If you’re not looking at Chris Evans’ smokin’ bod in this summer’s multibillion dollar blockbuster Captain America: Civil War and thinking, “government propaganda through popular media is alive and well and it has biceps for weeks,” you’re not alone but you are definitely missing an interesting point. Few audience members walk in with an understanding of the original Captain America’s values, let alone what he really stands for today. The key is to recognize that the two are not the same, and terrifyingly, may not even be compatible.
Captain America celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Cap, Steve Rogers, was created by Jewish cartoonists Jack Kirby and Joe Simon to stand up against the Axis powers before America actually did. Its cover art overtly promised Cap decking Hitler right in the kisser, and there was a significant amount of backlash from Americans who did not support that effort. He would eventually become propaganda fodder, a hero and a cause to rally behind as his creators intended, but it is important to remember that Cap predated the government’s support.
Fast forward 75 years. We live on a film schedule prescribed for the next twenty years, brimming with capitalist consumer promise and superheroes til the cows come home. The most recent Captain America film interestingly invites the audience to take issue with Cap’s choice to defy the Elaborate Government Hustle that he mistrusts. He decides not to support a regulation act; he believes too many agendas will spoil the soup, so to speak, and heroes surrender their rights as free agents and citizens if they become too bogged down with red tape. Americans might hear a familiar tune there. We’re currently reexamining liberties once granted to us and wondering whether or not we support restrictions for safety reasons, and how afraid of slippery slopes we ought to be in the face of a reasonable idea. On the other hand, our government finds itself in exactly the position that Cap fears: the agendas of the representatives involved make it impossible to progress reasonably towards a compromise. To that end, Civil War managed to be vaguely timely, and at least slightly true to the Steve Rogers Jack and Joe would have wanted in the modern political landscape.
I say “at least” because I worry that is no longer true.
Marvel’s latest stunt used Captain America as controversial bait for publicity, and it only further proves that the values of Captain America as they were intended are no longer the agenda of his handlers. The latest Captain America comic revealed that Steve Rogers remembered a different past and had been a supporter of HYDRA all along. HYDRA, lest we forget, is a fictional terrorist organization set on a fascist New World Order. Nazis. They’re Nazis. They would have us believe that Steve Rogers, our American hero, is at his core, fascist. Before anything, it’s insulting to his creators, but even ideology aside it is a serious detour from Steve Rogers the character. I can see where you might draw a debate out in a parallel; you could say that today, American nationalism is as dangerous, as vile and fueled by hatred as any Nazi platform. It wouldn’t be terribly wrong. The dark side of America is just as star-spangled, if not moreso, than the one Steve Rogers should naturally choose, and it is dangerous because it hides its hate under the guise of patriotism. If making that comparison was indeed the motive of Marvel, I would still hate it, but I would understand the political statement. However, not for a moment do I believe that the timing, the presentation, the pageantry of the reveal were only intended to highlight changing American values. The one value I feel is consistently protected in Marvel universe is the literal monetary one. This move made people mad and it went viral immediately. At times I feel Marvel doesn’t care about its fans, the standards of its forebearers, or the values of the characters that are supposed to represent the best in us all, but perhaps that is just a small-scale reflection of 2016 America. Maybe our America doesn’t deserve a Steve Rogers that is wholly good. Maybe today, the picture of patriotism isn’t something Steve Rogers would support. Maybe it’s mean, exclusionary, boastful, and crass. That might be our America, but it’s not Steve Rogers. He deserves better; he would demand it. We don’t have a fourth Captain America movie to look forward to, but more than ever we need the hero they crafted for us 75 years ago. I don’t know what that hero would ask of us, and Marvel doesn’t seem to know, either.