publicity. Worse, the leaders of both groups whip up their followers into a frenzy of hatred which eventually boils over with the Jewish leader attacking the head neo-Nazi. Cap tries to calm things down, at which point both of them attack him and he has to defend himself.
Nazis have rights? Jews protesting against Nazis can be bad guys? The moral contradictions in this story blew my young mind. Of course, in the following issue there’s a brief aftermath in which the Jewish leader has calmed down and is perfectly reasonable and contrite — his sense of righteous violence is explained as a temporary lack of control — while the Nazi proves he’s a violent racist arsehole by pulling a gun, an act which results in his getting a close-up look of Cap’s shield.
“Cap is a man out of time for both eras, not jaded enough for the 21st century but too progressive for the ’40s.”
During Mark Gruenwald’s ’80s stint as writer, Cap has to kill a terrorist in order to save a group of hostages, but instead of engaging in Ramboesque posturing at killing an evil foreigner, he spends the entire next issue regretting the need to have taken a human life. This incident is still having ramifications several issues later when a group of racists wearing Captain America masks engage in hate crimes and people think they’re affiliated with Cap. Some people revel in the way they believe him to be targeting foreigners while others condemn him out of hand for his perceived racism and strong-arm tactics. And there was a huge storyline during Gruenwald’s run where a committee of US politicians tried to blackmail Cap into becoming a lapdog to the US government, but Cap refused to go along with it, choosing to resign as Cap and seek a different way to serve the American people rather than be used for assassination missions and be party to things like the Iran-Contra business.
In 2003 Robert Morales wrote Truth: Red, White & Black, a seven issue mini-series where Cap discovers he was not the first recipient of the super-soldier serum. It turns out that in its earlier, more dangerous stages of development, the serum had first been tested on African-Americans, as they were deemed more expendable. The story draws parallels with the use of African-Americans in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment. One of the men experimented on, Isaiah Bradley, actually dons the Captain America costume to perform a deadly mission when Steve Rogers is delayed en route. Bradley is then cruelly airbrushed out of America’s history, and Rogers only learns of his existence decades after the war is over.
Truth: Red, White, and Black, No. 1
Fair Use, via Wikipedia
And then in the noughties there was the Civil War mega-event orchestrated by writer Mark Millar, where Cap refused to bow to government legislation that he felt infringed civil liberties and thus ended up fighting against many of his former teammates who believed in the legislation. Millar also reimagined Cap for Marvel’s Ultimate line, where well-loved characters were rebooted with simplified backstories and edgier personalities. In The Ultimates, Millar’s version of the Avengers, Cap comes close to being the ugly American that so many people who have never bothered to read the comics perceive him to be: arrogant, thuggish, and aggressively non-PC. (When called upon to surrender, he points to the A on his mask and yells, “Surrender??!! You think this letter on my head stands for France?”). He solves every problem with his fists and has a penchant for kicking people when they’re down. At the same time he is polite, fiercely loyal, dislikes swearing and nudity in films, and naively believes his apartment is safe from burglars because his old neighbourhood can’t have changed that much since the ’40s. Some of these contradictions are due to Millar’s sensationalistic writing style with its uneasy mix of edginess and gooey sentimentality; subtlety has no place here, impact is all that counts. But some of it is satire. In one story Cap battles an Islamic superhero/villain who is railing against US foreign policy. In a scene at a presidential party, George W. Bush is seen declining the offer of a pretzel. (Admittedly it’s not clear if this was in the script or just a background joke added by artist Bryan Hitch, but either way it’s very much in the spirit of Millar’s writing.) Think Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers remade as a superhero film and you’ll get some idea of the tone.
In Mark Waid’s 2011 retelling of Cap’s origin, Man Out of Time, Cap is initially helped in getting over his future shock at finding himself catapulted into the 21st century by being told about all the improvements: advances in medicine, the moon landings, women and ethnic minorities in positions of authority. But just as he’s starting to believe he’s awoken in some kind of utopia, he hears about the bad things: Watergate, the Martin Luther King assassination, and Vietnam. “This is what Captain America stands for now,” his old commanding officer tells him bitterly. “Phone sex and an eighteenth-place educational system.” And if the 21st century fails to live up to Cap’s expectations, then neither are the ’40s shown nostalgically as a golden age, since they’re depicted as a decade and an era when sexism and racism ran riot. Cap is a man out of time for both eras, not jaded enough for the 21st century but too progressive for the ’40s.
Captain America: Man Out of Time, Vol. 1, No. 1
Back when Waid wrote Cap’s adventures in the ’90s, there was an issue where Cap returns to his apartment to find illegal immigrants squatting there. Instead of getting them deported, he listens to their reasons for being there and offers them shelter while he helps them go through the legal immigration process. In Rick Remender’s current run, when the unhinged super-soldier Nuke rants about “filthy foreigners” Cap reveals that he himself is the son of Irish immigrants.
I’m not claiming that all these stories are classics. I’m not even claiming that they’re particularly sophisticated takes on modern politics and society. In fact, some of them are kind of clunky by today’s standards. But I thought it was worth pointing out that Cap isn’t the rightwing nutjob some people think him to be.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying that I was pleasantly surprised Hollywood got so much of the more liberal side of Cap’s character into The Winter Soldier. The film did a great job of balancing his idealistic nature with the grittier edge that some of the more recent comics writers have brought to him. In fact, the film version is actually more opposed to an “ends justifies the means” approach to superheroing than some of the recent comics writers are. This makes me look forward to seeing where the franchise goes next.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more about Captain America by Stu Young, see “Captain America: Living Symbol, Heroic Symbiosis“