Captain America, Actual Social Justice Warrior

In a note of hideous irony, I started this article immediately before the news dropped about Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (Steve Rogers Is HYDRA!). I rather lost heart in writing this blog post at that point.

However, in light of recent events and the fact that Marvel is still beating this terrible idea of a plot, it seemed important to come back to the point in the title of this article. It seems to be something Marvel in general has forgotten, and may need to be reminded of, particularly those who thought the choice to make Captain America a Nazi (expy) was a good and sensible idea – or even quality storytelling.1  

Though he’s an iconic and instantly recognizable character, there are a lot of people who don’t know much about Captain America. He is frequently characterized as boring or simplistic, and (more often lately) as a jingoistic fantasy, the uberpatriot aligned with conservative values and blindly loyal to the American government.

That’s not Captain America.

When Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon, became Captain America in 2015, outcry followed. Fox News was particularly outraged by the first story arc of Sam Wilson: Captain America, which featured the superhero battling the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Serpent Society. Part of the outcry ran that Marvel was making Captain America too political – the political in question here meaning “political in a way that does not align with my values.” This criticism conveniently forgets that Captain America has not only always been political, but has frequently been political in ways that align him with decidedly non-conservative values – neither political nor social.

Take the iconic first cover of Captain America #1, for instance: Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face. It is easy to forget, given the dominant cultural narrative of World War II, that at the time the issue was published popular opinion was very much against the United States entering the war. The creators of Captain America were inundated with angry letters (and a threatening crowd outside their offices) in protest.

Even beyond the overt political statement of the cover, however, it is worth noting the origins of the character of Steve Rogers outside of comics. Like many iconic comic characters, Captain America aka Steve Rogers was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both Jews. Jews at the time were blamed for “dragging” the United States into the war, and here two Jewish men created an American hero specifically to fight the Nazis. There is something particularly potent about taking a man designed by a pair of young Jewish men to look like the Aryan ideal (blond, blue-eyed, muscular, masculine) and setting him against Hitler’s regime.

Even Captain America’s biography paints him as an underdog and an outsider, and that aspect of his character is crucial. The son of poor immigrants, Steve Rogers is a frail fine-arts student before (as viewers of the Captain America: the First Avenger movie will remember) he is recruited into the Super Soldier Program. This could be read as the classic male wish-fulfillment fantasy. However, taking into account the cultural context and the time of Captain America’s creation makes it an empowerment fantasy: one directed specifically at the weak and underprivileged. Other heroes like Iron Man or Batman, in contrast, are born rich and achieve their superhero identities largely by means of their wealth.

But of course, comics characters evolve. Since his creation, Captain America has been written by a legion of creators and used in a variety of storylines. However, overwhelmingly and across the board Captain America has both upheld and developed the promise of his origins, pushing political boundaries.

For instance, Captain America is sometimes presented as a loyal government stooge. Several times over the years, however, he has in fact acted in direct opposition to the government, rebelling when the actions of the United States government go against his moral code.

In a story running from Captain America #163-176, the supervillain Viper begins a campaign to discredit Captain America in the public eye and show him as a dangerous vigilante. After a series of disastrous public encounters lead to his arrest for the murder of the supervillain the Tumbler, Cap follows a trail to the mysterious Secret Empire, ending with a confrontation on the White House lawn. Steve pursues “Number One”, the leader of the Secret Empire, into the White House itself, and unmasks him, reacting with horror.

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From Captain America #175 (1973)Writer Steve Engelhart later specifically stated that the Secret Empire plotline was meant to be an allegory for the political climate in the early 1970s.

The reader does not see Number One’s face, but the dialogue and staging, along with the timing of the story (1973, when Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal), heavily imply that it is the President of the United States. Steve’s resulting disillusionment leads to him setting aside the Captain America identity, feeling that he can no longer believe in the country he is supposed to represent.

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From Captain America #176 (1973).

A few issues later, however – and after the man who takes on the Captain America identity is killed by Red Skull – Steve realizes that in actuality it is because of the corruption he has just now recognized that he is needed more than ever: to “fight for the dream, against any foe.” The implication is that he needs to be there to combat not just external or foreign enemies (as was his original mandate) but also those internal to the United States who threaten to undermine the ideal of the American Dream.

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“If I’d paid more attention to the way American reality differed from the American dream – if I hadn’t gone around thinking the things I believe in were thirty years out of date – then I might have uncovered Number One, and stopped him, before it was too late!” From Captain America #183 (1975).

The importance of Captain America, in other words – according to Steve himself – is to uphold an ideal, regardless of whom it pits him against. He realizes that there is corruption reaching even the highest echelons of government, but decides that that is all the more reason for him to stay the course and stand for how things can be better.

A decade later, in 1987, Steve Rogers is called before “the Commission” in the Pentagon, and given a choice: to become an official entity of the United States Government or to give up the identity of Captain America. Steve agonizes over the decision, struggling to reconcile his long-term role with his unease over what he might become as “a glorified agent of America’s official policies.” Rather, Steve thinks, he represents “those intangibles upon which our nation was founded…liberty, justice, dignity, the pursuit of happiness” – things that reach beyond his former wartime role.

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From Captain America #332 (1987).

In the end, Steve makes the decision to give up the title of Captain America, deciding that it is more important for him to stay true to his ideals than to hold onto the costume. In a series of powerful panels, Steve lays out his thought process clearly as he returns the famous shield and costume to the government.

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From Captain America #332 (1987).

He goes on:

“To become what you want me to be, I would have to compromise that dream…abandon what I have come to stand for. My commitment to the ideals of this country is greater than my commitment to a 40-year old document [the contract he signed when he first became Captain America].”

There could not be a clearer statement of Captain America’s moral standard – as he puts it in a later issue, “I had to have the freedom to represent the ideals of America, not just the American Government’s official policies!” He recognizes that those two things may come into conflict, and refuses to let his own moral code be compromised for the sake of obedience to the government, repeatedly drawing the distinction between America as a country and an ideal and the government and bureaucrats who administrate the United States.

Finally, and in the perhaps best known act of disobedience, in the Civil War comic Captain America defies the Superhuman Registration Act requiring all superpowered people to be registered by the government. He rebels when ordered to detain those who do not wish to register, protesting that he is being asked to arrest those who “risk their lives for this country every day.” It is not a matter of simple self-preservation, but a belief that superheroes need to operate outside the rule of the government in order to do their job.

Not only is Steve on the side defending civil rights and liberties, but even when he eventually stands down it is not because he changes his mind about the justness of the law, but rather because of the danger he realizes his actions have placed ordinary people in.

In Young Avengers Presents #1, we hear from Eli Bradley, a black teen who has taken the name Patriot, about a conversation he had with Captain America.

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“It’s hard sometimes, to be a black kid carrying a name like “Patriot.” I remember talking about that with Captain America before he died, and he explained what patriotism meant to him. It wasn’t about blindly supporting your government. It was about knowing what your country could be, what it should be…and trying to lead it there through your example.” From Young Avengers Presents #1 (2008).

Eli Bradley is the grandson of Isaiah Bradley, a character who was introduced in the comic Truth: Red, White, and Black as one of a group of black men who were experimented on by the US government in an attempt to recreate the Super Soldier Serum that was used successfully on Steve Rogers. These experiments lead to the death of all but five of the original subjects. The long-term effects of the incomplete serum lead to serious damage to Isaiah’s mind and body, and his heroism is never recognized by the US government.2  

In the final issue of Truth: Red, White and Black, Steve finds out about the experiments and seeks out Isaiah Bradley, returning the Captain America uniform Isaiah briefly wore. Isaiah stole the uniform from the military for a suicide mission to destroy the Nazi Super Soldier program, an action that got him court-martialed and imprisoned for years.

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From Truth: Red, White and Black #7 (2003)

Steve recognizes that Isaiah Bradley is a hero in his own right, who deserves the recognition he was always denied.

Captain America has in fact always – as befits his origins – been a defender of the oppressed and the downtrodden. He believes in using his strength – his privilege, if you will – to defend the rights of others. He has espoused progressive values, often before their acceptance in the mainstream (if occasionally awkwardly executed).

In a storyline that begins in Captain America #153 called “Hero or Hoax?”, Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter go on a vacation, leaving Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, to hold down the fort. While patrolling the city, Falcon comes upon someone in the Captain America uniform beating up a black man. He intervenes, only to be attacked by a man who looks and sounds exactly like Steve Rogers – who Sam knows is out of the country. Things get really strange when this Captain America is joined by Bucky – Cap’s sidekick who died in the final days of World War II.

The pair of “heroes” is unapologetically racist, referring to black people as “coloreds” and sneering at the fact that Sam has joined the Captain America legacy. When Falcon is defeated, the ersatz Cap announces that they will make him tell them where “that mug that calls himself Captain America is hiding – even if it means torture!”

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With some bonus anti-Communist sentiment there. From Captain America #154 (1972).

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“I am the true force of our democracy – and you’ll soon admit it – or I’ll beat your brains out!” From Captain America #154 (1972).

Falcon escapes and races to find Steve and inform him of the imposter, and the two meet on the island in the Bahamas where he and Sharon are vacationing. The Captain America and Bucky team manage to capture Steve, Sharon, and Sam, and imprison them in a warehouse, where the second Cap’s origin is revealed: he is a devoted fan of Captain America’s named William Burnside who made himself the new Captain America after the end of World War II. He had undergone plastic surgery to make himself look exactly like Steve, found another fan to be his Bucky, and began fighting Communists on American soil.

As time went by, however, Burnside’s aggression escalated. He continued to find “Communists” to attack – now targeting people based on racism and bigotry, and finally disavowed by the government.

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“He doesn’t sound any different [from Hitler] to me, Falc – not with all that hate spewing out of his mouth!” From Captain America #155 (1972).

This storyline is directly addressing a previous discontinuity in Captain America’s behavior between the end of World War II and his reappearance in Avengers #4 (1964). For a brief period of time, Captain America switched from fighting Nazis to fighting America’s new enemies, the Communists, turning into an uber-patriot caricature in the process. That series ended with the cancellation of the Captain America title in 1954, during a period when comics in general were struggling as an industry.3

Here, the original Captain America comes face to face with his 1950s counterpart (now imagined as a separate person entirely), and passionately disavows his politics as hateful and outdated.

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“You think I’m a traitor? Grow up, fella – times have changed!” From Captain America #156 (1972).

The threats to freedom Steve cites are not from “the other” or a single unified (and external) enemy, but are rather organized crime, injustice, and fascism. Burnside reacts with rage to what he perceives as an accusation that he himself is a fascist – a potentially telling reaction, as Steve did not accuse him of that directly. The fight ultimately comes down on Steve’s side, of course, though his internal monologue notes that there but for the grace of God he might have gone.

Not only does this episode place Cap firmly on the side of progress and in support of the forward movement of the United States during the 60s and 70s (underlined by the other two members of his team, a black man and a white woman), it also literally has him defeat the embodiment of the intolerance and racism of that time. It resoundingly repudiates the bigoted model of Captain America – particularly significant in light of the fact that the bigot is the replacement, while the more tolerant Cap is the original.4  

In 1982 Marvel introduced Arnie Roth, one of the earlier gay characters in comics. A childhood friend of Steve’s, Arnie comes to find him to reveal some trouble with his “long term roommate” Michael. (Michael is later less circumspectly referred to as Arnie’s “beloved.”) Michael is ultimately killed, but Arnie remains a supporting character through a number of issues. In Captain America #296, he’s kidnapped and mind-controlled by the Red Skull, forced to participate in a humiliating pantomime that mocks his identity as a gay man. Dressed in elaborate, effeminate clothing, and his face painted, Arnie, who the emcee calls “that lovable pansy”, sings how “his taste is not quite right.” He refers back to the persecution of gay people by the Nazis, deriding himself as “a menace to to society…a disease!” and implying that because of Steve’s compassion and respect he must be gay as well – “a sorry excuse for a man.”

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From Captain America #296 (1984).

Steve, however, defends Arnie, comparing his love for Michael with Steve’s own then current relationship with Bernie Rosenthal (incidentally, a Jewish artist) and indicting homophobia as the real disease.

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From Captain America #296 (1984)

While this may not seem like much in 2016, but in 1984 the gay community was actively persecuted. The Stonewall demonstrations against police raids on the Stonewall Inn happened barely a decade earlier, and in 1986 the Supreme Court upheld a sodomy conviction, arguing that homosexual activity was not covered by a right to privacy. Captain America’s vocal defense of his friend’s identity was well ahead of its time as far as popular opinion.

Then, more recently, Cap faced another super soldier run wild – Frank Simpson aka Nuke, a creation of Frank Miller who first appeared in Daredevil. Nuke is also a creation of the Super Soldier program, who was enhanced in order to fight in Vietnam and was driven insane by the process. Captain America first confronts him in Daredevil #232-233 (1986), when he was tricked into attacking Daredevil in New York by Kingpin. Troubled by the American flag on his face, Steve looks into government documents and is disturbed to find that Nuke is the lone survivor of a program (once again) attempting to replicate the serum. When Nuke breaks out of a secure facility, Steve both attempts to stop him and to save him from his former employers.

In these issues, Steve is presented as disturbed and upset with the government for destroying Frank Simpson’s life in yet another futile attempt to recreate the serum, openly disapproving of the attempt to create another super soldier and the damage it does (both to Frank and to those he attacks). He shows compassion for Frank even as he seeks to prevent him from hurting others, but his methods are contrasted with Nuke’s: where Nuke fights with guns, the personification of the aggressive, hyper-masculine soldier, Steve uses his trademark shield to stand in Nuke’s way, supporting and defending rather than attacking.

In a storyline in Rick Remender’s Captain America, Nuke and Steve come face to face again. In the issues Captain America #12-14 (2012) their contrasting politics come into play more directly than in the Daredevil issues. Nuke attacks a (fictional) Eastern European country in the name of America – as revenge, he claims, for the ingratitude of the civilians there. Despite the location (in Eastern Europe rather than the Middle East), Nuke’s rhetoric clearly echoes the sentiments oft expressed about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – that the civilian populations of those countries “hate our freedom” and show insufficient gratitude for the “gift” of American ideals.5

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“They came to this backwards nation to liberate it – to move these mongrels toward American ideals.” From Captain America #12 (2013).

Steve confronts Nuke in mid-tirade as he blames the Nrovzekistanis for American decline, saying “I’m an American – and you sure as hell don’t speak for me!” The two fight, but in a moment of standstill, Steve changes tactics from attacking to trying to reason with Nuke, telling him that “patriotism taken too far is fanaticism.”

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“Is that the xenophobic America you want? All religions, all nationalities, we all want the same thing. To see our children grow strong. To provide safety for our families. To live in quiet times. Peace, son. Isn’t that why we became soldiers? To fight for a peaceful world?” From Captain America #14 (2013). Full panels here.

Of course the peaceful resolution doesn’t last, this being superhero comics – but even amid the punching, Steve manages to condemn Nuke’s American imperialism: the gall to assume that these people ought to be grateful for the destruction of their homes and death of their children that came with foreign intervention.

In a miniseries written by Mark Waid, Man Out of Time, a newly defrosted Steve learns about the progress of the civil rights movement with pride, and tells Tony Stark directly that what impresses him most isn’t the technology of the future, but “the freedom of the people. All people, regardless of race or gender.” Captain America is a defender of ideals, yes, but perhaps even more importantly of people, particularly those who don’t have the power to defend themselves.

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“I know who I am. I rescue the helpless. I raise up the hopeless. I don’t measure people’s lives…I save them.” From Avengers #34 (2014)

This cornerstone aspect of his character extends into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where in The Avengers Steve breaks into a vault and confronts SHIELD angrily for using the technology of the Tesseract – a weapon of his former enemy, Red Skull – to build weapons. Even more pointedly, in Captain America: Winter Soldier Steve ends up on the run from the government, which has been infiltrated at the highest levels by the fascist organization HYDRA (which has its origins in Nazi Germany). In the line “this isn’t freedom, this is fear” spoken to Nick Fury, Cap disavows the political arms race, and the climax of the film has him spearhead the resistance against HYDRA within the United States government.

Some might claim that the scapegoating of HYDRA defers responsibility for the tyranny of the government onto “foreign” others. However, the choice of main antagonist (who is the Secretary of Defense) and the fact that HYDRA’s infiltration clearly echoes real life United States actions hiring Nazi scientists (such as Operation Paperclip)6   suggest that the criticism is indeed pointed inward, illustrating the necessity of resisting even if it means defying one’s own country. As the saying goes: dissent is patriotic.

Captain America has a long, long history as a deeply principled hero who stands less for an idea of what America is than what America can be. He is the United States at its best, and the conscience of the United States when it needs one most. Always, he is a deeply principled individual who follows his own morals first and foremost – and those morals lie in standing with the oppressed. For truth, justice, and the American way, as the saying goes: but his is the America of dreams rather than reality, where all people are not only created equal but are treated equally.

That is a political stance. Standing for equality always has been.

nZINR

From Amazing Spiderman #537 (2007)

Further Reading: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero by Steven Attewell, On Steve Rogers #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts by Jessica Plummer, “I Don’t Like Bullies”: Captain America and a New Masculinity by Alysa Auriemma, Political Comics: Captain America Was Never Neutral by Naja Later


  1. Look, if you want to fight me about the equivalency between HYDRA and Nazis, go ahead and yell in the comments, but don’t expect a response. I will note that both of the major leaders of HYDRA (Red Skull and Wolfgang von Strucker) had origins rooted in involvement with the Nazi party, and that even as Marvel has moved to decouple those associations they remain powerful, particularly in the signature HYDRA salute and in their goal of creating a neo-fascist New World Order. If you’re still struggling with this concept I would direct you here.
  2. This is a deliberate parallel with the Tuskegee Experiments, in which the U.S. Public Health Service left 399 black men with syphilis untreated in order to study progression of the disease. None of the subjects were told that they were infected, and they were enrolled under the premise that they were receiving free health care. The experiments ran from 1932 to 1972. Read more here.
  3. In Avengers #4, Steve Rogers resurfaces having been frozen since World War II, seemingly contradicting canon, but that contradiction was ignored until this issue.
  4. William Burnside later returns in Captain America #602-605 in 2010, working with the Watchdogs – a domestic terrorist organization. The story aligns Burnside with the relatively new Tea Party movement and disillusionment with the US that turned to violence. Bucky Barnes, in his role as Captain America, fights and defeats Burnside alongside Sam Wilson.
  5. The country is also called “Nrovzekistan”, and in the American imagination, regardless of stated location, countries ending in -stan are coded as Muslim majority.
  6. Operation Paperclip was a secret government program that brought 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians (many of whom were formerly registered members of the Nazi Party and some of whom had leadership roles in the Nazi Party) to the United States to work for the U.S. Government. There are also the scientists who were involved in the atrocities committed by Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army, who were pardoned  in exchange for the data they gathered through human experimentation. Test subjects were gathered from the surrounding population and included the elderly, pregnant women, and children. (Warning: the Unit 731 article contains graphic descriptions of the experiments performed.)
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One thought on “Captain America, Actual Social Justice Warrior

  1. Hey just wanted to say this was a fantastic read and really put into words the perspective I’ve always had on this character. I’m Canadian, but cap has always been my favorite super hero even when America hasn’t always been my favorite country. I’ve always felt that the character, despite being draped in the flag of his country wasn’t a representation of that country or any country, but rather a representation of the values that we all should aspire to.

    Also I read your essay on Tolkien’s mythology and I found that piece also very illuminating. Your work continues to impress.

    Like

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