The psychological impact of Captain America becoming an anti-American hero, or at least joining a villainous team which espouses anti-American ideas is a disturbing concept to many. The shock doesn’t just reverberate within the comic-made universe, but also to the outside real-world fans who look toward ol’ Cap as a beacon of traditionally-thought-of wholesome American values. The storylines in SECRET EMPIRE converged to reveal more about the readers and the current times we live in than they did about Captain America.

Captain America as a Symbol

Captain America’s 1941 debut was Marvel’s answer to the 1938 Superman first appearance in June’s Action Comics #1. Superman’s personality contained, above all, a moral and virtuous character. Later, George Reeves and then Christopher Reeves iconically portrayed him in film.  Like Superman, people typically view Captain America as the embodiment of the American ideals: unwavering, honest/truthful, fearless, just, and convinced of his own righteousness as well as the ideal American of his day: a tall, chiseled, white, and statuesque man. This image of Captain America would hold unproblematically true seventy-plus years, until the series SECRET EMPIRE revealed that in fact, Captain America had been a sleeper Hydra operative since the beginning.

Flipping the Script on Captain America

In SECRET EMPIRE, the Nazi spy, Red Skull, managed to use the Cosmic Cube-turned-human child, Kobik, to alter Captain America’s memories making him a Hydra agent. Hydra, for those who don’t know, is a cabal dedicated to world domination through terrorist and subversive tactics, such as infiltrating governments and corporations, to achieve their fascist ideals.

This doesn’t seem like the kind of group that Captain America would have joined at any point. Steve Rogers, the man that became Captain America, was an unimpressive soldier aside from his Rudy-esque can-do attitude. Rogers, the poor kid from an Irish-immigrant family and who was nothing more than a good-natured, scrawny arts student, bravely volunteered for the super-soldier experiment. It was Rogers’ tenacity in wanting to volunteer for the war effort that compelled the generals and scientists to allow him to be experimented on. After his transformation, he’s still so American, so apple pie, Rogers’ even designed his own costume – the Old Glory leotard he wears to this day.

Given that description, which clearly outlines the mores and values of Captain America, it seems difficult to suspend disbelief and accept that Captain America is a Hydra agent. This reveals more about the readers than good ‘ol Cap.

Steve Rogers’ Fall From Grace

The salient argument that emerges from those who protest this incarnation is that this is unbecoming of Captain America. The dissonance of Captain America being un-American doesn’t work. It’s fundamentally changing the character into something akin to more troubled characters in the Marvel universe who would have less of a moral leap to make.

Essentially it leads to a meta-reading of Captain America’s character. It forces readers to step outside the immediate narrative of the Hyrda-alinged Captain America and think about what the chances are that this new ‘character’ of the character will endure past this story arc. The idea, as usually explained, is that most readers attempt to connect with the subject and character they are journeying with in the story. Comic book characters are successful not just as escapisms, but also as conduits for our better angels. If our better angels, unlike us, had the powers to make right and therefore demonstrate the righteousness of our convictions, then we can share in their successes.

Wish Fulfillment?

This sharing of successes is at the core of wish fulfillment and even revenge fantasies, which allows for even some of the most troubling characters, such as the deranged Batman, unstable Archangel, foul-mouthed Deadpool, and psychotic Punisher to be relatable. Yet, how much are readers willing to invest in sympathizing with Captain America? How many readers are willing to consider that if he really thought Hydra’s aim was good? How many would think that they themselves wouldn’t do the same as Cap’ if found in the same circumstances? Finally, how many would have these thoughts if they believed SECRET EMPIRE was just a limited run series? A one off flight of fancy? Essentially, a longer ‘What If?’

Essentially, this whole argument hinges on believing that there’s something inherently ‘good and moral’ about Cap, which is immune from corruption even in the instance of having different memories. This is what leads to the meta-reading, comparison to other characters, publisher considerations, and ultimately rejection of entire idea.

Not Captain America, but Steve is still Steve.

Yet, for those who could accept that given the right circumstances, Cap would genuinely be a part of Hydra, their thoughts on his actions change. The lines between good and evil blur. What drives a character to do right, is not necessarily right by someone else’s way of life, drives the readers to consider where their own moral boundaries exist. It also reminds readers of America’s own troubling positions prior to WWII. How some Americans admired Nazi Germany’s meteoric rise from the ashes of WWI, how some Americans held similar bigoted views of Jewish populations, and how even when Captain America first ran, it was seen as unnecessarily provocative to feature a cover with the titular hero punching Hilter in the face.

In fact, Nazi propaganda would often distribute posters alluding to many negative aspects of American society, including the Ku Klux Klan, the lynching of Blacks, and the displacement and genocide of Native Americans. For some, the history of America and of Captain America feel intertwined, complex, and extremely problematic, while tempting to be better. Even at the end of the war, while German-Americans were rehabilitating the image of Germans in American society, Captain Savage, another incarnation of Captain America, continued to depict Japanese in dehumanizing and demeaning ways. In these interpretations of Cap, he is America, in its all-flawed well-intentioned glory. Then some would question if Captain America has ever even been truly emblematic of America.

Captain America and Black American Soldiers in World War II

During WWII, when Cap first appears, although he fought America’s evil enemies – the Nazis – he did not necessarily represent America. Though it’s understandable that much of this has been a backwards reading Cap from our current historical perspective, it is very doubtful to think Black Americans saw any part of themselves in Captain America. The government discharged many Black Americans who fought in the war without honor or fanfare. Additionally, when they came home, the American people received them poorly. To this day, we too often forget them.

While Captain America stood on the hilltop gleaming in the sun, Black Americans lived in under the dark clouds of a country that tried to justify its slaver’s past and then segregationist shame. That leaves Captain America as an emblem for a wish-fulfilment-fantasy only for a select few who could actually experience freedom, heroism, and love.

In Conclusion

In every one of these interpretations, the acceptance or not of the SECRET EMPIRE story arc is telling of the audience and times under which we live. While some believe that Cap has always been and always will be representative of America due to his good-natured spirit and the desire to always do good, others see Captain America as a symbol of America before it looked the way is does now. That is, Captain America is a creature of the 1940’s and can’t see itself as being emblematic of anything past its noble American ideals, let alone any problematic history. Yet, this is what makes comics amazing.  It is in the ever evolving nature of comics, their characters, and their responses to their readers contemporary issues, where their stories take new shape and speak to a new generation who hopes to aspire to be better than the last.

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One Comment

  1. Ryan Hatfield

    September 13, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    I love you Comicsverse for talking about this. I loved this discussion and I have been a big fan of Secret Empire, despite it making Cap Hydra. I think it was great that you touched on so many things I’ve discussed with friends of mine about this. It is a very timely story and for this to happen with the Alt-Right kicking right now, it is a touchy subject, but at the end of the day as you all said many times: IT’S JUST A STORY. But it has to be said that this is the best written event in Marvel for years. As of now we all know that the real Cap has come back and kicked Hydra Cap’s ass, but there are going to be some real ramification in the future for what Hydra Cap has done. I love your discussions and I look forward to listening to more and if you ever need a writer, particularly for Marvel, as that is what I mostly read, let me know. I sent in my application. 😉

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