Capital Thoughts:

Captain America #18

Cap #18 has our heroic team racing off to a top-secret SHIELD installation. But Mindbubble is already there and has used his psychotropic powers to convince Fury and his agents that Hydra has taken over the base. As a result, SHIELD agents begin to attack each other. Cap and the Falcon are also targeted. That SHIELD cannot tell friend from foe takes on added resonance, as Cap, racing to the base, reflects that SHIELD is likely protecting some dark secret. He’s been lied to before and he will be lied to again. SHIELD has a track record of going too far, of becoming the very enemy that it seeks to eliminate. That Mindbubble is using SHIELD agents against each other, then, has some poetic justice: We have met the enemy and we are them.

If that plot line sounds vaguely familiar, you are likely recalling the straight-to-video animated feature, Justice League: Doom (2012), in which Wonder Woman is drugged into thinking that everyone she sees is her adversary, Cheetah. Unable to tell one Cheetah from another, she attacks them all. It’s a cool idea, but in a plotline that already features a villain who looks like Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, do we really need another DC reference? But more DCU tags are coming: Cap now acts the part of old Bruce Wayne in the Batman Beyond cycle to his pseudo-daughter Jet (long story, check out my prior columns).  Cap orders her to look up stuff on his version of the Batcomputer. It turns out that Mindbubble was a SHIELD agent, enhanced to take down super soldiers. In short, SHIELD built an agent specifically to take down Cap. Of course, that Cap has doubts about SHIELD only reinforces the notion that he’s disloyal, likely to go rogue, etc.

Jet is also ordered to track down a Mindbubble agent. Cap then asks if Jet was “too drastic” in her interrogation. She says, no, the prisoner was cooperative. But we know better. The prisoner is dangling upside down, eyes wide with terror. Jet is smiling and holding an electric drill. It’s pretty low tech, but then again, so too is water boarding. What I am suggesting is that this is an allusion to America’s declaration that it does not torture. As the President said in 2009: “Living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.”

A true enough statement, in so far as America has farmed out torture to less squeamish allies. You can read all about America’s still-active Rendition program on Wikipedia. The point here is that Steve knows better. By his own admission, he doesn’t trust SHIELD, and his question already presupposes that he doesn’t trust Jet, or why else check up on her? But Steve doesn’t pursue the topic. Jet and her own enhanced interrogation methods can wait, and, after all, she is effective.

But isn’t that exactly the problem? If the only thing that counts are results, then enhanced interrogation should be perfectly fine; and if America is safe, then SHIELD should be free to protect that freedom anyway it sees fit. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who Will Guard the Guards?

But SHIELD apparently does not take prisoners. It simply kills them. Commander Hill, a shadowy enough character we might recall from Marvel’s Civil War, sets up a Bond-like auto-destruct sequence. Friend or foe, deluded or not, everyone is going to die. Hill’s flagrant disregard for human life is bad enough, but it is worse because it confirms our negative view of SHIELD. That SHIELD is willing to sacrifice life in order to maintain total power merely drives the point home. Might the world be safer without SHIELD? That seems to be where this story is headed. I guess we’ll find out in 30 days.

In the meantime, I have just read that Cap #156 is going to be the basis for Captain America 3. If you’ve read this column for a while or read my book Caped Crusaders 101, you know that I think that this is wonderful news!  It is the finest Cap story ever written! But these are early, developmental days. Still, I’m far more excited by this news than by the current comic. This Cap needs to stop reacting. He needs to lead. Cap’s values are what make him great. This should not need to be said. Then again, the President shouldn’t have to inform us that America does not torture. It, too, should be a given.

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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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