Capital Thoughts:

Captain America #14

Issue #14 nicely ties up the Nuke story-arc.  Nuke justifies his psychotic murder spree by stating that he’s only doing it for the troops, and to keep America strong.  He further states that Cap, despite being a fellow solder and a superior officer–he always addresses Cap as “sir”—, is clueless.  What does Cap, a born winner, know of rage? Cap and his generation won their war, whereas Nuke and his companions lost theirs.  (One assumes Nuke is referring to Vietnam, though for some reason his “lost” war is relocated to the mythical Eastern European nation of “Nrosvekistan.”)

Cap seems to be no match for Nuke, at least physically; instead, he attempts to win Nuke over by stating that soldiers do not add to human misery; they fight to secure the peace.  This simple premise is enough to stop Nuke, until he sees a reporter, and BOOM, he’s off again, ranting that American reporters are un-American; that they have ruined the lives of countless US soldiers, etc., etc.  Resorting again to violence, it takes all of Cap’s remaining strength to stop Nuke.

But as Cap himself admits, it isn’t the thought of saving lives that fuels him, but the rage he feels over the loss of Sharon and his son, Ian.  It’s not just whose rage is greater– Nuke’s jingoist rage VS Steve’s personal loss– but which super-powered soldier channels his rage in a more socially appropriate way.

Channeled rage is not something we associate with Cap.  It’s more of a Bruce Wayne-thing.  As we might recall from the pages of Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Night Returns, psychologists may actually believe that Batman is ill; they may feel sorry for him and want to treat him. To this, we might agree that Batman’s reluctance to kill is likely rooted in childhood trauma. His own parents, as we all know, were murdered in front of him. Does this mean that he’s an emotional mess? Sure, but what’s your point? When looking at Batman, who, like the villains he pursues, is costumed, it’s sometimes easy to see hero and villain as alike, but when measuring the actions of Batman and the Joker, there is a world of difference. Indeed, pre-Dark Knight Returns, weren’t we all exasperated by Batman’s tolerance?

But Cap is not the Bat, and his solution seems out of character.  Imagining Cap killing the Red Skull is believable; killing Nuke is not. The former is a Nazi psychopath; the latter is mentally ill but not beyond redemption.  His temporary cessation of violence proves that.  So, it is odd that it is the Falcon who stops Cap from finishing Nuke off.  Or perhaps it’s not too strange, given Sam Wilson’s own criminal past…  Who better to preach redemption than the redeemed?  Has Cap forgotten that his own partner is a former drug dealer? And what of Jet, whose crimes against humanity are nearly as legion as those of her father, Arnim Zola?  Why does Jet get a pass and Nuke doesn’t?  Despite Cap’s rationalization that Nuke must die because “mercy will only lead to more death,” Cap is not exercising a new ethical calculus so much as he is simply using overwhelming force to maintain an appearance of invincibility.  By Cap’s own admission, he has been weakened by a decade in Dimension Z, and Nuke is now more powerful than he is.  Put another way, were Cap’s strength unaffected, he’d be less likely to resort to murder.  Cap kills (or is ready to kill) not because he is physically strong but because he is ethically weak.  Readers are free to relate that thought to America’s ongoing geopolitical struggles.

What goes unspoken but, hopefully in future issues not unexplored, is that Cap is still more than a match for the Falcon.  So if Sam is weaker than Steve, why is it that Sam is still the one to show restraint?  Might it be that Cap’s vaunted ethics stem solely from his chemically-enhanced physique?  That would be a radical revising of the Cap origin story, in which Steve is selected over genetically superior men because of his ethical conduct and his strict abhorrence of violence.  Steve is a citizen first, and a solider distinctly second.  Or at least he was. Now it is Sam who uphold the freedom of the press and Steve who is ready to squelch this First Amendment right. The new Cap, it seems, would prefer a police state, as do his tyrannous enemies.

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Jeffrey Kahan is a is a well-established Shakespeare scholar with about two dozen books and editions to his name. He is also the co-author of Caped Crusaders 101 (MacFarland, 2nd ed., 2010), and is a co-editor of The Dark Man, a journal dedicated to the works of Robert E. Howard, and an associate editor of The New Ray Bradbury Review. He teaches a class on superhero comics and has twice appeared as a speaker at Comic-Con, as well as at New York’s Big Apple and other comic conventions. His newest book, Shakespeare and Superheroes, will be published in 2018 by ARC Press. He works in California but lives in his own world.

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