Capital Thoughts:

Captain America #22

Cap, now a shriveled old man, lies in a bed in the Avengers’ Manson.  Banner runs tests on him and reports that there is no trace of the super-soldier serum in his blood.  Tony Stark thinks that the computers are too old to do the job right.  Banner might as well be using a Commodore 64 or an old Atari system.  What is really needed is Tony’s latest tech.

But Steve doesn’t want to be moved, and Thor shares his feelings: “This is our legacy, our heritage, our history.  You would do well to respect this old mansion.”

Tony points out the obvious: The mansion is a house, not a museum, and, besides, it was Tony’s house, a gift to the Avengers.  Moreover, the old tech Tony is complaining about is his old tech.  If Steve is going to be saved, then he needs the latest and greatest science available.

But of course Tony, that purblind-playboy-pragmatist, gets it completely wrong.  Thor isn’t talking just about the house, but about Steve himself.  Cap, while not a founder, is the unquestionable leader of the Avengers. Cap is the foundation of the team, the ethical core, just as vital to its ongoing success as the house that Tony built with his war profiteering.

Steve’s transcendent decency dampens the powder keg that is the Avengers: All that stands between man and god, Tony’s capitalist ideology and Thor’s aristocratic heritage, is Steve Rogers.  What tempers or humanizes Banner’s brutality, the Vision’s lack of humanity, or Hank Pym’s domestic violence? Who serves as the model of self-restraint?  Cap sets the ethical bounds; Steve sets the standard.

We get a similar message in the subplot, wherein Jet and the Falcon enjoy a drunken hookup.  While it is unthinkable that Cap would ever get drunk and sleep with Jet, a Marvel interracial hookup of any kind is only conceivable because of Steve Rogers.  Until Cap’s return in Avengers #4, black heroes played no crucial role in the Marvel U.  It was only after Cap took on the Falcon as a crime-fighting partner that Marvel’s African American characters gained traction, legitimacy, and purpose. Back in the 1960s, Cap did not see Sam as black; his virtue ethics were essentially color-blind, but it was difficult for young readers not to notice the bi-racial dynamic in the newly-renamed Captain America and the Falcon comic book.

I’ve discussed the racial importance of the Falcon, Powerman, and other black heroes in my book Caped Crusaders 101, but for the here-and-now the point to draw is that Steve Rogers’s role in the Marvel U was and is to show courage and leadership, to unite people of radically different backgrounds and viewpoints, to have them set aside personal and cultural matters of difference in order to fight for the common good.

The question isn’t whether the Avengers or the Marvel U will go on without Captain America.  It unquestionably can and will.  The question becomes this: can it go on without the ethics espoused by Steve Rogers?  On that count, things do not look good: SHIELD is already rebooting its latest world-threatening devices. (Its base is in the Sahara.  Great!  More American weapons in the Middle East!) Meanwhile, the Falcon is getting drunk, and Tony and Thor look like they are ready to bash each other to bits.  Comparatively speaking, Bruce Banner seems like the calm one of the bunch.  Let me say that again.  The Hulk is the calm one here!

Oh, and did I mention the invasion of the earth by Armin Zola and the return of the Red Skull?  How will the world face this threat without Steve to lead?  I’m not discussing battle plans but ethics. Without Steve’s restraint, Tony and the rest are likely to match savagery with savagery.  What Steve does is pretty special.  He reminds the heroes that people, ordinary people, come first.  That principle served him when fighting Hitler’s alleged “master race”; it served him when fighting all manner of caped villains; it served him when, at the climax of the Marvel Civil War, he decided to lay down his shield.

Now the Nazis are back—they are never far away in the Marvel U—and the Avengers will have to face them without Cap.  But they will not be without Steve.  He’s an old man, but he can still supply guile and, if need be, guidance.

The thought of Steve back in the Avengers Mansion marshalling forces and offering ethical platitudes seems to reframe him as part-tactician, part-fatherly figure (think Bruce Wayne’s role in Batman Beyond with some of the Zen-like properties of Professor X). This new role underscores Steve’s true significance to the Avengers, a group that has unlimited powers but uncertain values.

Of course, we’re headed for a Batman-like battle over the cowl or, in this case, shield.  And we can already imagine Steve’s return: Tony uses his high-tech nano-whatevers to reactivate the super serum; Ian and Sharon, newly-rescued from Dimension Z, bring back a vial of Cap’s blood from Zola’s lab, and Steve is re-injected with the super-powered blood palettes, etc.  But for now, we can enjoy this meditation on heroic principles.

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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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