The “All-New” Captain America begins, curiously enough, with a nostalgic turn: Sam Wilson flying into a fortress and kicking Hydra ass. But, even as fisticuffs fly, Sam’s mind is elsewhere: he replays a childhood filled with poverty and crime, days and nights of doubt, longing with no belonging. Meanwhile, Hydra heads are getting cracked and the job is getting done. This tension between thought and action in the comics is common, and I’m guessing that it serves a variety of functions. First, it shows that the hero is so vastly superior to his foes that he can take time-off, be elsewhere mentally, if not physically. Second, it shows that the hero is in part courageous because he is conflicted, unsure, anxious. Third, it works on almost any occasion: Batman hunting the Joker, while thinking of his lost opportunities to connect with Robin; Spider-Man thumping on the Green Goblin, while worrying that he still needs to pick up the groceries for Aunt May; and, more recently, Cap’s own iconic inner dialogues on the American Dream. But whereas Steve’s dream commonly depicts a brighter future, Sam’s is clouded by the realities of his past: his father’s death, institutional racism, even super-villain racism. When Batroc sees Sam, he dismisses him as an unworthy adversary: “Tell me, what is the super-power of the modern [ie. “all new”] Captain America? Super-obesity? Hyper warmongering? Omega illiteracy? … fighting sidekicks is beneath Batroc’s pay grade… Captain Rogers will learn what happens when he sends an errand boy to do his work.”
The answers to these (admittedly rhetorical) questions come in short order: Sam acknowledges that he has no super powers. As for “American Obesity “and the like, he has no ripostes, except to say that America has “the best prison system.” But who is in those prisons? An August 2013 Sentencing Project report on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, submitted to the United Nations, noted that “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.” According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African Americans are also six-times more likely to be imprisoned than whites; not surprisingly, African Americans constitute 40% of America’s 2.3 million prisoners. (Thanks Wikipedia!)
Of course, it might help if Sam actually booted Batroc’s back to the French lily pond from whence he hopped, but Sam actually loses his fight and has to be saved by his sidekick, Nomad— aka Ian Rogers, Steve’s adopted son. The plot point is then buried in favor of Sam chewing out Nomad for using excessive force. Ian is not really interested in debate. He can’t understand why he hasn’t been chosen to be the next Cap! As Ian demonstrates, he’s better at throwing the shield than Sam will ever be. Again, Sam’s reply feels defensive and hollow: “Cronyism beats nepotism.”
Yes, we have been here before: Grayson standing in for Wayne, coaching and schooling Damian on common human norms —namely, that killing is often expedient but is, ethically speaking, wrong or, at least, always regrettable. As Sam explains: “There’s always a better choice.” Nomad, like Damian, doesn’t appreciate the distinction: “I chose your life over his. Where I grew up, when someone is trying to murder a companion you focus on saving them first.” That is, admittedly, already far in advance of Damien Wayne’s sadistic streak, a signal that Ian’s character is not blood-thirsty enough to warrant a full-on redemptive storyline. A few training films and a curt word from Steve should be enough to prevent Nomad from water-boarding his prisoners.
What I am getting at here is that Sam’s narrative (in his own comic!) is kicked to the curb to make way for Ian’s Oedipal resentment. The storyline seems to be Ian-learning-that-his-father-doesn’t-trust-him, rather than Sam-learning-to-be-Cap.
And what of Steve? What does he think of Ian or Sam, and how is he handling retirement? Well, and I kid you not, the only time we see Steve, who now looks like a senior citizen in a J. Crew catalogue, is when he is out fishing with Sharon. They are in a boat, in the middle of a pristine lake; smoky clouds fill a postcard-perfect sky. Steve worries about Sam, so much so that Sharon orders him to appreciate his retirement: “He’ll be fine. He knows the mission. Just try to enjoy the day.” A happy Steve is now free to trout fish or feast on a perfect picnic lunch. It feels like a commercial– you know the one where a narrator explains that a Fidelity Advisor is standing by to make your dreams come true, and that erections lasting longer than 48 hours may be sign of a serious but treatable side-effect.
As for Ian, Steve doesn’t mention him. Perhaps Steve needs to read the script notes. The Sam story is already dead. Remender has moved on to Ian’s role as sidekick.
We, however, remain free to ponder Sam’s inner doubts and to contrast them with Steve’s sunny reality. Both Steve and Sam seem to be living the American Dream. Steve’s retirement is picture perfect: Enough money to do whatever he likes with a still-nubile and lethal female secret agent by his side; Sam’s dream, his quest for respect, seems to be, at this point, just wishful thinking.