In what is now a common trope, Sam Wilson, aka, the All-New Captain America, is getting his ass kicked, this time by Armadillo, a third-rate villain who first appeared in Cap #308 (August, 1985; Gruenwald/Neary/ Janke/ Feduniewicz/ Albers).
If you consult that issue, you’ll find that Steve beat Armadillo pretty handily (true to his name, the Armadillo is slow and not very bright). Marvel’s writer for the issue, Mark Gruenwald, didn’t rate his creation very highly. His story was entitled, “Armadillio! He’s no laughing matter.” Given Steve’s easy time of it, Sam’s abject defeat here is particularly disappointing. If the theme here is that Sam can’t measure up to Steve, that’s completely understandable. Roscoe, an earlier ersatz Cap, had his issues as well. But Roscoe was a teenager; he, at least, had the potential to grow into the role. Sam has been a superhero since the late 60s. He should be managing better than this. Instead, he’s regressing. It’s gotten so bad that in issue #4 Sam is beaten up twice; once by Armadillo and yet again by Zemo, who, at the cliffhanger, is about to run Sam through with a sword.
In recent columns, I’ve argued that there is a none-too-faint whiff of racism here, Sam denied the respect that he is due; I have also noted that Marvel itself has always been ambivalent about Sam. But I’m now beginning to wonder if Sam’s role is to inspire others to get involved. A truly super-powered hero rarely needs our help; some schmoe in a cape does. We’ve seen some of this before. I’m thinking here of Carrie Kelley, Frank Miller’s Robin. It was her inexperience that made her both sympathetic and courageous. She was no better than us; she was one of us, and our support of her was both natural and ennobling. (This also may explain why so many readers hate Damian Wayne, a smug but well-trained brat.)
Like Carrie, this Cap will need help. The Avengers, SHIELD, Misty Knight, and even the Armadillo have already helped him. Sam’s seeming weakness is a call for the many to stand against a bunch of Darwinian capitalist-villains. These people only act in self-interest and imminent reward. After Armadillo shows mercy to Sam, Cobra comments, “You can’t be this stupid!”
Stupidity is a weakness, but is mercy? Sam is a good man. That’s enough for me to want to help him. It’s also enough for me to keep reading about Sam Wilson. But is a morally sound, physically-inept hero what I want in a Captain America comic? Sure, I want Cap to be a good guy and merciful, but does he have to get his butt kicked in every issue?
Given his origins (an army experiment), and his flag-waving name and costume, Captain America is an obvious symbol of American power. He’s a super soldier and in the pay of the U.S. government. Or was. That was Steve Rogers. Sam is neither a super-being nor a government employee.
How will this new, combat incapable Cap fit in the Marvel Universe? Can Cap be the leader of the Avengers if he is always being captured or coldcocked? Then again, would he be less inspiring to readers if he were all-powerful? I have the feeling that readers (and here I include myself) are waiting for Sam to step his game up, but not radically. An all-powerful being has its downsides, at least as a relatable role-model: If only professionals can fight crime or make the world better, why not just leave crime to the cops and our social ills to the politicians? Sam’s so-called incompetence is a reminder that social change is everyone’s business. “No man is an island, entire of itself….”—John Donne.