O Captain, My Captain (Part 1)

Captain America and Superman are pretty much universally recognized as the superheroes who best exemplify the values of justice and freedom that have been held up as our nation’s greatest achievements and still elusive goals since its birth 235 years ago. Although their status as patriotic icons is at least partially responsible for making these characters among the most revered in popular culture (both have been favorites of mine since I started reading  comics more than 40 years ago), as I pointed out in my recent post on Superman, it also makes them lightning rods for controversy over exactly whose “American Way” it is that they’ve sworn to defend. In recognition of Independence Day, and the opening of Captain America: The First Avenger, this seems like the perfect time to discuss exactly what it is I believe this “Sentinel of Liberty” stands for — and what he doesn’t.

To help me with this, I will enlist the aid of a recent post on the conservative blog site FrontPageMagazine.com, in which Bosch Fawstin complains that the creators behind the soon-to-be-released Captain America movie seem to consider the character “too American.”

Fawstin quotes the film’s director, Joe Johnston, who said “this is not about America so much as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing. [...] It’s about what makes America great and what make the rest of the world great, too.”

Chris Evans, who plays Captain America — and more importantly, his civilian alter ego Steve Rogers — is quoted as saying, “This isn’t a flag-waving movie. It is red, white and blue, but it just so happens that the character was created in America during wartime, when there was a common enemy… it feels more like he should just be called Captain Good. [laughs]”

Fawstin interprets this as proof that the film’s director and star are “clearly uneasy about the patriotism of the character.” He sees it as some sort of politically correct attempt to “de-Americanize American superheroes for the sake of those who are not American, or who are even hostile to America.” I see this as a simple acknowledgment of the fact that, unlike the comic book character, Captain America’s cultural relationship with the real world has not remained frozen in time for the last 70 years.

Captain America #1. Cover art by Jack Kirby. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Context is Everything

Captain America’s origin and his mythic stature are inexplicably linked with World War II and his namesake nation’s fight against the Axis Powers.  Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics (later Marvel), Captain America debuted in the first issue of his own comic book at the beginning of 1941. But from his first appearance, Captain America was already defying U.S. policy rather than defending it. Published nearly a full year before the United States entered the conflict overseas, thanks in part to the insistence of a vocal isolationist minority in the country, the cover of Captain America #1 showed the title character punching Hitler in the face (it’s worth noting that both Simon and Kirby were Jewish).

Of course, the world, and our nation’s enemies, are very different today. Although, like the Nazi’s, members of al-Qaida share a violent, intolerant, tyrannical ideology, they don’t share a national origin or even a uniform. Then again, there are many similarities in the reaction against Nazism during WWII and terrorism today. Just as many Germans opposed Hitler and his Final Solution (some – Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the participants in Operation Valkyrie and members of the White Rose – at the cost of their lives), today many Arab and Muslim organizations – The Free Muslims Coalition, the Council on American-Islamic RelationsMuslims Against Terrorism – speak out against Islamofascism. The enemy combatants in the War on Terror come from many countries (including America), but even though they profess to follow the same religion, what truly unites them as enemies of humanity is a sociopathic commitment to bringing about a world that reflects their twisted, hateful vision of a “paradise” on earth devoid of free thought or creative expression.

Likewise, there is no single nationality or religion that identifies the enemies of terrorism. As uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa make clear, the desire to  create a government by and for the people is not unique to Americans. Downplaying the “America” in Captain America is simply a way of acknowledging that ours is not the only country with a thirst for freedom and the courage to fight for it. That’s why the idea of referring to Steve Rogers as “Captain Good” actually seems to me like an endorsement of patriotism, rather than a denouncement of it. It makes the point that Cap’s defining character trait, and by extension that of our national identity, is a commitment to the values this nation was created to uphold. It makes it clear that being an American, like having super powers (or being a superpower), brings a great responsibility to do good in the world.

Having said that, there is one criticism in Fawstin’s blog post that I agree with. He claims that in certain international markets, the plan is to remove “Captain America” from the title of the film and release it simply as The First Avenger. Although I haven’t seen any versions of the international poster (at right) that exclude Cap’s name, some of them do seem to put more emphasis on the subtitle. Removing Captain America from the title in an attempt to avoid any nationalistic connections would be as misguided as it would be futile. Captain America isn’t an icon of the U.S. government, or any particular administration or political party. He is a personification of America’s highest ideals, the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the never-ending struggle to achieve justice for all. Besides, I think the star-spangled red, white and blue uniform and shield are pretty much a giveaway of what country the “First Avenger” pledges his allegiance to.

In part 2, I’ll talk about controversy surrounding Captain America’s part in the international War on Terrorism.

This article was originally published on Richard De Angelis’s blog Comic Book Justice.

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Richard runs a blog called Comic Book Justice, where he shares his thoughts on social justice issues as they are presented in comic books. From January 1999 to September 2006 he served as Director of the non-profit Comics for Compassion program, which sought to produce and distribute comic books that promoted humane values to children. His writings on comics have been published in the International Journal of Comic Art and Satya magazine.

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