“The law of sacrifice is uniform throughout the world. To be effective it demands the sacrifice of the bravest and the most spotless.”
So reads the penultimate panel of Captain America #21. The final page, a single panel, shows Cap’s empty and crumpled helmet, a stark epitaph reads: “Super-Solder no more.” Given that the climax of the story has Iron Nail somehow sapping Steve of his strength and youth, we are, it seems, being prepared for a post-Cap paradigm.
Steve nudges us toward this reading: “I’m not Captain America. I’m just the man who wears the suit—a sacred privilege.” It therefore follows that the ideal of Cap will outlive Steve. No worries there, as we have already gone through the seeming death of Cap in the Civil War and the struggles Barnes had in bearing the weight of that “sacred privilege.” The image of an ancient, desiccated Steve further suggests that his time is up: Cap will live on, but it will be a new Cap, not a fossil of a by-gone era.
Or will it? Bed-ridden, strapped to an oxygen mask, Steve seems to be a goner. But Maria still sees him in his symbolic role: “Cap I…” But Steve interrupts her, “Maria, not now.” We’ll never know what Maria means to say—likely some platitude of thanks, some apology for creating the weapons of mass destruction Steve had to stop.
Steve’s interruption is also interesting. “Not now”? Why “not now”? Considering Steve looks like he has one foot in the grave, if “not now,” then when?
It looks like deathbed confessional time, but it isn’t Steve who has secrets to unburden and forgiveness to ask; it’s those around him.
If Steve does die, he has lived well, on his terms, ethically, heroically, a father to a generation of heroes.
That this story reaches me on Father’s Day weekend—thank you Marvel Direct Edition Delivery Service—only adds to the poignancy of the moment. Steve has led by example, by spotless example. His sacrifice relies on the strength Gandhi speaks of.
In Steve’s case, it is a new strength that comes only in the epiphany of a life well lived. In the throes of battle, Steve relied on another point of his moral compass: “No logic can shatter the armor of a fanatic; only fists and steel.” That seems like an odd statement coming from a man soon to be celebrated alongside Mahatma Gandhi. But Steve relied on fists and steel in part because he had those strengths at his disposal. He was, after all, a Super-Soldier. But, as the final panel both states and asks, what if Steve were a “Super-Soldier no more”? What if there were no more Super-Soldiers?
Would it follow that there were no more heroes?
Steve, lying is the hospital, gasping out his dying breath, understands that the time for thanks is “not now.” It is never now. Heroes need no thanks, no praise nor worship. What drives them is not what others say of them. The heroic act challenges the future; words of praise merely memorialize the past. As the Falcon flies the old man to safety, he offers us a perfect example: “You did it, Steve! You saved ’em all.”
He did. He always does. He always will.
The Marvel world will always need its heroes. And that goes for our world too.
If you have a paternal role model, a father who taught you right from wrong, who instilled in you a sense of community and compassion, Father’s Day is a day of celebration, it is the “now” Steve rejects, because heroes don’t see the need for fuss. Doing the right thing is not something to celebrate. The right thing is the only acceptable standard, even if it is not always easy or convenient. And for those who grew up with absent, distant, difficult, or disappointing fathers, Steve’s laconic brand of heroism is perhaps still more powerful, still more necessary. Captain America readers don’t want to lose Steve, but seeing him lying there in that hospital bed, old, worn-out, we can also anticipate the day when we will have to say goodbye to other loved ones, to those who made us what we are. The “not now” cannot be put off indefinitely. As Hamlet counsels:
…if it be not now, yet it will come.
The readiness is all.