Yes, we get it, America covers more than the United States. Nobody cares.
Figured I’d do this as a companion piece to good ol’ Tony and cover Marvel’s Big 2 to contrast DC’s most famous couple. Or rather, their most marketed as opposite-rival-frenemy-allies in recent times. So who is the guy who hurls his mighty shield? Who was he before becoming Hydra Supreme?
War! And Substance Abuse!
Here are the essentials for his origin: Steve Rogers is an Irish-American who wants to serve his country and help defend it. One problem with that: He’s got a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy weenie baby body.
But that doesn’t stop Steve. He’s got wits, he’s got guts, and he’s got heart. And it’s up to the government to fill in the missing ingredients: a defecting German scientist and experimental drugs!
After becoming the first and only success due to the tried and true plot complication of “surprise secret agent” taking out Professor Erskine (and with him, the super soldier formula), Steve goes on to be first a propaganda tool, then a wartime hero, meeting several Golden Age Marvel characters like Namor and early ancestors or versions of modern ones like the Human Torch (who was the original! Who knew?). His peak-human strength, agility, and (sometimes) intelligence, coupled with his sharp mind for tactics and fighting, let him pretty much own every Nazi and Hydra super plot until he finally meets his ‘end’ by stopping an experimental bomber by flying it into the sea.
UNTIL after finding out in a mock-story that people would pay good money for Cap to show up, Marvel pulled off one of the earliest comic book resurrections in history and revealed the utterly sensible situation: Cap was frozen by ocean currents (and in perfect hibernation!), then unearthed by the Avengers, then welcomed into the FUUUUUUUTUUUUUUUUUUUURE.
Since then, Cap has left a trail of broken bones and hearts, led a bunch of teams, punched terrorism in the face, worked for (and retired from or was fired by) his government, fought the usual list of supervillains and scenarios, died, got brought back to life, got aged, got de-aged, and now he’s had his history LITERALLY rewritten (new old fake real memories and everything!) in one of the deadliest retcons known to Marvel by becoming a Hydra double agent. Your guess is as good as mine as to how they’re fixing that!
So that’s the basic rundown of Cap’s origin and the main idea behind him: peak human, using that advantage with his mind and courage to outfight and outthink more powerful villains. His indestructible, ricocheting shield is a big part of that, too. While it’d take awhile to go over everything he does, here are a few highlights of the sorts of stories that revolve around Steve Rogers and his various cohorts.
It’s Symbolic, Duh
The most obvious direction his plots and themes take beyond just “Go punch terrorism in the face” is how Captain America is a symbol. I mean, c’mon, it’s right there in the name. On the shield. On his clothes.
Although Steve the individual is certainly held as synonymous with the identity, one major theme for both the title and the character is that it’s a government-owned identity that is meant to stand for something. Namely, that even as a galaxy-hopping, time-warping Avenger, Steve is expected to represent and defend the American dream.
So, setting aside messy debates about what we think that means, I can boil it down to these key talking points which sum up most of these “What does the symbol mean” stories:
- Steve believes in the most ideal version of the American dream. Truth, justice, and freedom for all. Stand up for the little guy. Hold your ground with courage. Everyone gets a fair shot.
- Something, be it the government or the world, thinks otherwise. Could be jingoists thinking it means screaming “U! S! A! U! S! A!”, or other nations thinking he’s the symbol of American conquest, not freedom.
- Steve has doubts about what he thought it meant versus what other people want it to mean. Some of them push REALLY hard. Sometimes HE pushes BACK.
- Ultimately, after some soul-searching and enemy-punching, Steve tries to hold a more mature worldview, though he’s also never been one to settle or compromise if it didn’t feel right.
So obviously, with all sorts of shenanigans going on in the world, this is, like, SUPER relevant and ‘woke’, you guys (I feel dirty having just said that word). But nevertheless, it’s a central and engaging theme behind the character. And the most important thing it says is: Steve Rogers and Captain America are two different things.
Sure, he is synonymous with the role, and basically ended up pigeonholed into that career path (let that be a lesson on the consequences of drug abuse). But at the end of the day, Steve’s good ol’ fashioned idealism has butted heads with crappy reality dozens of times. More than once, he’s been disowned by the government, or quit his job and taken on new identities.
So that’s Steve’s take on things. But where does the Captain America intellectual property come in? Well, in general, it basically means that he’s a big PR boost or disaster waiting to happen, and while most agents try to cooperate with Steve because disagreeing with him is essentially political suicide, that hasn’t stopped the White House from trying to pressure or replace him.
Unlike Steve, who wants to stand for more than just his beloved homeland (likely because he fought against a greater evil beside international allies firsthand), assorted government folks want him to stand for America first. Sometimes by essentially being their personal stormtrooper. And so, they’ve tried to find more ruthless or ‘loyal’ agents who have less of that ‘independent thought’ nonsense going on for them. Or, I should say, Steve somehow always has to face contrived, derivative, cartoonishly jingoistic officials who have the power to do something about it.
Certainly, there are heroes whose secret identities clash with their heroic personas (unlike those guys who live in their basements with no company but bats and butlers). But Captain America probably represents a unique example of it, namely because not only is it actually publicly ‘known’, it can also be forcibly taken from or abandoned by him. It provides a good model for how to handle characters who are government agents, but also those who are meant to represent larger-than-life symbols. Is it a duty they reluctantly accept, or one they resent?
I Wanna Grow Up To Be Just Like You
Now, obviously the whole ‘wear and throw a flag’ thing is a big deal in his stories. But Cap’s ability to inspire extends to more than his own personal patriotic angst, too. It has contributed to his personal RELATIONSHIP angst as well!
Aside from the various ladies wooed by his large…character…Steve’s actually mentored a large number of sidekicks and successors, starting with Bucky, the WW2 Robin. Bucky, Rick Jones, Sam “the whiny Falcon” Wilson, Steve’s taken in a lot of people and often turned their lives around through the power of inspiration, example, and PUNCHING.
And it’s more than just his immediate supporting cast. Cap’s ability to inspire through courage and example are what mark him as THE leader of choice in the Marvel universe, the golden standard for how to be effective and principled.
That comes at a cost, however. The most immediate problem is that it places another expectation on Steve. Now he’s not just a beacon for America, but one for the superhuman community. Secondly, as good a leader as he is, he’s not perfect; Steve gets so much right that he can be heavily blindsided when he’s wrong. Things like dealing with moral grey areas, accepting he might be wrong, or refusing to compromise and escalating a situation.
And of course, there’s one problem only a handful of people know: It means he can never truly go back to being ‘just’ Steve Rogers. So many people expect him to be a leader that, in addition to being a man out of time with everything he knew gone, he just can’t enjoy a normal life. Oh, what’s that, Peter Parker? Think it’s tough being a kid AND one of New York’s unappreciated guardians? Cute, kid. Try being the pillar of the superhuman community.
Spy Antics And Mad SCIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEENCE
Surprised? C’mon. The guy’s a result of questionable chemistry.
Now, it’s true that much of Steve’s stories are about themes like symbols, patriotism, duty versus principles, and the idea that even someone without powers can make a difference if they have courage (and an Olympic-grade body they never earned, but I digress).
But amidst all that overly cerebral fluff, let’s not forget one crucial fact: Comics and the like are for FUN. And yes, Steve has the good ol’ pulp fiction adventure in his DNA, too.
For starters, there’s his duty alone. As essentially James Bond in star-spangled tights, he’s fought all manner of cutthroat mercenaries and doomsday device plots. And then when THOSE were taken down, there were the successors and emergency backup cells. And then when THOSE were taken down, there were even MORE backup organisations. Chop off a limb and two more shall take its place and all that.
Then there’s everything that went into making him: The Super Soldier Serum. Now, Marvel (and really, any comic franchise) has no shortage of unbelievable items of great power, but Cap’s serum is one of those in the top must-haves. And for every story about Cap’s old and new enemies, there’s one about his serum: Its side-effects, whether it’s wearing off, some villain’s latest attempt to recreate or neutralise it, and so on and so forth.
When he’s not worrying about politics about symbolism, THESE are the worries of Captain America. Because in a shrinking world of comics, NO piece of backstory is wasted, and EVERYTHING is just waiting to be pulled up as a threat.
He Could Be Anyone
Now I’m gonna close with something a little atypical, or not depending on how you view Cap. Despite the uniqueness of his position and symbol, one idea that’s thrown around is that anyone could be a hero like him, in spirit even if not in physicality. But there’s another way to look at this.
Though Cap, like any character, has his own unique traits (his government connection, the strength of his character outshining his physical power, his burden as a symbol, the idea of not earning his power), there’s one thing people might overlook: ALL comic characters share the same traits. We make a big deal of these features in the main figures, but really, all of them have their own lives and dramas behind them. All of them have implications, and all of them evolve over time, just as Cap went from propaganda to paragon.
You can apply this exercise to any character you can imagine. Look at any part of their backstory. Their lives, their motives, the source of their powers. ANY of it can be brought out of storage or even introduced for the first time. From Thor’s grandfather to the guy who shot Uncle Ben to Your Next Door Neighbour Was Actually The Leader of AIM, plot hooks are just waiting to be unearthed.
And for each of those situations, there’s a potential for a story. To challenge, affirm, or redefine what it means to be that character.
Hmmmmmm. I think we’d better take a closer look at where Squirrel Girl gets HER powers…