It took a long time in coming, but the pay-off is finally here. After what seems like half a year of paralyzing misgivings, Cap, the ultimate, ethical hero is back! “Fallen into weakness in the days since returning from Dimension Z. Any self-recrimination always replaced by the image of my son and fiancée. Any man would fall apart. But I’m not any man. I’m Captain America. I’m held to a higher standard.”
YES! And with a mantis-like, bone-shattering kick to some bad-ass’s chin, Cap at last rediscovers his indomitable will: “No matter my sorrow or loss—I always stand up.” And all it took was the death of hundreds of SHIELD agents and Nuke’s ballistic attack on some Baltic state.
So, essentially, Cap blames himself for being in a funk. But has he well-and-truly wasted his (and presumably our) time with kitchen-sink philosophy?
After all, what is Steve blaming himself for? Isn’t mourning human life part of the job, in fact, the key component of the job? Isn’t that what separates him from the villains he faces or the misguided jingoist soldiers, like Nuke, who just follow orders?
As for mourning Sharon and Ian, his adopted son, in what way does his loss make him less of a hero? If the answer is the Spiderman-esque “I’m not allowed to love because everyone who gets close to me dies,” then I would argue that loss and death are universal. If heroes are champions of humanity, they must also remain essentially human. It is death and mourning that unites us.
What Cap seems to be embracing here is a villainous inhumanity, akin to Claudius, who, after cuckolding and killing his brother and seizing the throne, tells the grieving and now-politically marginalized Hamlet to get over it:
KING CLAUDIUS: ‘Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled.
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? (Hamlet, 1.2)
Yes, death is common; it is also personal. Cap must be allowed his grief. It’s what allows him to be a hero; in a very real sense, it renews him.
This is where I think the current comic and the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie have it wrong, dead wrong. As I argue in my book Caped Crusaders 101, ever since he was fished out of the Atlantic, death has been at the core of Cap’s psyche, more specifically, the death of Bucky. But now Bucky is alive, and what has been the driving force of Cap’s personality for more than 50 years is apparently premised on a mistake. Remender gets it right by replacing the loss of Bucky with the twin losses of Sharon and Ian (though, as it turns out Ian is still alive in Dimension Z, and Sharon, given her star-turn in Winter Soldier, is likely to make a prompt return to the comic). Until that inevitable reveal, Cap’s mourning, like Hamlet’s, drives him. (Though Cap’s thoughts do not run as black, nor his revenge as red.)
Or is murder now a real option? Cap didn’t kill Zola, and Sharon and Ian died; he didn’t kill Nuke, and innocents died; he didn’t react quickly enough to the threat of Iron Nail, and now hundreds of SHIELD agents are dead.
When at last encountering Iron Nail, Cap thinks to himself: “This monster just started a war. And this soldier is going to win it.”
To Iron Nail that war is essentially a war of ideas: down with fascism, down with capitalism, etc. Yes, people will have to die, but ultimate victory will be achieved by convincing Cap that America is evil. But Cap shouts him down: “Save the speech—I don’t want to hear it. It won’t help.”
Since Cap precludes any discussion, the war cannot be fought ideologically, and it can only be won through extermination.
What I am suggesting here is that Cap’s grief has been replaced by hate.
There is one upside to hate, however. As nineteenth-century essayist William Hazlitt points out, love fades but hate is an energizer bunny:
“Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, wants variety and spirit. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal. Do we not see this principle at work everywhere?”
That might be true, but it hardly fits the bill of hero.