I wept openly while watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There I sat with my popcorn and my water bottle, suddenly shedding gigantic, happy tears after nearly two hours of fist pumping and cheering internally. What finally broke me occurred after Hydra had obliterated SHIELD. Those SHIELD agents and employees who weren’t Hydra suffered the worst confusion and doubt. Whom could they trust? Was the person next to them a Hydra infiltrator? Surely today they would die, since no possible plan existed for survival, until . . . a confident yet soothing voice resounds from the public address system. “This is Captain America,” he begins, and audience members witness actors skillfully portray the transition from panic, to relief, to resolve. Captain America not only saves the day, but he also inspires loyal SHIELD agents to action, because no one doubts Captain America. And so I wept, my faith validated. Captain America will never betray us.
Favorite moments from comics that involved Captain America entered my mind as I drove home from the theater: his resisting arrest and escaping from SHIELD at the beginning of Civil War, and when he helped excavate the craters formerly called the World Trade Center after 9-11. Captain America has fallen and risen and fallen and risen again. He always rises. A scene from Steve Rogers’ childhood within Rick Remender’s recent story, “Castaway in Dimension Z” shows why. His mother taught him that you always stand up, no matter the adversity. He took that lesson to heart, and now he rouses many to follow suit. Often I catch myself humming or singing the following:
When Captain America throws his mighty shield,
All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield!
If he’s lead to a fight and a duel is due,
Then the red and the white and the blue’ll come through,
When Captain America throws his mighty shield!
Ridiculous, I know, but many a rotten day has been turned around thanks to the spirit embodied in those lyrics.
Recently, I read two books — one an anthology of critical essays and the other a survey of Captain America’s ethics — that have increased my knowledge and appreciation of the Captain America phenomenon enormously. Both offer materials that acknowledge Captain America has grown from comic-book superhero to cultural force. What follows are impressions I garnered from each. Hopefully, you’ll read them and share your findings with me. All citations refer to the book under discussion in the moment.
Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero: Critical Essays edited by Robert G. Weiner
The subtitle “Critical Essays” doesn’t nearly describe Robert G. Weiner’s anthology, composed of sections entitled “General History,” “World War II,” “Racial Issues,” “Psychological Profiles,” “Comparisons of Captain America with Other Characters,” “Political Interpretations and the Death of Captain America,” “Literary Interpretations,” and “Guides.” Yes, each section contains critical essays, but the topical breadth and detailed analyses throughout will amaze even the most devout Captain America scholars. One might substitute “critical” with “dissective” to gain a more accurate idea.
Weiner outlines differences between Captain America and Superman, conveying what he and his contributors want readers to understand about Captain America over the decades:
While Superman always strives to do what is right, the differences between Superman and Cap are twofold: Superman represents the immigrant who comes to America, and finds the American dream – Captain America is the American dream. Superman projects a kind of Boy Scout mentality and purity that Captain America does not have. Cap sometimes fails, and he knows it; he is not always the Boy Scout. (10)
Captain America is no two-dimensional patriot. Although garbed in Old Glory, he represents ideals – liberty, democracy, freedom, and equality — essential to the American dream, not necessarily to the American government. At two junctures, he forfeited his title, becoming first Nomad and then decades later the Captain after determining that staying Captain America would challenge his ideals. More recently, he stepped outside the law during the epic Civil War that pitted hero against hero over the Superhuman Registration Act, costing him not only his uniform and shield, but his life . . . only temporarily, however. In short, to defend the dream Captain America will stray beyond black-letter law.
How far will he stray? Two writers explore that question, the first by comparing Captain America to the Punisher, and the second by detailing when he has resorted to lethal force. The first, Cord Scott, author of “The Alpha and the Omega: Captain America and the Punisher” notes how both hero and anti-hero represent different aspects of America:
The character of the Punisher represents the antithesis of Captain America (Cap), but at the same time represents a darker part of the American psyche. He is the one willing to do anything necessary to rid the world of bad people. To do that, one must be willing to compromise their values and ethics for the “greater good.” Whenever the two have “teamed up” the situation and forces allayed against them are truly evil. But what is the greater good in this case? Do the Punisher’s means (willingness to kill, a seemingly cavalier attitude towards due process and civil liberties) justify the end of a safe and secure America? That is the complexity and meaning of the two characters. They both seem to represent America in some form. (126)
So, Captain America plays Alpha to the Punisher’s Omega. Weiner places Captain America below Superman on the purity scale while Scott places him above the Punisher. He’s no angel; he’s no devil. He’s human, albeit one with unwavering principles and a moral compass that transcends black-and-white law, pointing always true north. Captain America breaks the law only when the law threatens higher, universal ideals, or when innocent lives need protecting or improving. His methodology, however, more resembles Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Jefferson’s, not the Punisher’s.
The second writer brings lethal force into the equation. In “Stevie’s Got a Gun: Captain America and His Problematic Use of Lethal Force,” Phillip L. Cunningham, enumerates episodes where Captain America has killed opponents. In Captain America 321, Captain America is forced to shoot a terrorist planning to open fire on a crowd of bystanders. Although justified, he feels deeply guilty. Another episode happens two decades later, after 9-11, and now our hero regains the “soldier instincts” Joe Simon had instilled during the Golden Age. Cunningham summarizes Captain America (Vol. 4) 21:
In “Homeland: Part One,” Homeland Security agents arrive to retrieve Captain America to serve on a military tribunal for Fernand Hedayat, a terrorist being transferred to Guantanamo Bay before standing trial for terrorism and treason. En route, their car is attacked by assassins trying to prevent Captain America from serving on the tribunal. As the assassins wound the agents, a plainclothes Captain America, who divulged his identity as Steve Rogers to the general public in Issue 3, grabs one of the fallen agents’ sidearm; kicks the car door, and fires at their assailants. He apparently shoots one of them, forcing the assassin to drop his machine gun as the assailants’ van speeds away. However, in this instance, Captain America shows little remorse save for a brief pause as he picks up the assassins’ discarded weapon. (187)
Mark Gruenwald wrote Captain America 321, and Robert Morales wrote “Homeland Part One.” Cunningham allows for different authorial approaches to the character, but he also reminds us that a post 9-11 market and society demanded a more soldierly Captain America, not so much a superhero, and thus he exhibits regret but much less guilt in the second scenario. I don’t see Steve Rogers devolving into a red-white-and-blue Punisher. Contemporary writers approach his World War II and other combat exploits more realistically than writers before 9-11, but Captain America, the Steve Rogers Captain America, has lines he will not cross. Other versions, especially John Walker, have operated under different guidelines.
Other than the essays already mentioned, I appreciated Mark R. McDermott’s exploration of Roy Thomas’s work on The Invaders and The All-Star Squadron, and Jackson Sutcliff’s “The Ultimate American,” in which he describes the Ultimate universe variant of Captain America as “less of an inspiration than an action hero; instead of John Adams, he’s Sylvester Stallone.” (121) Also included are pieces about Marvel Zombies, eugenics, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and Captain America and the Jewish-American experience. If you desire a one-stop, portable Captain America 101, Weiner is your best bet.
The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero by Mark D. White
Ethicist Mark D. White has edited volumes for Wiley-Blackwell’s “Philosophy and Pop Culture Series” dedicated to Superman and Batman. This time, however, he’s writing his own book. Entries to Wiley-Blackwell’s series characteristically explain philosophical concepts using images from popular culture for illustrative purposes. White does so here as well, although he has ends beyond helping the public understand difficult ideas. He asks the nation, “Can Captain America help us achieve greater unity and civility?”
White studies virtue ethics. He clarifies other branches of ethics — utilitarianism and deontology, especially — and then explicates his chosen focus:
To recap, virtue ethicists consider that good acts are those performed by good people (rather than the other way around), so the emphasis is on virtuous character traits instead of the actions that result from them. But simply saying that someone (like Captain America – remember him?) possesses virtues like honesty and courage doesn’t tell us what that person is going to do in any particular situation. Even if a person is generally honest or brave, there can be many factors in a given circumstance that will affect how a person reacts to it. The virtuous person has to sort through these factors, using his or her practical wisdom or judgment to come to an ethical choice that expresses his or her character. On occasion, an honest person may lie and a brave person may flee danger – but if they are truly honest or brave, we can assume there were important considerations that steered their judgment elsewhere. (15)
White analyzes only Steve Rogers, the Captain America of Earth-616, the main Marvel Universe. He makes no mention of Colonel America from Marvel Zombies, or the Captain America from the Ultimate universe, or other figures from Earth-616 who have donned Captain America’s uniform. Only Steve Rogers possesses the virtues White hopes will model unity and civility to his readers.
Before identifying Captain America’s virtues, however White must answer questions about how various writers have interpreted Captain America over the decades. He agrees with situationists who assert that “the idea of a consistent, unified character is a myth” (35). Writers who have reinterpreted Captain America are tantamount to factors that guide real-world people to act in varying ways depending on situations. I, for example, am far less kind after business meetings than after finishing a good book. At heart, however, I’m still Chuck. I still contain the virtues that define me in general. The same can be said for Captain America. Various authorial styles have not changed his essential nature.
Captain America consistently exhibits five basic virtues: courage, humility, righteous indignation, sacrifice and responsibility, and perseverance. Additionally, he’s impeccably honorable and maintains unparalleled integrity. White catalogs the same stories as Weiner’s contributors to support his points. White too wants readers to understand that Captain America is no black-and-white thinker. Often circumstances force him to use judgment:
Captain America’s basic principles may be black-and-white, picking out right from wrong and good from evil. But these principles alone do not determine his actions, for there are often several right or good things to do in any situation, and many times these options have aspects or consequences that are wrong or bad. Cap needs to use judgment to decide which principle, duty, or virtue is the one he should pursue in any given situation – and this judgment is hardly black and white, not in the 1940s and not now. (124)
Here White echoes the arguments advanced by Weiner and his colleagues. Captain America must step outside the lines sometimes to defend his ideals. He must administer judgment.
Finally, White reaches his punchline, his answer to the question: can Captain America help us achieve greater unity and civility? The short answer is yes. The long answer involves realizing that despite how divided America has become — Republicans standing against Democrats, and conservatives vying against liberals – everything is not lost. White’s goal, then, is twofold:
I had two goals in mind when I set out to write this book. First I wanted to show how Captain America’s virtuous and principled ethics, so often mocked for being anachronistic and “black-and-white” are actually timeless and nuanced. If we do live in more complicated times, then a moral code like Captain America’s, one that applies time- tested ideals to novel problems, is exactly what we need. At risk of mangling a metaphor, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we just need to learn how to steer it over new terrain. (178)
Americans, regardless of ideologies or party affiliations, honor justice, equality, and liberty. White thinks we’ve “forgotten how united we are, and once we remember that, the divisions that do exist will begin to heal. It will take work, of course – a lot of work” (194). Yes, Professor White, a lot of work and faith that everyone truly honors justice, equality, and liberty. That’s why we need Captain America.