The Captain America We Need
A radical hate movement has infiltrated the American government. A cartoon despot pulls tactics from his skimming of Mein Kampf while a hostile foreign power pulls his strings. Just as we’ve started to make progress toward lasting change and brought long-overdue conversations on transphobia, racism, and systemic oppression to the public sphere, we find ourselves dragged backwards. Executive Orders enshrine religious discrimination and unlawful raids and seizures; presidential appointments empower xenophobia, pseudoscience, and hatred of every kind. The entire political machine is working overtime to silence criticism and rewrite reality.
If comics are escapist fantasy, then we could use that escapism now more than ever. But more than escapism, like most art, they allow us to examine our own social ills and envision a better way. Captain America’s brand of righteousness is the perfect antidote to the helplessness so many of us Americans feel as our country—flawed though it is—falls further and further into autocracy.
What we don’t need is a Captain America who is himself a part of the fascist machine. We don’t need to be told to “wait and see” and “the system will fix it”—whether in our stories, or in our lives, as civil liberties crumble all around us. Risky storytelling requires an incredible amount of reader trust, and when you show time and again how little you understand what brings readers to Captain America in the first place, your readers are wise to stay away.
The Many Problems with HydraCap
The problems with making Steve Rogers a fascist—Marvel has gone to great pains to separate Hydra from Nazism, but they’re different flavors of the same shit sandwich—are countless. Kieran Shiach breaks down Captain America’s legacy as a Jewish-created superhero and all the ways this storyline has insulted fans, especially as Marvel and the series’ writer, Nick Spencer, make increasingly clueless PR moves and callous responses to critics and fans. It’s just a fun apolitical story, they claim, until fans say they’re looking for escapism, then suddenly it’s ponderous and meaningful art. They assure us they mean no disrespect to Cap’s Jewish creators while asking comics shops to cover their stores and employees in fascist iconography.
[pullquote]They assure us they mean no disrespect to Cap’s Jewish creators while asking comics shops to cover their stores and employees in fascist iconography.[/pullquote]Marvel recently blamed “diversity” for slumping sales in a candid discussion with retailers, and while they’ve since tried to walk back that statement, these comments suggest Marvel is only interested in “diversity” when they can use it as a selling point. It’s no surprise, then, when none of their writers, editors, and executives see the multitude of problems attached to a storyline like Secret Empire. Like Kendall Jenner solving police brutality with a Pepsi, this narrative was created in a privileged vacuum. It was created by straight white cismen for whom oppression, marginalization, and injustice are only a thought experiment. For them, it’s just an edgy, wacky what-if universe, and not a part of their daily life.
In the right hands, there might be an interesting story to tell about an American legend being corrupted, or always being corrupt. Spencer tells us this is the best story he has to tell, and saying meaningful things sometimes means hurting your icons. While it’s true you can’t always give an audience exactly what they want, when they want it—tension and struggle are crucial parts of the storytelling journey—audiences have to be able to trust that these tools are being used carefully, and this is ever more the case when dealing with something so politically sensitive and emotionally fraught. Nothing Spencer has said or done, however, gives us any reason to trust he is handling it with the respect and nuance it demands.
[pullquote]While it’s true you can’t always give an audience exactly what they want…audiences have to be able to trust that these tools are being used carefully, and this is ever more the case when dealing with something so politically sensitive and emotionally fraught.[/pullquote]If this is meant to be a weighty commentary on the evils of fascism, it’s curiously finding its biggest supporters among actual neo-Nazis and alt-righters who are loudly proclaiming that Cap is on their side. If HydraCap is, as Spencer now claims, apolitical, that is in itself a political choice: one borne of the privilege of not having to engage in discussions about oppression and marginalization. He has the privilege to claim those issues don’t matter. By not addressing the political implications of such a story, it defangs any possible message it could send. It consigns the story to the realm of escapist fantasy, in a time when everyone wants to escape, but no one wants to escape to this fantasy world that looks too much like the worst parts of our own.
For all Spencer’s claims there are no politics involved, the story eerily follows the contours of his own privileged brand of liberalism. His SamCap run was an exercise in frustration. Repeatedly, he walked Sam up to the edge of addressing critical issues like racially-motivated police brutality and hate speech, and repeatedly, he chose not to engage with those issues, as if this were the high road. In Spencer’s frequent Twitter rants, he asserts vigilanteism is wrong and that one must never throw the first punch, even against Nazis. (He also sees “Nazi punching” as a literal statement, and not a catch-all for proactively fighting oppressors and the systems that empower them.) The overwhelming message of Spencer’s comics and his own statements is that we can only fight back against fascism once it has already won.
[pullquote]The overwhelming message of Spencer’s comics and his own statements is that we can only fight back against fascism once it has already won.[/pullquote]If Spencer wanted to tell a political parable, if he did believe had something important to say, that still could have been accomplished without making Steve a lifelong sleeper fascist. Clearly many readers empathize with Steve. Why not let us sit through the experience with him? Secret Empire is populated, thus far, only by people who are evil or who are getting duped by evil. Instead, let us see Steve striving to do the just and right thing, only to wake up to the reality that it was still not enough; that he still, through his own actions or inactions, let the festering sores of white supremacy and fascism spread. The damage has been done. How does he undo what he can and stop what he can’t? How does Captain America resist?
Ultimately, turning the good guy into a villain is nothing we haven’t seen before in comics. That it will eventually be retconned or fixed is beside the point. This is not our Captain America; it’s a generic fascist wearing Steve’s skin. The Captain America—or Captain Americas—we need are ready to fight with us. In many ways, they are us—and that, more than anything, seems to be what Marvel fails to grasp.
So Who is this Captain America Readers Want?
Captain America has meant many things over the years. Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, has been around since the 1940s, when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created him to punch Hitler and give no fucks at a time when many Americans would have preferred to “wait and see” on Hitler’s plans. To an outside observer, he might appear the height of jingoism, literally wrapped in the American flag and standing proudly like the sort of white brawny, blond workers found on WPA murals. Those familiar with Steve from the comics and the MCU, however, see a very different man beneath the costume.
Most portrayals of Steve across the comics, movies, and fandom agree on a couple key points:
- Steve values what’s right over what’s lawful.
- He believes in justice and freedom, which may or may not coincide with America’s agenda.
- “Captain America” was a title bestowed on him, and not one he actively sought.
- He has no problems turning against America if he sees his country betraying these tenets.
- Size and strength are tools in his arsenal, not his sum total.
- He does not forget what it is to be an outsider—alone—oppressed.
- He’s a bit of a smartass and a whole lot of impulsiveness, thinking with his heart and gut instinct to do what’s right.
The original “Secret Empire” narrative showed Steve Rogers rejecting and ultimately working against a United States that had fallen to corruption and sinister agendas. To many, the Nomad storyline feels far more relevant to our current political climate, and far more authentic to the Captain America we want to see today: one who challenges the dangerous narrative of American exceptionalism and reminds us that freedom is never guaranteed
The Captain America Fans Love
The Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom has latched onto Steve Rogers more so than any other character. By simply letting Steve be his passionate, righteous self, fans have connected with him and his brand of justice in a time of heightened injustice and hopelessness. Sometimes, fans envision a romance between Steve and another character—Bucky Barnes is the most popular choice, but Sam Wilson, Tony Stark, Natasha Romanoff, and others are also common. Most of all, however, they feature the Steve I described above—political and righteous, determined and just. He is beholden to liberty and justice, not America, and he will fight for it no matter the cost.
And boy, do fans ever want to see that version of Captain America. Archive Of Our Own (AO3), a popular fanfiction website, currently boasts hundreds of thousands of stories starring one or more of the Caps (Steve, Sam, and Bucky). Fanart depicting the Caps remain among the most reblogged artworks on Tumblr. An anthology of transformative works centered on “Stucky” (the fandom ship name for a romantic pairing between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes) raised over $80,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year (full disclosure: I organized, edited, and contributed to this anthology).
[pullquote]Further, the Caps found in fandom are far clearer in their rejection of the jingoistic and toxic masculinity narratives that are sometimes linked with Captain America.[/pullquote]The Caps who feature in transformative fanworks differ from those in the comics and films in several fundamental ways. First—they’re often queer. Really, really queer. One popular narrative depicts Steve as bisexual, enjoying an authentic and fulfilling relationship with Peggy Carter during World War II but ultimately uniting (or reuniting) with Bucky in modern times. Sam and Bucky are a popular pairing (in part based on their lovingly antagonistic relationship in Captain America: Civil War), as are Sam and Steve (thanks to their meet-cute romance in the first half of Captain America: The Winter Soldier), as well as the AllCaps ship that depicts Sam, Bucky, and Steve in a polyamorous relationship. Female, transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary depictions of all three Caps abound, each with their own distinct take on the various Caps’ stories.
At their core, too, these Caps are adamant, unapologetic progressives in a way that is far less hedged than the comics’ attempts at inclusion. One popular fic from mid-2016 features Steve Rogers running for president against Trump while wearing a t-shirt that reads “Her Body, Her Choice”. The Stucky anthology includes stories of Steve and Bucky attending New York Pride and anti-administration rallies. Fanart and fanfic of the Caps punching Trump, Richard Spencer, and other alt-right figures abound.
[pullquote]Even when fans delve into darker iterations of Captain America, including, yes, HydraCap, they do so with the subtle assurance that there are larger forces at play.[/pullquote]Further, the Caps found in fandom are far clearer in their rejection of the jingoistic and toxic masculinity narratives that are sometimes linked with Captain America. Anecdotally, “shippers” of the various Caps appear less likely to ascribe the heteronormative narratives on Steve, Sam, and/or Bucky that sometimes plague other slash fandom ships. The Rob Liefield-esque barrel-chested Steve Rogers is sometimes present, but sometimes not; in fact, stories featuring a pre-serum or even de-serumed Steve enjoy a great deal of popularity. Even fully muscled Caps, though, are treated in fandom as more than the sum of their bench presses. Steve’s art hobby is as important as his haymaker, and fans are quick to point out the way Bucky Barnes’s narrative tracks with that usually ascribed to a romantic lead, or a damsel in distress. Sam Wilson is an unapologetic Captain America who would never hedge his support of activists, move the goalposts, or play respectability politics. His work as a PTSD counselor gives us someone who can equally kick ass and empathize with those hurt in the grinding of the military industrial machine.
Even when fans delve into darker iterations of Captain America, including, yes, HydraCap, they do so with the subtle assurance that there are larger forces at play. Usually it’s depicted as temporary brainwashing, much like that the Winter Soldier endured, which can be overcome by Steve’s inherent personality or subtle reminders of himself. These stories acknowledge their role as a what-if sidebar and not the canonical state of play. The comics provide no such assurances as they dig deeper and deeper into troubling assertions that this has been the “right” way of the Marvel universe and anything else was a convenient lie.
Why, then, is there such a disconnect between the Cap readers want and the Cap Marvel seems determined to offer? A large part is comics readers’—or would-be comics readers’—woefully unmet desire to see themselves in their heroes. LGBTQ narratives are particularly lacking in Marvel comics. The known out characters are often side characters in larger narratives, or victims of the all-too-common “bury your gays” trope. And when they do appear in the cinematic universe, as Ayo, a lesbian Dora Milaje in the Black Panther: World of Wakanda comics, does, they get straightwashed. Marvel, for their part, defends their representation of LGBTQ characters as sufficient, and assures fans there will be a queer superhero in the MCU whenever they can figure out how to make it feel “organic.”
Nowhere did this disconnect become more apparent than last summer. Though the timing was unintentional, fans on Twitter trended a “#GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend” hashtag as part of a larger call for LGBTQ rep in media just one day before news broke about the HydraCap storyline. It was hard for fans not to see it as a direct rejection of their pleas—a clear statement that Marvel would rather turn Steve Rogers, a Jewish-created superhero, into a Nazi-like fascist villain than depict him as bisexual.
The issue is clearly not one of demand for media starring marginalized characters, no matter what Marvel says behind closed doors. An independent webcomic about gay hockey players raised almost $400,000 on Kickstarter. Films like Moonlight, Get Out, and Hidden Figures dominate box office sales and awards, and the young adult novel The Hate U Give, a gut-wrenching look at police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list since it debuted in early March. Kickstarter, smaller comics publishers, and other less mainstream media like anime are filled to bursting with successful stories starring marginalized characters, from Yuri On Ice! To Bingo Love to Lumberjanes to Iron Circus’s many and varied publications. Marvel’s own Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur may sell low in the direct market’s traditional comic book stores, but dominates Scholastic book fairs and trade paperback sales.
Even within the Captain America fandom, fan creators are thriving through Patreon, art commissions, convention sales, and more, depicting everything from the popular Cap-related ships to the Caps alone, punching Nazis and taking names. In ignoring what fans actually want from Captain America, Marvel is leaving more and more money on the table that fan creators are eager and willing to pick up.
How Marvel Can Give Us the Captain America We Need
What is it, then, that fans want from their Captain America that Marvel is unwilling to deliver? How can they recapture the magic that made Captain America so beloved and powerful in the first place? I believe they want the following:
A Steve Rogers who never forgets what it’s like to be the outsider. Though he’s been shoveled into the body of the perfect soldier, the hypermasculine archetype, Steve has always steadfastly rejected toxic masculinity. An anti-establishment, courageous, outspoken, bi- or pansexual Steve who is the antithesis to all things MRA and MAGA would accomplish that goal wonderfully today.
A Sam Wilson who doesn’t write off authenticity and outspokenness as the impetuousness of youth. A Sam Wilson who stands in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter, and not in apology for them. One who refuses to speak the platitudes of white liberalism. And for the love of Redwing, please get an actual Black writer like Angie Thomas or Kwame Alexander, or any of the no doubt hundreds of young Black comics writers full of passion who haven’t yet been given a chance to make their voices heard.
A Bucky Barnes who makes good on his recovery narrative, which has been a touchstone for countless sufferers of mental illness (myself included) rather than being punished for it, in both movies and comics. Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier is vulnerable but determined, and holds Steve’s work as Captain America in reverence both in the 1940s and now—showing us we don’t have to be perfect to chase Steve’s aspirational ideals. The MCU Bucky shatters the hypermasculine supersoldier archetype, adopting feminine-coded storylines and roles and never downplaying or disguising his adoration for Steve.
And if Marvel ever feels like letting a woman pick up the shield in the present timeline, I know the perfect queer Latina for the job.
These are the Captain Americas we deserve—Caps who choose justice over lawfulness, being good men over manning up, and love and acceptance over oppression and hate—but will still punch a Nazi rather than suffer their violent speech. Caps who let us know we aren’t alone in our fight instead of being just another oppressor.
It’s this concept of Captain America that drives the billion-dollar Captain America films and the immense, diverse fandom that’s flourished around them. Marvel’s failure to capture these millions of would-be comics readers speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of what readers want—and need—from their Caps today. And if Marvel won’t sell us those narratives, they can be sure that other creators will.